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.

Peter Fray

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