A Chat With Senator Ludlam: “Don’t Wait For Some Political Leader To Give You Permission To Step Up”

He's a huge West Wing fan. No surprises there.

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On Monday night, Western Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam gave his adjournment speech to Parliament. It was the last opportunity he would have to speak in the chamber before facing his state’s do-over of September’s botched Senate election, which is being held on April 5. It was a good speech. A very good speech. A speech which, when we posted about it, went viral almost immediately, clocking up over 630,000 pageviews for us in the first three days.

In the speech, he called the Abbott government “blundering and technically illiterate”. He called their vested interests “awkward, and kind of revolting”. He said they would appear as “a thin, greasy layer in the core sample of future political scientists.”

“Prime Minister,” he said, “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. We want our country back.”

It didn’t take long for the memes to start.


T-shirts were made. There was a Twitter account for his hair. He did a Reddit AMA.

Somebody found this photo of him reclining on a beanbag.


We compared him to Adam Scott from Parks & Recreation, another hero of the internet. We worried we were objectifying him. We watched him sass his way through a Twitter fight with conservative columnist Chris Kenny (who called Ludlam’s speech “vile” and then asked him for an interview), and we loved him even more.

It’s been a big week for Senator Scott Ludlam. He let us ask him some questions about it.

So. How’s everything going?

A bit weird? Thanks very much for the write-ups over the last few days — it’s been pretty fun.

I can only imagine it’s been quite surreal for you. What do you think it says about the national mood at the moment, that something like this has the potential to take off so quickly, and in such a huge way?

Hmmm. Maybe that I said what a lot of people were thinking.

Well no, I don’t actually have a strong theory. I’ve done speeches in there for the last six years to empty rooms. You can never tell in that environment what people are going to find interesting, and what they’ll pass on.

Was there any different tack you took writing that one? There was something very quotable about it.

[Laughs] It’s quite rare that I would read something verbatim; that I would actually write something from end to end and read it out. I generally prefer to ad-lib. It’s often quite hard — if the chamber’s rowdy and you’re getting yelled at, it’s actually very difficult to read a prepared speech. So that’s one difference.

The other thing, I suppose, is that it was the last opportunity before the election that I had to speak in there — so to me it had something of a “So long and thanks for all the fish” kind of character. It was a bit of a round-up of how fed-up I was feeling, I suppose, rather than being about any specific issue.

You’re very active on Twitter, you do Reddit Ask Me Anythings, and you’ve got a great social media presence. Your speech was obviously sharable. Is the potential of the online space something you consider when you’re making a public statement or writing a speech? 

Yeah, more and more. I discovered the potential by accident years and years ago, in a Budget Estimates Committee with Steven Conroy, when he was Communications Minister. We were sparring over the net filter. Twitter keeps a bit of an eye to estimates committees and is particularly interested in the NBN and digital rights issues and filters and that sort of thing — and the other thing that’s becoming increasingly evident is that Parliament is a broadcasting platform. When Parliament is in session or when its committees are sitting, they’re broadcasting, so people can watch and they can comment in real time as to what’s going on. And if people inside the building are paying attention both to what’s happening in the chamber and what’s happening online, you can close the feedback loop up very, very tight.

I discovered that in this Estimates Committee, when the Minister said something that was patently bullshit — and I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d seen [that it was bullshit]. And before I knew it, somebody on Twitter had found the fact or the contradiction, and provided it to me fast enough for me to throw it into the conversation as it was happening.

That, for me, was a bit of a lightbulb moment.

Junkee also covers pop culture, and the TV shows that resonate the most with our readers are political ones. There was something about that speech that just seemed like a Sorkin-written scene. The balance in the sentences, the way it was crafted — 

Well. As a big West Wing fan that’s one of the nicest things that anybody’s ever said. I love to write, and I don’t get to very much. The last thing I posted on my blog was in, I think, October.

At one point in the speech you said that every time Tony Abbott opens his mouth, the Greens win votes. One of the only positive messages the left had to cling to after the Coalition won the last election was that perhaps Abbott would screw up so hard that we’d go in the other direction next time around. Do you feel that happening?

