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Western Australia

Apr 7, 2014

The good, the bad and the ugly of the WA Senate re-run

The WA senate byelection on the weekend has produced three very different, and symbolic, examples of current trends in Australian politics. Some of it is good, but much of it is ugly politicking.

Bernard Keane — Politics Editor

Bernard Keane

Politics Editor

The Western Australian Senate re-run has produced a set of symbols of contemporary political directions so perfect it seems like some political deity designed it. Scott Ludlam, Clive Palmer and Joe Bullock together offer a road map of contemporary Australian politics.

The big swing to Ludlam not merely reverses a run of outs for the Greens since Bob Brown’s departure (my colleague William Bowe has a more pragmatic take on that) but keeps Ludlam in the Senate after he suffered not a political near-death experience but actual defeat, however brief, last September. True, the re-run favoured minor parties who were able to communicate their message in an atmosphere untainted by wider election dynamics. And the Greens spent up big on advertising, reversing their error of last September, when they directed a huge amount of funding, inexplicably, to hanging on to Adam Bandt’s House of Representatives seat rather than shoring up what was always going to be a difficult WA campaign.

But to get a nearly 6.5% swing is also partly down to Ludlam himself, who has steadily carved out a niche as one of the very few of the 220-odd federal parliamentarians who understands digital and communications issues and their intersection with national security. That has made him, over the last six years, a respected and authentic voice for an entire online community whose response to much of what passes for national debate on issues like surveillance and censorship in Australia is facepalming.

One political opponent pleased with Ludlam’s return, despite its impact on Labor’s vote, is Victorian Labor MP Anthony Byrne. “Ludlam’s result in the WA Senate election proves that idealism, hope and belief in change is still alive in politics, and that is unequivocally a good thing,” he told Crikey.

Byrne is in a better position than most to judge Ludlam’s contribution, given he previously headed, and is now deputy chair of, the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which carefully sifted an array of national security-related telecommunications reforms in 2012 and 2013, and which declined to back mandatory data retention.

Ludlam also demonstrated his political smarts when he used an adjournment debate one night to launch a savage attack on Tony Abbott — delivered in his trademark calm, acerbic style — that he then put online and which promptly went viral, garnering over 800,000 views on YouTube. The speech prompted predictable counterattacks from News Corporation’s stable of Coalition supporters and the unfortunate Paul Sheehan at Fairfax (author of an attack on a former Ludlam staffer for which Fairfax was forced to apologise) but that was exactly the intended effect, directing still more attention to Ludlam in the run-up to the election.

Having been invited to vote against the carbon price and the mining tax by the government, WA voters swung hard to both the party advocating a carbon price and even more mining taxes and to Clive Palmer’s party, which opposes both. If Ludlam’s the good, Clive Palmer is the bad. The very bad. Palmer, by dint of massive advertising spending and his own political smarts, acquired at the feet of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, has now secured himself the balance of power in the Senate less than a year since creating his party. It’s a remarkable, and frightening, achievement.

“With Bullock at the top of the ticket, Labor has gone from 29% in 2010 to less than 22%.”

The traditional model of Australian politics is that interest groups — business and unions, mainly — seek to influence policy indirectly through the major political parties, which at least ostensibly are committed to serving the national interest instead of sectional ones. But Palmer disrupts that model, because he has simply bought his way directly to power. No wonder News Corp now despises him: Palmer makes Rupert Murdoch look like a quaint also-ran when it comes to influencing public policy. Palmer lays bare a key fact about our political system, that it is about protecting the interests of the powerful as much as, if not more than, protecting the interests of all Australians.

Moreover, Palmer has done this partly by portraying himself as an outsider. This is the most absurd falsehood. Palmer is the ultimate insider — a mining magnate and former luminary of Queensland’s National Party who entered politics himself only because the party he bankrolled, the Liberal National Party, wouldn’t take instruction from him.

Palmer’s argument is that he is the antidote to the economic failures of the major parties. This, too, is nonsense. Specific policy issues aside, Australians have been well served by the economic management of both sides of politics for the last 30 years, albeit with the significant failure of the early 1990s recession. Australians are much more wealthy as a consequence and we have avoided recession for 22 years, despite external threats like the global financial crisis and the Asian financial crisis — all thanks to Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Peter Costello, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard and Wayne Swan. The last two even avoided the traditional inflation explosion that used to end Aussie resources booms. There’s no reason why Abbott and Hockey shouldn’t continue that tradition, either.

The power of Palmer has taken Australia more clearly in the direction of a plutocracy, and it is unlikely other powerful figures will ignore his example.

