It’s last Saturday, and I haul my bedraggled self out of bed and roll into the familiar car park of the place where I attended primary school. The familiar trees, birdbath, windowsills and fences are just where I left them. Today though, they’re adorned with trimmings that aren’t so nostalgic. There are cardboard signs, posters, flags, in different shapes and sizes, espousing one political party or another. Volunteers in sunglasses and coloured t-shirts proffer how-to-vote cards in the warm sun, though I dodge them and find my way past the sausage sizzle to the polling booths. This story is not unique to me. Hundreds of thousands of Western Australians do just the same today, having their name crossed off before ensconcing themselves in a cardboard cubicle to write on an oversized slip of paper. I opt to vote “below the line” this time – eschewing the easier option of choosing one party and entrusting them with subsequent preferences, I number the boxes 1 through 77. My cobwebbed Saturday morning brain strains more than it ought to with the straightforward task. I fold it the paper and wiggle it with some difficulty into the already-cramped ballot box. I wander out, buy a fundraiser cupcake with a monkey on it, and get on with my day.
For me, in the scheme of things, the morning of Saturday April 5, 2014 is not particularly remarkable. But somewhere, probably only a few kilometers away, a former graphic designer named Scott is inhaling the first few hours of one of the most crucial days of his life.
By now, you already know what happened. Western Aussies voted and – while the final count may take another couple of weeks – the results are pretty evident.
Green fiends had been on tenterhooks since Senator Scott Ludlam was cast into political purgatory following an Australian Electoral Commission bungle last Semptember (a now-infamous 1370 lost ballots that ultimately necessitated the by-election). But on Saturday night his supporters breathed a collective sigh of relief. As the count progressed, it became clear that Ludlam had fulfilled the necessary quota on first preferences alone – a welcome rarity for a Greens candidate. In the yellow corner, acolytes of the Palmer United Party had every reason to pop the champagne. It didn’t matter that PUP’s key WA senate candidate Dio Wang had been elusive throughout the election campaign, or that Clive himself disappeared into a black hole on voting day. The right-leaning party was primed to scoop up disaffected former Coalition voters, and with a brutal multi-million dollar advertizing blitz that outspent the majors and the Greens combined, there was never any chance they’d go unnoticed.
Like a clanging paddock gate, votes swung heavily, away from the major parties starting with L. Cue significant wind in the sails of The Greens and Palmer United. The Liberals’ primary vote took a dive of 5.5%, and Labor’s dropped almost as much. But perhaps more telling is the overall primary vote percentage, in which the Liberals claimed 34% and Labor a measly 22%. When the two parties who’ve historically dominated elections by huge margins only accrue just over half of the primary vote combined, the line between “major” and “minor” parties starts to feel more tenuous.
Of course, soon enough, no-one will give a shit about primary vote percentages. Heck, it’s probably a relative few who do right now. And as far as WA Senate representation goes, it will be almost back to business as usual: a few Liberal senators, slightly fewer Labor figures, a Green dude… the key difference being a stronger presence from the yet-unpredictable Palmer camp. But certain intriguing trends and truths emerge from this election that will probably play on the public consciousness long after the specifics are relegated to the haze of memory.
Firstly, it’s obvious that the major parties can no longer rest on their laurels in WA. Indeed, they have no stinkin’ laurels. The WA Labor reputation is an unfunny joke. The only certain Labor Senator to come out of this election (with Louise Pratt’s fate yet unclear) is right-factional big dick Joe Bullock, who the day before voting day made the genius strategic move of saying the ALP was “untrustworthy” and full of “mad” members, and that he himself had voted against Labor. Sweet tactics mate. Bullock’s bizarre antics notwithstanding, the party has every appearance of being a shambles, with ALP Senator Mark Bishop lambasting his own party, and former ALP Premier Geoff Gallop saying he’s “devastated” with the state it’s in.
The Western chunk of Australia has little reason to love the Liberal Party right now, either: there’s no unpopular Labor mob in power that need “kicking out,” and between the well-loathed shark kill policy and deep cuts to health, education and more – there’s little to get excited about there. Palmer, with his promise of more GST revenue for WA (never mind that he has no means of delivering this), more humane asylum seeker stance, colourful personality (see: twerking, the Titanic II, animatronic dinosaurs) and gleaming double thumbs-up, comes across to the casual observer as a more appealing right-wing presence.
For my part, I’m not too glad about the PUP’s success: they enjoyed the biggest positive swing on voting day, but I can’t imagine how anyone thinks an East coast-based party led by a millionaire mining-magnate screwball who tells journalists to “shut up” when they invoke climate-change science is a good party to represent WA. But so it goes. What does interest me is the quick pick up in the Green vote, a vote that had been on the decline ever since Bob Brown’s departure and peak popularity in 2010. To dismiss the improvement as a default by-product of major party unpopularity would be unfair. The Greens’ campaign, though far less expensive than Palmer’s, was remarkable. At least in my social sphere it was ubiquitous, and it ran off blood, sweat, tears, charisma and – interestingly – internet and music culture.
