Motoring Enthusiast Party Senator Ricky Muir will be spending much of the next five weeks of the campaign in his car, travelling across the state of Victoria in a bid to convince voters in the state to re-elect him while the government fights an election on the basis of getting rid of the “feral” micro-party senators and pass all the legislation it wants.
As one of the eight independents who often decided the fate of government legislation in the Senate, Muir was often name-checked as one of the reasons why the government embarked on Senate voting reform just before calling the election. Muir’s party received just 0.51% of the vote at the 2013 election, with 17,122 first preference votes, but he was elected on the preferences of HEMP, Shooter’s party, the Christian parties, Palmer United Party, and ultimately the Sex Party, according to ABC election analyst Antony Green.
Muir has overcome stereotypes about his party and surprised many in his time in the Parliament in making thoughtful, considered contributions to policy debate. Muir ultimately voted on principle against the ABCC legislation, which brought on the double dissolution election — and potentially the end to his parliamentary career.
Crikey spoke to Muir last week after he had driven home to Sale after an evening in Melbourne’s south-eastern suburbs at a forum on ABC funding. He says he is still working out the logistics of where he will be in the campaign, but he is spending a lot of time travelling to ensure he can get to all parts of the state.
“The biggest downfall will be time. I know it is a long election campaign, but at this time the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party has one representative who is actually elected. To get right across the whole state and speak to everybody would obviously be a hard thing to achieve, especially on a shoe-string budget, but in saying that, I’ve spent a bit of time over the last couple of days in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne. I’ve covered Gippsland through to Melbourne up into around the Winton area. I want to get out into the Warrnambool way, and Geelong way,” he said.
Muir says he is going to work out his schedule and put it up on his website, but he wants to leave some free time so he can do shopping centre walk-throughs to meet people along the way. Three weeks into the campaign, and Muir says most people are still tuned out. Most in regional Victoria are raising the milk pricing issues or complaining about the government rhetoric around jobs and growth. He says some people are just saying thanks, and if he doesn’t get re-elected that they appreciated him being in the Senate.
“Rather than being direct hard issues, it’s more discontent. Either side of Parliament hasn’t learned anything over the past 22 months of the crossbench being there and the public actually responding well to diversity rather than just three-word slogans and the same tit-for-tat process which has been haunting our parliamentary system since party votes became a big thing,” he said.
In such a high-profile position after the election, deciding whether legislation will pass or fail, Muir says it was an “intense” time to learn how Parliament works, with much of the play happening behind the scenes in negotiations between the two major parties with the crossbench.
“Trying to learn the proper parliamentary process while having to deal with the games and manipulation of the actual rules and processes itself is a big juggling act. It was a very public learning curve, and still is a very public learning curve, but I think that makes it actually a positive experience rather than a negative experience because it gives me that opportunity to let the public see the journey I’m going on, and see I’m not in there manipulating the system,” Muir said.
Muir pays tribute to Senator John Madigan for helping him understand the process and always giving an unbiased answer to any questions he had about how the process worked, but he says the whole crossbench was helpful, and Coalition Senator Nigel Scullion was also a good sounding board for advice. But Muir says he learned to be careful with taking the advice of his fellow senators.
“It’s been hard to know who to trust and you certainly take every bit of advice you hear along the way with a grain of salt because there’s likely an agenda attached to it.”
For a single elected member of a micro-party that has a crucial vote in passing government legislation, Muir had a lot of legislation to get across. There would often be four or five controversial pieces of legislation each sitting period, and he would only find out about them on the Thursday before the sitting week. He says he would often use the seven-hour drive to Canberra from Gippsland with his wife to get across the issues and write speeches or notes about legislation he needed to be informed about.
“You just don’t want to sit with or against the government because it is the popular thing to do, you actually want to understand what’s going on. If you don’t agree with the bill … there are amendments you can suggest, so if it gets up, it is at least a little bit better. It’s very time consuming, and it’s all very last minute.”
For a micro-party senator seeking re-election, the campaign is not done on spending promises or saying how bad one side or the other is, Muir says. He pays tribute to the government putting money towards continuous glucose monitoring for diabetes type 1 suffers, an issue Muir had been campaigning on when in the Senate. He himself is campaigning on holding the government to account in the Senate.
“Something that really frustrates me about parliament is that there has been so many times where I have had people from any given party say ‘I support your position on this, I understand why you’re sitting over there. I would if I could.’ Well why don’t you?,” he said.
The most challenging legislation for Muir was to vote against his own political interests, but in line with his values, in voting against the Australian Building and Construction Commissioner legislation. He knew from the onset that the government wanted a double dissolution election, and said, when the ABCC legislation was brought back to the Senate, that the government was talking about the need to curb bullying and thuggery in the construction industry, when the government itself was engaged in bullying and thuggery to strong-arm the crossbench into passing the legislation.
“The reality was I had come to a point where I thought ‘OK, I can see what the government is trying to achieve here’. Take away all the rhetoric around bullying and thuggery because that wasn’t really relevant to the ABCC bill. That was just how they were trying to sell it.”
Muir proposed a compromise to use a ministerial direction in the legislation to also have a regulator focus on wages and sham contracting so that not only were the unions covered, but also the employers. Muir says the government showed no interest in any changes.
“I got to a point where I couldn’t work with the government, they’d pulled back pretty hard. It had become clear they wanted a double dissolution no matter what. They probably needed it to be honest and they weren’t going to let anything get in the way of that,” he said.