Ricky Muir: lotto winner, anti-politician, forlorn hope

In Philip K. Dick’s sixty-year-old first novel Solar Lottery, a computerised lotto system is used to randomly fill employment positions worldwide, including that of “the Quizmaster”, the head of world government.

solar-lottery-cover

Besides being a silly idea, this is also a ruthlessly democratic, egalitarian idea: the prospect of a world where anyone, anywhere regardless of race, religion, socio-economic status, gender, sexual orientation or any other form of categorisation you can think of is equally eligible to serve is a seductive one, particularly if you lean left. “Election by lot” may seem a bit of a “sci-fi” thought-bubble to the uninitiated, but it is far from a futuristic concept: for a time in ancient Athens over 2000 years ago, boule council members were elected by lot, with the aim of ensuring that not only the most rich, powerful and well-connected citizens were given the opportunity to participate in the business of government.

You don’t really have to think too hard to realise that this ancient idea has a peculiar sort of relevance for modern day politics in Australia. At the 2013 election, Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party managed to reel in 4.91% of the first preference vote in the Senate, and with it, three Senators. Since then, it has been revealed that the only tangible things binding the members of this so-called party together may have been personal ambition and a recognition that using Palmer’s prestige and wealth as a platform for a few years of work in Canberra wasn’t a bad idea. Old mate Clive himself would most likely not have been given a guernsey in ancient Athens, unless of course he “got lucky”.

Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party (who?), on the other hand, did actually manage to “get lucky”. At the 2013 election, Muir’s party secured itself a Senate seat representing Victoria with a record low 17,122 votes, just 0.51% of all first preference votes in that state. It is a great irony that the really quite undemocratic vagaries of Senate preference flows in Victoria have resulted in an outcome that is about as virtuously random as any outcome that you could hope for in our political system. Even more ironically, Ricky Muir has turned out to be the apocryphal Athenian Homer Simpson that election by lot was always supposed to deliver: a really quite ordinary guy of the type not well represented by our current crop of predominantly yuppie parliamentarians, thrust into a position of considerable power within our political system. He has the air of the incredulous lottery winner from Struggle Street often featured on commercial news network bulletins; yes, he might buy his Mum a new house. Yes, he will still troop into work the next day.

Needless to say, in our modern political culture of highly scripted exchanges, spin and sound-bites, it has been far from smooth sailing for “our hero”. In June 2014, Muir gave an exclusive and excruciating interview to Seven’s Sunday Night program in which he laboured to explain his purpose for being in parliament and the meaning of basic concepts such as the “balance of power” in the Senate.

Conditioned as we are to watching snake oil salesmen run the country, it is hard not to watch the interview without forming the opinion that this is a man far from his element who has no place being within cooee of the levers of power. His six month dalliance in a voting bloc with the Palmer United Party was also ill-advised and served to only temporarily increase Clive Palmer’s personal influence over the affairs of the country.

And yet, and yet. Senator Muir has stood firm in his support for a Renewable Energy Target (RET). He has opposed the Abbott Government’s radical plan to deregulate universities and hike student fees. He wisely decided to renege on a previous agreement forged by the PUP voting bloc with the Coalition to vote against the government’s Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) regulatory changes. A few weeks back he finally delivered his maiden speech in the Senate.

Ricky

The video of the speech is worth watching, and provides an interesting contrast with the slick, smarmy eyeballs to camera performance art that we come to expect from the likes of Malcolm Turnbull and similarly moulded products of the professional political machinery of this country. There is something refreshing about seeing a humble, ordinary guy nervously reading a really rather good speech, his suit slightly ill-fitting, his eyes only occasionally daring to look up from his script to scan the chamber. Sometime a rare, unexpected workmanlike performance can mean more than yet another star turn.

These passages and how little we have heard such sentiments in public life speak to how far our parliaments have moved from being truly representative of the Australian people:

I have a long history of living at the receiving end of legislative changes, of feeling the squeeze of new or higher taxes, feeling the pressure and even losing sleep when you realise that the general cost of living just went up a tiny $20. To everyone sitting in this chamber, if you think $20 a week is nothing, or just a pack of cigarettes or a few beers, you have never lived in the real world.

I can tell you, as somebody who was not born into wealth, who has had to work my way up with absolute honesty, that working-class Australia is absolutely sick to death of working our lives away just to pay the bills and having to struggle to spend the very money we work hard to earn on actually enjoying our existence rather than feeling like a slave to the dollar.

It is possible to simultaneously believe that Ricky Muir does not deserve to be taking a place in the Senate and that it is marvellous that he has somehow found himself there. Democracy and anti-democracy have collided and the result looks set to be an interesting watch for the duration of Senator Muir’s six-year term of office in the Senate. One of the biggest crises facing modern Australian democracy is that ordinary, battling people don’t see anyone who can really relate to their everyday concerns in our nation’s parliaments. This lack of “relatability” translates to a lack of faith in parliamentary democracy as we know it now for a lot of Australians, and before long solidifies in the form of contempt or in many cases sheer hate for politicians of all persuasions.