It’s definitely happening here in the west, and my instinct is it’s happening right around the country. What I don’t have to back up that feeling is any reliable recent polling, but what we do have are more offers for help and volunteers than we know what to do with. Our office was already on a campaign footing, and we’ve put up a big effort for door-knocking and phone banking, but what’s happened in the last couple of weeks has been just short of overwhelming.

And I put it down to the fact that the Prime Minister — inadvertently, or not at all in the way he intended — is quite a unifier. You think about how many people this government has attacked in the last six months, from right across disparate parts of society who might not have  felt they had anything to do with each other — they’re effectively being forced into the fight of their lives.

Theory would say that every action has an equal and opposite counter-reaction. Time will tell, right? Like, I might get my arse kicked on the 5th of April and look pretty silly — but we’ll have to see, won’t we?

I read that Labor probably won’t be giving the Greens their preferences in the April 5 election. Judging by the response we got, everybody wants you to win. What can people around Australia do to help in the lead-up? 

There’s a variety of things. People can make a donation small or large from anywhere, and that really helps. We can make the absolute best use of that in the couple of weeks that are available to us, from wherever people are.

You can come out west — it’s a bit on the hot side, but otherwise it’s absolutely beautiful.

Or you can get involved with any of the other groups; The Greens are just one expression of a big civil society movement that’s rising at the moment. One thing you could do for us out here in W.A. is help protect the Great Barrier Reef. That would help me sleep easier at night.

You talk about a national movement. Of course it’s hard in Australia — W.A is so far away from the East Coast and with different priorities, for instance — but do you think we need a strong, loud voice to mobilise a national movement? 

I don’t know that we can afford to wait around for a Martin Luther King to show up. We’re really up against the wall as it is. We need a thousand voices to be springing up, from all over.

Some of the people that I work with the most closely, who have been great teachers and mentors, are people like Bob [Brown] and Christine [Milne] — they are just really across their work.

There’s an Aboriginal mob from the North East goldfields in W.A. who I find utterly inspiring as leaders. On the basis of very little resources they’re standing up to the mining industry, and the uranium industry in particular.

“We need a thousand voices to be springing up, from all over.”

There’s people online behind pseudonyms who I will probably never meet, who do amazing work standing up against the surveillance state.

There’s journalists, despite the threats that are being levelled against them. You know, Phil Dorling is under some kind of suppression order at the moment; the people doing the reporting are just as threatened.

There’s people up at tree-sits in the South West of Western Australia trying to prevent the tall eucalyptus forest from being smashed and bowled over.

I just say don’t wait for some political leader to give you permission to step up, because it’s pretty exciting what’s happening all over the place. It’s happening everywhere. There’s so much going on at the moment. It’s amazing.

If you win, what’s the next move for you? What are you going to be focusing on?

The whole idea of April 6 is just kind of an imaginary construct to me at the moment … Everything is very very focused on the next four weeks [of campaigning]. But if people are now clearer about what I’m against and what I’m pissed off about as a result of the speech on Monday night, over the next four weeks we’re going to attempt to paint a picture of what we’re for. 

For me, this is a golden opportunity to showcase what we’ve spent years working on, whether it be renewable energy, housing affordability, bushland protection, marine conservation, justice reinvestment to get Aboriginal kids out of prison. We’ve got a lot that we want to say, and I guess it’s my job in the next four weeks to really get it out there.

You don’t want to go on Chris Kenny’s show to get it out there?

No! I can’t be bothered!

Look, I was probably a bit rude before, and like I said before I don’t normally bite, but that kind of self-important attitude that I should be grateful to be harangued by him on his little TV show. I just can’t be bothered.

How does Chris Kenny put up with himself?

Yeah, I don’t have any theories about that, either. I have no idea.

Donate to Scott Ludlam’s re-election campaign here.

Help save the Great Barrier Reef here or here.

Follow Senator Scott Ludlam on Twitter here.