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.