As for the ugly, that refers not to the singleted, hint-of-nipple look on Saturday of Joe Bullock (the union leader with the fauxletarian credentials of Trinity Grammar, University of Sydney and Sydney University Liberal Club), nor even to his vile comments about his colleague Louise Pratt and her partner. Bullock’s social conservatism, while providing a rich vein of mockery for social media, isn’t that different to that of many people on both sides in the Senate that he will shortly grace with his presence, or much of the community he represents. Rather, the ugliness is the internal ALP process that delivered Bullock top spot on the ALP ticket in a deal between Bullock’s right-wing Shop, Distributive and Allied Employees Association and the Left’s United Voice, a deal that, impressively, not merely left Bullock’s fellow Shoppie Senator Mark Bishop as roadkill but looks likely to kill off Pratt’s prospects, so badly did Bullock undermine the party’s vote. With Bullock at the top of the ticket, Labor has gone from 29% in 2010 to less than 22%.

For those of us who used to argue that the ALP comes out, in net terms, ahead because of its links with unions — that for every Don Farrell or Craig Thomson there’s an Ed Husic, a Doug Cameron or even a Bill Shorten — Bullock is a killer example of what is wrong with Labor. And he’ll have six years on the red leather to keep demonstrating that.

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18 comments

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18 thoughts on “The good, the bad and the ugly of the WA Senate re-run

  1. Steve

    Bernard, you partly touch on the main issue which was that this was not a normal senate election where often unappealing candidates (but not necessarily potentially poor politicians) are invisible. Scott Ludlum used his profile as did Clive (blanketing his local puppet Wang). That left the Labor Party caught out with 2 candidates who where from either end of their electoral spectrum that mainstream voters found harder to engage with.
    It does bring to the fore the problem Labor has in giving their number one ticket to someone so socially conservative that he would be at home on the right of the Liberal Party.

  2. zut alors

    Perhaps Joe Bullock is the next Mal Colston.

  3. Peter Bayley

    As usual, the results prove that Labor hasn’t a clue what it stands for any more; what’s its principles are or who it is trying to appeal to. Rudd’s selfishness trashed the Labor Brand and no one, even Gillard, had the guts to admit their mistakes and start afresh.

    Their trouncing proves they’ve lost their base while the parachuting of Bullock proves they’re still beholding to the Unions. We are left with the dangerous situation of a blunt, neo-con Government trashing everything that doesn’t fit its extreme ideology unchecked by any strong, viable alternative story. Abbott has ample time to consolidate and put his own people everywhere that counts.

    I suspect we are in for many years of extremist, nihilist, backward-looking Government in Australia driving us to become the pre-eminent pariah in the Asian area.

  4. Hugh (Charlie) McColl

    Peter Bayley, I thought that what Rudd did at the time of his election in 2007 was try to distance the elected parliamentary wing of the Party in general and his own picks for ministers and Cabinet in particular, from the union and faction groups in the Party. Of course later, the factions came back after him and got even (or worse), ruining whatever credit the ALP had in the public eye and burning Julia Gillard in the process. You think Rudd trashed the Labor ‘brand’ but I think it’s that very brand of union/faction/backroom operation that is bringing Labor down and will keep doing so until it is properly trashed and made ‘dead, buried and cremated’ like its Liberal Work Choices counterpart.

  5. Jaybuoy

    Bullock has got Mal Coulsen tattooed all over him……

  6. Pedantic, Balwyn

    Noting the result of W.A. Senate election, I wonder when Labor will wake up to the fact that presenting themselves as Liberal Lite disenfranchises many progressive voters. Putting conservative, old men in the box seat does nothing for the younger voters, who are forced to align with the the media savvy Greens and finally in this rant people like Bullock will never understand that badmouthing your party and candidates is a massive turn off and has lost them votes. Yet he will sit in the Senate for six years, do bugger all that contributes to a better society and gets a fat pension. No wonder Australians are pissed off with pollies!

  7. Electric Lardyland

    Yes, Zut, I was watching Bullock’s media appearances and thinking exactly the same thing. I’m not sure how the dates line up, but is it possible that he is actually Colston’s love child?

  8. Jackson Harding

    Why has no one asked the question: Bullock’s conviction is for assault, and as I understand it that carries a potential penalty of more than 12 months imprisonment. A conviction for an offence that carries the possibility of more than 12 months imprisonment bars one from being a member of parliament. Is not Mr Bullock’s election invalid?

  9. CML

    @ JH = I thought about that too, but maybe the offence has to occur whilst the person is already a politician? However, if you are correct, then I hope someone in the ALP goes after Bullock with all guns blazing!
    On the other hand – why is everyone getting their knickers in a knot over this Bullock sh+t? The LNP have their Corey Bernardi sh+t, and no one is predicting the end of the world as we know it because he is sitting in the Senate.
    A bit of perspective here, please!

  10. Greg

    Interesting and helpful to understanding what went on in the ‘West’.