How The West Was Won

The inside story behind accidental hero Scott Ludlam, and the web-savvy and youth-targeted campaign that captured a national discontent.

It’s four o’clock on election day, and Scott Ludlam is dead to the world. He’s due on the ABC at 6pm and the results will start taking shape an hour after that, but until then he’s asleep on the office couch, which is about thirty centimetres shorter than it needs to be. Jess McColl, the adviser on loan from Rachel Siewert’s office for the campaign, is holding the fort — fielding calls from the occasional nutbag, calming panicky booth captains, trying to put out any fires before they start. She’s the one who has set up and overseen the massive operation that’s driven The WA Greens’ re-election campaign, at times doing much of it virtually by herself. Ludlam loves her — he drops her name constantly in radio interviews.

When he wakes up she mentions his attire, which is looking distinctly rumpled: “You’re not wearing that blue shirt on telly tonight, you look like you’re in mourning.” Ludlam has a preference for wearing dark shirts with black ties, making him look funereal. They have this conversation quite a bit.

He pauses with his tie only half done-up: “I don’t have another one.” Somehow, when he’s getting ready to do a live cross on SKY News at the election party four hours later, he’s in a crisp white shirt, squirming a little as the perfectly-quiffed reporter pins a lapel mike on him.

When the live cross gets going he fields the standard questions for a few minutes, before a former Liberal politician on the panel, Michael Kroger, tells Ludlam how disgusted he was by his speech about Tony Abbott, which went viral in March. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” Kroger rumbles. Ludlam absorbs it for a bit, the ghost of a smile on his face. “Thank you, Michael,” he says quietly.

One room over, the party’s getting into full swing. The beer garden of the Oxford Hotel, the pub in Leederville where the Greens have gathered to watch the results come in, is heaving. They’ve got a warehouse down the road they were planning to use as the venue tonight but the local council, which is chock-full of Liberals, wouldn’t give them permission. Photographers from various news outlets huddle around plates of Turkish bread and dip, waiting for the man of the hour to emerge.

During his victory speech he pulls Jess onstage, and the crowd goes ballistic. Later, after a thousand selfies with volunteers, he takes a breather in a corner of the garden, quietly sipping a beer someone’s bought him. When I ask him what he’s going to do tomorrow, he looks down to study his drink.

“I am going to sleep very well. I would like to go to the beach, briefly.”

He has been campaigning, on and off, for fifteen months. I ask if he’s looking forward to 2019, when he’s next up for re-election, and he laughs. It's a sound of pure relief.

“Don’t even go there.”

Fourteen Votes

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It all started on another election night — September 7, 2013 — as progressives Australia-wide stared into their own drinks to better avoid looking at the TV screen, where Antony Green was pronouncing unimaginable doom. Faced with the looming prospect of a Prime Minister who described himself as “the guy with the not bad-looking daughters,” they clung to meagre trophies like Cathy McGowan’s unlikely triumph over Sophie Mirabella in Indi as proof that the world hadn’t gone entirely mad. But it wasn’t looking good for the Left.

Andrew Bolt and the rest of News Corp had spent the last few weeks declaring, again, that the Greens were a political force soon to be consigned to history’s dustbin. It’s a claim that’s only gotten stronger since the hearty bollocking Tasmania’s voters handed the party on March 15 — the seventh straight election that saw the Greens vote go down. It wasn’t a good look for a party with not that much vote to spare.

Adam Bandt’s surprise win in Melbourne notwithstanding, the Greens did not have a fun time that night. In two states, New South Wales and Queensland, they not only failed to get a single Senator elected, but they polled a dismal fourth behind such political heavyweights as the Liberal Democrats — who people had mistakenly voted for thinking they voted Liberal — and former Australian prop forward Glenn Lazarus, a Palmer United Party candidate from Queensland known in his footy days as “the brick with eyes”.

While the Greens Senators up for re-election looked like they’d done well enough to hold their seats thanks to Labor preferences — even picking up a seat in Victoria — their bread and butter, the all-important Senate primary vote, was slashed by almost a third. As results trickled in from Western Australia, where a young first-termer was struggling to keep his seat against a conservative whitewash, the news looked grim for Scott Ludlam.

