Scott Ludlam was leaving nothing out. In his strangely measured voice, he worked through a checklist of what he deemed to be the Abbott government’s failings: on drought, housing, climate change, online surveillance, the ABC, the broadband network, gay rights, trade unions, light rail, the shark cull, Medicare, schools funding, tertiary education, predatory capitalism.
The West Australian senator described the government’s border protection policy as a “murderous horror”. Abbott saw WA as “Gina Rinehart’s inheritance”, Ludlam said. His relationship with miners and media owners was “awkward, and kind of revolting”.
“The truth is that Prime Minister Tony Abbott and this benighted attempt at a government are a temporary phenomenon. They will pass,” he said, “and we need to keep our eyes on the bigger picture. Just as the reign of the dinosaurs was cut short to their great surprise, it may be that the Abbott government will appear as nothing more than a thin, greasy layer in the core sample of future political scientists drilling back into the early years of the 21st century.”
The speech concluded: “Prime minister, you are welcome to take your heartless racist exploitation of people’s fears and ram it as far from Western Australia as your taxpayer-funded travel entitlements can take you.”
There was no applause. Somewhere in the senate chamber, a woman cleared her throat.
But Ludlam’s speech caught fire on social media. Pop culture websiteJunkee posted the video under the click-grabbing headline: “Tony Abbott Slammed by Greens Senator in Jaw-Dropping Speech of the Year – We Want Our Country Back.” In two days, it had been watched more than half a million times. Then the press gallery started paying attention. According to former Greens leader Bob Brown, the incident is telling about both the problems facing the Greens and what he describes as the press gallery’s ‘‘blind spot’’: “Scott gave that speech to an empty senate chamber. That is fairly typical of the Greens today – no one is listening –especially the press gallery.”
As Ludlam said on Twitter the day after the speech: “The intended audience is never those inside the building.”
The son of New Zealand hippies who used to take him to Palm Sunday rallies as a child, Scott Ludlam says he was a sci-fi nut from a long way back. “Me and my brother were in the smarty-pants class in high school. That might have shaped our early interest in computer games. I was basically a bit of a nerd.”
The 44-year-old says he was politicised by his involvement with protests around the Jabiluka uranium mine in Kakadu National Park. After an unsuccessful marriage that ended in 1998, Ludlam says he spent New Year’s Eve alone that year, reading everything he could about the global nuclear industry.
“My journey into politics was sparked by coming to a stage of my life where I was looking for something very different to be doing. I was a graphic designer for about eight years in a variety of small studios. Something wasn’t scratching the itch for me. I was looking for something more. The Jabiluka mining issue grabbed me – the proposal to put a uranium mine into a World Heritage national park. I went to a rally at the end of ’97 and signed up at the end of ’98 and then never looked back.”
The other key area of Ludlam’s work has been internet freedom. His opposition to the internet filter and support of online freedom has seen him introduce a bill that would require law enforcement and intelligence agencies to get a warrant before accessing personal information about Australians online.
These efforts in the senate won him a lifetime achievement award for services to digital rights from online privacy lobby Electronic Frontiers Australia in January. Sean Rintel, chairman of EFA, said of Ludlam: “No one has worked harder and more consistently in the political field to create both positive rights and to campaign against limits to online personal freedom and security.”
Ludlam’s previous career as a graphic designer and IT nerd means he brings an online savvy to his work as a parliamentarian that has been lacking from the old guard of Greens leaders, a fact Bob Brown freely acknowledges. “When I met Scott, IT and digital media were his forte – very different to mine. I recognised that he was linked in with Gen X in a way that I wasn’t. I was a political strategist of a different era.”
Ludlam was among the first politicians to live tweet and conduct Q&As with his followers from the senate chamber. He puts all his speeches on SoundCloud and conducts “Ask Me Anything” sessions through reddit. He currently boasts more than 22,000 followers on Twitter and thousands of followers on Facebook.