Sadly, we will have to rely on dodgy Senate preference flow deals for our “Quizmasters”; election by lot is not coming to a parliament near you anytime soon. It is a bitter irony of the so-called information age that we have the capacity to ignore the elegant hints to the solutions to our problems that were laid out for us over two-thousand years ago.

The accidental senators

The first sitting day of the new Senate on Monday 7th July heralded the start of a new era in Australian federal politics; an era that looks set to be shaped by arguably the least democratic Senate in modern political history.

As recent negotiations between the Abbott Government and the Palmer United Party on the carbon tax and the Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) legislation have shown, Clive Palmer and his team of political novices have effectively been gifted carte blanche by our electoral system to pass and block legislation as they please. In practical terms, this means of course that legislation will be passed as Clive pleases. Under 5% of the national Senate vote was enough to deliver the mining magnate and former Queensland LNP life member three crucial cross-bench Senators and considerable sway over the balance of power.

The Palmer United Party is hardly the only beneficiary of the manipulation or “gaming” of the electoral system that has occurred in recent elections. The Liberal Democratic Party’s David Leyonhjelm, bolstered by his party’s first position on the Senate ticket in NSW and some confusion about the name of his party, was elected to the Senate despite his party receiving only 3.91% of the first preference vote nationally. Ricky Muir of the Motoring Enthusiasts Party was elected in Victoria despite his party only receiving 0.5% of the national first preference vote. Similarly, the Democratic Labour Party (DLP)’s Senator John Madigan was elected to the Senate in Victoria in 2010 despite his party receiving only 1.06% of the national first preference vote.

There is a catalogue of injustices here: consider the conflict of interest concerns that Clive Palmer somehow magically by-passes by not being a Senator, the simple dumb luck and trickery that has seen David Leyonhjelm elected, or the dark arts exploited by preference whisperer Glenn Druery that resulted in Ricky Muir’s election. This is a collection of representatives whose political agendas and ideals were not endorsed by or likely even vaguely considered by the Australian electorate, but who have been given a greater say than they deserve by statistical circumstance and in Palmer’s case, mega-bucks. The Greens have a known agenda to those who vote for them. Labor and the Coalition (when leaders don’t change their agenda after an election) have a known agenda and ideology to those who vote for them. These Senators will arguably exercise more control over the political agenda of the country for the next couple of years than those from parties who received 10 or 20 times the number of votes as them. How can this possibly be fair?

There is still a reasonable counter-argument to be made: it is fairly widely considered by voters that the major party duopoly that Labor and the Coalition have enjoyed in modern Australian political history is bad for democracy and bad for government in Australia. One could argue that the injustices that our electoral system has allowed to occur actually have the effect of enlivening the Senate and giving voices outside the political mainstream more of a say in Australian public life. This is a worthy goal, but statistical anomalies and the “Clive Palmer effect” clearly do not represent worthy means. If we are going to encourage diversity in our electoral system, it should be less by accident than by design. Power should not be accidentally given to Australians who have the personal wherewithal to pump millions of dollars into their election campaign, creating what is effectively a shell party in support of their own personal interests and ego. Power should not be accidentally given to Australians whose only serious claim to it is that their party has a name cunningly similar to another party. Power should not accidentally be given to Australians who use statistics and dodgy deals to cheat their way to a Senate quota rather than contest an election in the spirit the AEC intends.

The Senate plays a vital role in our democracy as a house of legislative review but daftly, the Abbott Government has recently flagged that it intends to dump intended reforms to how the Senate is elected. If key positions are to be stacked with individuals and entities that have no legitimate moral claim to be there, our democracy stands to be seriously diminished.

Some home truths for Labor in WA

Clearly one should ask not the Australian Labor Party how the West was won; following Saturday’s half-Senate election, it is far more appropriate to ask WA Labor and Bill Shorten just how the West was lost so decisively and so humiliatingly. At the time of writing, Labor has managed to attract just 22% of the first preference vote in the Senate, suffering a swing against it of close to 5%, collapsing to its worst Senate election result since 1903. The Greens and Labor together look set to attract less than 38% of the combined first preference vote. On Tuesday, outgoing WA Labor Senator Mark Bishop described the result as disastrous, and it is difficult to disagree. Coming as it does in a period when Tony Abbott’s government is stuck on the back foot, behind in the polls nationally and under considerable political pressure on multiple fronts, Labor members and the general public have a right to wonder just what went wrong on Saturday and what is going wrong with the party more broadly in Australia’s largest and proportionately least populous state.