Scotty Ludlam had been well-loved by a select group of hardcore fans for years – Crikey’s “First Dog On The Moon” had already immortalized him as an anthropomorphized cartoon haircut, and his hair features in Fremantle street art – but, without question, it was his scathing parliamentary attack on Tony Abbott – a poised speech innocently titled “Scott Ludlam Welcomes Tony Abbott to WA” – that catapulted him to widespread notoriety. It wasn’t just that he eloquently articulated a whole range of gripes that Western (and not so Western) Australians had with the Abbott government. It put him on the map as an intelligent, credible alternative voice: a guy who not only cared about things like refugee rights, internet privacy, the environment and a diversified economy, but did so on the basis of facts, figures and research rather than sheer hippie goodwill. The marriage of anti-Abbott venom and inspirational, cinematic slogan-crafting (“We want our country back… Game on Prime Minister, see you out west”) proved to harbour a sort of social media magic ingredient. It was shared profusely and now sits atop more than 850,000 plays. But, needless to say, its viewership – particular the receptive chunk – was geared towards the left. In Parliament, Scott may have been preaching to an almost-empty room. In the internet sphere, it’s unclear to what extent he was preaching to the choir. Whatever the case, it was going to take more than a viral video to ensure his seat was won.
That’s where Ludlam’s tireless yet nonchalant work ethic really began to show through, with relentless internet and broadcast media activity that made him a constant presence that managed not to insult your intelligence. Unfortuantely, his follow-up speech to “Welcome to WA” failed to attract the same sort of attention: “Our Vision for WA” in which Scott details his elaborate vision for “WA 2.0” racked up only a fraction of its predecessor’s views. But the snowballing hype and increasingly earnest faith in the man was on course.
The Saturday before the election, Capitol hosted “Ludapalooza”- a massive gig/club night functioning to rally the troops and raise funds. The Greens’ campaign managers didn’t need to set the thing up. Capitol’s Death Disco night took the initiative; such is the enthusiasm that Ludlam seems to engender. There were live sets from Sam Perry, Lilt, and Command Q; DJ appearances came from Black & Blunt, the Death Disco DJs and – not content to simply attend – the Senator himself, under the half-assed pseudonym DJ S-Ludz. From all reports, his selection was suitably respectable without affecting over-the-top hip factor: Underworld, Cut Copy, The Herd, Flume and others – including Nine Inch Nails, of whom Ludlam is a devout fan. Other attempts to invoke pop culture to engage the younger demographic have seemed more bizarre: his “Vision for WA” speech, when uploaded to Youtube, features an incongruous Doge meme (“such liberals. much animosity. wow”). Ludlam reported his own mixed feelings on that one to pop culture site Junkee: “Can’t help myself. I put the Doge text in that video because it’s very now, but in two years people are gonna watch it and just go, ‘What was he doing?’”
Such a public admission would seem to counteract any criticisms one might sling about Ludlam’s tactics being too superficial, trendy, or contrived to corner the youth vote. These moments are sporadic, unashamedly silly, and self-aware. And unlike Kevin Rudd appearing on “Ready, Steady, Cook,” Tony Abbott invading Big Brother or John Howard attempting to play cricket, these tangents actually seem to grow from genuine personal interest, thereby dodging a fair amount of the usual pop-meets-politics cringe factor.
Now elected, Ludlam has earned a brief reprieve from the trudgery of endless self-promotion. But, with the incentive of election out of the picture and supporters less agitated, his next challenge will be maintaining his profile and getting his messages out over the hubbub of major party politics. He’s professed to hating the farce that is contemporary Question Time and the 24-hour news cycle (what decent politican wouldn’t?), but he will be at least partially judged on his performance in those arenas nonetheless. There will probably be no surprises regarding how Ludlam votes on major policy passing through the Upper House, but the next few years will certainly be interesting in terms of watching him either stagnate or grow as an autonomous political figure and Left-wing torcherbearer, in the era beyond hair jokes and viral videos.
Many, like myself, are eager to have a politician on the national and international stage whom we can get behind, who is actually likeable, who we can trust to represent our state intelligently, articulately and with a degree of compassion and humanity. Of course, it’d be folly to put all our faith and unguarded optimism in just one man. It would be foolish and counterproductive to foster the “cult of personality” around Scott Ludlam, toting more superhero fan art and t-shirts, without holding the guy to appropriate scrutiny like everyone else (those Kevin ’07 shirts look a bit silly now huh).
The real positive lesson to take from Ludlam’s campaign is not that the guy is great and everyone loves him – but rather that, if enough people care enough about something, it’s possible for that collective will to stand a fighting chance again big union power, big corporate power, big politics, big money. What really won Ludlam’s seat was thousands upon thousands of volunteers, phone calls, door-knocks, staff and supporters – all believing that certain things may be defended against the odds.
Scott Ludlam is not the goal. Representation for those people, places, species – indeed, ideas – that can’t buy or impose their own voices so readily is the surely goal. As such, the soft-spoken Ludlam, with activist and creative roots, is less an embodiment of those things we must defend, and more an apt metaphor for the way in which we might defend them. Still, one might be forgiven for affording a promising politican bit of faith and affection. Heaven knows, the opportunity doesn’t come around too often.
P.S. For a detailed and really nicely written run-down on the Ludlam campaign, I cheerfully endorse this article (http://junkee.com/headliners/how-scott-ludlam-won-the-west/) over at Junkee. Happy reading!