According to Steph Harmon, managing editor of the Junkee website that posted the now infamous speech, Ludlam’s online credentials helped.
‘‘The internet is a fickle beast. You never really know when something will take hold and go viral,” she says. “Senator Ludlam is really active online: he’s got a great web presence, he does reddit AMAs, he’s hilarious on Twitter. While the success of this speech was as random as any viral sensation, there was a ready-made online presence that Ludlam could mobilise to capitalise on it … On the flip side, I’d argue that the majority of people who have seen this speech don’t know too much about Ludlam, or what he stands for. So that’s the next fight for him.”
In his speech, Ludlam claimed Abbott was only helping the Greens. “Every time you open your mouth,” he said, “the Green vote goes up.” But the reality for the Greens is more patchy. Their vote at the federal election was way down. Their national vote is back below 10 per cent. On issues where they were once strong, they now struggle for traction.
For this, Brown blames the media. “Greens voters are confined by the failure of the Greens to be reported,” he says. “In 16 years in the senate I’d give speech after speech about other values than those being dictated by the government of the day. Speeches about people who had been trampled, about environments that were under serious threat and the best you could hope for was to be heckled by a few Liberals.”
Of course, the Greens’ problems are deeper than this. They have lost Brown as the party’s guiding father. An increase in new parties is sapping votes that were once theirs. The outsider status they once had has been lost, but people confused by preferences worry if they are an effective protest vote. The large donation from Graeme Wood at the latest election that paid for significant advertising has been spent and may not be seen again.
While not conceding that the Greens are facing major problems, Ludlam says he is aware the party cannot be content with its primary vote. He points to a number of factors holding the party back. “We’ve got one of the most powerful media organisations in the country that is dedicated to destroying us. We are also faced with a situation where a lot of money is flooding into politics from people like Clive Palmer, but also from the donations from the oil and gas and coal sector to Liberal and Labor. We don’t have that, so we actually have to get out there and speak to people face to face or all they will hear are Rupert Murdoch’s ideas of us.
“I think in 2013 we saw a lot of those factors lining up against the Greens – combined with the fact that we were perceived as attached to an extraordinarily dysfunctional Labor Party. I should say that I think the Labor Party should feel proud of a lot of the policy it got through in that period – but the continual internal infighting and leadership speculation severely hurt the party, and I think we got dragged down by that as well.”
On March 4, the morning after Ludlam delivered his speech, it had failed to register a mention in any major media outlet. It wasn’t until the next day when Junkee and International Business Times picked up on the story, that it began to make serious waves online. Once the story became too big to ignore, the Murdoch press went on the attack. Chris Kenny described it as “vile” on Twitter and a piece in The Weekend Australian accused Ludlam of ‘‘debasing’’ himself and the WA election. Miranda Devine went further inThe Daily Telegraph, describing it as a “hate speech”.
Ludlam says he has long recognised the need to push beyond traditional media to get the Greens messages heard. “Any political movement – if you’re ignoring what’s going on online, then you’re going to put yourself out of business,” he says. “We’ve got great people in Australia doing great work, but we also have a powerful clique of people working for media organisations who aren’t trying to report the news at all, [but] are trying to shape it. They are trying to shape policy that is very different to the interests of the general public. Those are the ones we need to bypass and bypass very urgently if we are going to be successful.”
Since the speech, Ludlam’s profile has received its largest spike. There are Facebook pages calling for him to lead the Greens and even the country. But Brown remains cautious. “I see all the members of the Greens caucus as potential leaders of the Greens,” he says. “One thing Scott is not, he’s not cutthroat. He’s a new brand of politician. He’s the antithesis of the old model of selfish, hard-as-nails and disdainful political leaders that currently hold sway in Australia. Scott’s getting a lot of experience … The real question now is not whether Scott Ludlam will be the future leader, but whether he will hold his seat in Western Australia.”