One thing is clear: this isn’t just about Joe Bullock: Labor has failed in recent years to grasp the nettle on some of the big policy issues impacting the lives of people living in Western Australia. There is a clear sense that both the Rudd and Gillard Governments tended to look first and foremost to suburban Sydney and Melbourne for approval when spruiking their policies, with people in regional Australia, the Queensland and the West left feeling like they are a few faceless men short of having meaningful representation in Labor’s party-room and Cabinet. There is a reason Clive Palmer strikes a nerve when he talks about the eastern states stripping the West of its rightful GST takings: it is yet another reminder of the palpable “us and them” sense that Labor has played a part in inculculating.

The Mineral Resource Rent Tax (MRRT) is arguably the most important policy pain area introduced by Labor that impacts Western Australian voters, whether in practical terms or philosophically. The ABS estimates that in 2010-11, the mining industry accounted for 29% of economic production in WA and by 2012, over 8% of jobs. Despite the fact that the MRRT has in any case failed dismally to generate the annual revenue estimated by former Treasurer Wayne Swan, Bill Shorten has been unwilling so far to permit the Abbott Government to repeal the legislation. Nor has Shorten deigned to offer any alternative policy or even a thought bubble that conceptually tackles the issue of rebalancing Australia’s lopsided economy: Labor (and to some extent, the Greens) currently remain chained mindlessly to an idea that – whilst intellectually well-intentioned – simply has not worked for the country either politically or in practice.

Indonesia is closer to home for most Western Australians than Sydney, and even as Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Scott Morrison continues to try his darnedest to “stay mum” on boat matters, Labor has yet to outline a convincing rebuttal to the Abbott Government’s hardline approach to asylum seekers. Polls continue to indicate that the average Australian – and particularly the average Western Australian – is not as far away from the talkback radio consensus as Labor and the Greens would like, and happy to even canvass increasing the “severity” of the treatment of asylum seekers. The Greens have a clear, principled, but unpopular position on the matter: Labor’s position by comparison is just confused. The party that implemented the flawed, draconian and failing PNG solution is also the same party that oversaw the highest numbers of asylum seeker boat arrivals in Australian territory in recent recorded history. There must be a workable middle path that discourages dangerous travel by boat, satisfies the requirements of international refugee laws, encourages regional co-operation rather than conflict and restores Australia’s international reputation as a moral society. If Bill Shorten and Shadow Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Richard Marles are even looking for let alone have found this middle path, they are keeping a very good lid on it indeed, to Australia’s detriment.

Finally, there is the “carbon tax”. Labor’s WA Opposition Leader Mark McGowan is on record as opposing the fixed carbon pricing regime currently in force but supporting the introduction of an emissions trading scheme (ETS). This is a position that Bill Shorten has also adopted at a federal level, offering to support the repeal of the current carbon pricing regime on the condition that the Abbott Government introduces an ETS. This is of course a nonsense offer that the government has the moral authority to reject, an offer that makes a mockery of the mandate won by the Coalition parties at the September 2013 election. In a policy sense, Shorten’s position does not advance the debate. In a political sense, it leaves the Coalition with a cricket bat in its hand to thump the Opposition with, as it continues to rail about Labor’s unwillingness to yield to the judgement of voters in last year’s poll. The commentariat might well sniff and scoff, but for the average punter, the current fixed-price carbon regime is as much of a “carbon tax” as the ETS is. If Labor is to continue to support the introduction of an ETS, it needs to work harder at making the case for the complex system to voters, perhaps in combination with a red-blooded industry policy focused on exploding the size and scale of green energy industries across Australia, as our manufacturing sector flounders.

Yes, things may be grim now, but the national political scenario is about to shift for Labor: the sitting of the new Senate in July will break the current legislative deadlock and force Bill Shorten and his team to reconsider their policy positions – even if they do not want to. We can only hope that this change of the composition in the Senate ushers in a new mindset in Federal Labor that considers a bit more carefully what voters in Western Australia and parts of Queensland are telling them. Winning government in 2016 will be hard; winning government without anything more than desultory support in two big states will be bloody hard indeed.

Did the big miners topple the Prime Minister?

I haven’t heard all that much gloating in the last couple of days from the big mining companies, despite the fact that their bitter media war against the RSPT was the decisive factor encouraging Julia Gillard’s powerful co-conspirators to sink their knives into Kevin Rudd’s back. Perhaps they are now feeling just a little sheepish. Looking back over the last couple of months since the Budget, it is difficult to believe that the government’s polling would have been quite so bad or the Prime Minister’s personal political situation so dire if the government had won the media war or else managed to forge an agreement with the miners and the Minerals Council of Australia. The televised ad campaign against the RSPT was as audacious as it was relentless; never before in Australian political history has a cabal of multinational companies banded together so effectively with the aim of overturning the policy of a democratically-elected government.

It’s worth reminding ourselves that one of the most big-mouthed public opponents of the tax, mining magnate Clive Palmer, has a long political history with the Liberal and National Parties, and also happens to be Australia’s largest political donor. As Adele Ferguson and Rafael Epstein reported in a somewhat revealing profile piece for The Age on Saturday:

In the year to June 2009, Palmer and his private company, Mineralogy, gave $400,000 to the federal Liberal Party, $280,000 to the Queensland Liberal National Party, $110,000 to the West Australian National Party and $50,000 to the federal National Party.

That is why Kevin Rudd responded to the tax debate intervention with the accusation that Palmer had bought the Coalition ”lock, stock and barrel”. And Palmer’s ”communist” gibe, had Rudd turning to history. In the ’80s, Palmer was a friend of Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s, was at one stage a director of the party and in 1986 Palmer was spokesman for the party during the Queensland election, helping usher in Bjelke-Petersen’s seventh consecutive term in office.

One wonders how many average folk knew, when watching Palmer’s bulbous face bleating about communism on the nightly news, that he was not only a mining magnate and therefore hardly an impartial observer, but also a conservative political stooge from way back, and therefore even less impartial. The whole episode has been a timely reminder about just where the real political power lies in today’s Australia: with those who have the most financial capacity to influence people through public relations and advertising.

The people of Australia don’t have any serious institutionalised mechanism for relegating the Clive Palmers and the Twiggy Forrests of the world to the backbenches; we’re just stuck with them. In contrast our politicians, in thrall to the almighty ubiquity of the latest polling figures, are left scurrying around like so many primitives, fighting amongst themselves and skulking around behind each others backs. After last week’s events, the trading room floor is looking just that little bit more like the centre of real power in this country, and the Federal Parliament, just that little bit less.

Class-war and the Rudd Labor Government

It’s been quite a while since we last heard the term “class-war” bandied about by political commentators in relation to Australian Federal politics. It’s a lazy, archaic term; a term probably last reasonably applied amongst the Left in relation to the unabashedly pro-business policy-making of the Reagan/Thatcher era, and amongst the Right around the same period, when centre-left parties around the world were still a pragmatic streak or two short of the “Third Way”. In cases where “class-war” is dragged like the decaying corpse of a phrase it is into mainstream political debate today, it is most often done by folks who are prone to slander and not particularly interested in balanced analysis. It’s a term that means next to nothing to most ordinary Australians, and only really serves as a “nudge-nudge, wink-wink” to fellow one-eyed travellers and an admission of ideological conceit.

Interestingly, just in the last few months (and particularly amongst the News Limited stables), the term has started popping up around the traps in commentary on the Rudd Government. Andrew Bolt picked up the cudgel a couple of months ago in relation to the government’s comments on executive pay, and David Penberthy from The Punch described the government’s budget just last week as a “class-war budget” – whatever that means. I suspect David Penberthy wouldn’t know what a “class-war budget” looked like even if the Russians managed to reanimate Lenin and parachute him into the next preselection contest in Wayne Swan’s electorate. A number of commentators including Paul Williams from the Courier Mail and Peter van Onselen from The Australian have another angle – denouncing the government’s proposed Resource Super Profits Tax (RSPT) as an act of “class-war” in their recent contributions.

But what is a “class-war” policy? A “class-war” policy, I think, can be reasonably defined as a policy that has been construed to explicitly favour the poor at the unjust expense of the rich, or to explicitly favour the rich at the unjust expense of the poor. Now frankly, I don’t think there would be many people out there who really believe that the Rudd Government has tended to explicitly favour the poor at the unjust expense of the rich during its last two and a half years in office. Comparing Rudd Labor’s record with that of the previous Howard Government, for example, it would be a rather difficult task to successfully argue that the Prime Minister has been more of a socialist than economic conservative – unless you happen to believe that John Howard was a socialist too.

Take the example of the RSPT, which Wayne Swan does a splendid job of justifying here (hat tip: Peter Martin). This is a measure that seeks to obtain for the people of Australia (both rich and poor) an increased, “fairer” proportion of the profit share from the fabulously successful mining sector. Given that we are talking about companies that earn their stratospheric profits by digging resources up out of territory that is owned by all Australians, and the nation itself is in the process of digging its finances out of a hole bored by the GFC, I really don’t see how this policy can be reasonably construed as a “class-war” policy. This is a specialised measure targeting a specialised industry announced in trying times, not a measure targeting a certain “class” of people or organisations or that benefits the poor at the expense of the rich.

In any case, if the RSPT really is a brutal act of “class-war”, it is surely the first such act where one of the most prominent victims has seen fit to declare both his support for (2 months ago) and his opposition to (today) his attackers.

The Clive Palmer vs. Clive Palmer “class-war”. Now that is a John Woo film begging to be made.

ELSEWHERE: Mark from Larvatus Prodeo is equally bemused by all this “class-war” claptrap.