It all came down to fourteen votes — fourteen, out of over 1.3 million, that would decide the fate of four potential Senators and the balance of power for the next three years. On the first count, the Shooters and Fishers beat fellow microparty the Australian Christians by fourteen votes; the Christians were knocked out of the race, and their preferences flowed (eventually) to Labor Senator Louise Pratt and the Palmer United Party’s Dio Wang — both of whom were declared elected. Ludlam and the Australian Sports Party’s Wayne Dropulich, who both would have been elected if the Shooters had been knocked out first, challenged the result. After initially being knocked back, a recount was eventually ordered.

A ridiculous scenario, but there was a system in place to deal with it, which kicked into gear. The ballots would be painstakingly recounted by a crack team of well-meaning retirees. Panellists on ABC 24 would cross to bored correspondents standing outside community halls, and nod seriously at each other. Clive Palmer would rumble and boom that a conspiracy was afoot, as vague as it was omnipresent. The script was already written.

Then the Australian Electoral Commission sheepishly announced that it had lost 1,370 WA ballots, and everything went to shit. The recount continued, despite now being obviously useless, and eventually found that the Christians had gotten more votes than the Shooters, and Ludlam and Dropulich had won after all — at least on the count that didn’t include those missing votes. The original result was officially overturned, even as the head of the AEC admitted to a colossal balls-up and resigned in disgrace. Ludlam was a Senator again. Only he wasn’t.

After a few months of weary pondering, the High Court took the only option: the long-suffering voters of Western Australia would have to do it all again. A half-Senate by-election was ordered — the first in the country’s history — and each of the 62 candidates, plus 15 new names, would have to fight it out one more time for the six seats on offer.

Three seats were certain to be picked up by the major parties, two by the Liberal Party, one by the ALP — but the other three were up for grabs. At least four candidates — Ludlam, the ALP’s Louise Pratt, PUP’s Dio Wang and the Liberal Party’s Linda Reynolds — would be fighting for one of those seats, with the added possibility of a microparty securing a sweet enough preference deal to put themselves in play.

At risk was the balance of power in the Senate, and with it the Abbott government’s ability to implement its agenda. With Labor and the Greens opposing major government policies — repealing the carbon and mining taxes, defunding the Clean Energy Finance Corporation — the government already needs to negotiate with crossbench Senators who might not be that easy to negotiate with. A bad result for the government in WA would make it that much harder to convince crossbenchers they were worth supporting. A bad result for the Greens would see them spend the next few years watching everything they’d worked for be pulled apart before their eyes.

With the stakes so high, the Greens needed their lead man in WA to have his head in the game; to be focused, driven, ruthless. All business.


The Scott Ludlam Appreciation Society

“The only criticism I would make of Scott is the socks.”

It’s Wednesday, three days out from polling day. Ludlam’s just blundered into a one-on-one interview with Australian Greens Leader Christine Milne, in the back room of the WA Greens bullpen. He’s on his way back out, apologising profusely for interrupting, when his leader’s comment pulls him up short.

“What about my socks?”

He pulls up the trouser legs of his standard black suit, revealing a pair of bright red woolly things.

“Oh, they’re not too bad! They’re quite conservative today!”

“Well, I knew you were coming.”

Milne grins, delighted. “I was just saying Scott, before you wandered in here, that you’ve made a great contribution in this whole area of digital rights and holding the government to account on surveillance and the like.”

“Thank you, Christine,” he mumbles, and leaves.

“It’s a standing joke between us, the socks,” Milne says. “Usually he wears different… varieties.”

Milne flew into Perth this morning, and is here to help until the end. Her presence will fire up volunteers and draw the all-important TV cameras, and she knows it. Once the room’s clear she launches right back into her pitch.

“There’s real affection for Scott; he’s a genuine person,” she tells me. “When he came so close to losing the seat last year people were shocked, because they recognised what a good Senator he is.”

The affection Milne speaks of is certainly there. Squeals of joy can be heard as he walks into the office down the hall: someone sent in a dozen copies of a doctored photo of Ludlam as The Green Lantern, and the volunteers revel in his discomfort. Later, when we visit a polling booth in Mount Lawley, we meet a 25-year-old nurse named Emily who’s handing out how-to-votes for the first time. When Ludlam walks away, she gushes a bit.

“He’s just great, you know? He’s really honest, he comes across as an actual human being. He’s not a bastard.”

This blanket of adoration is something Ludlam’s had to contend with for a while. Gary The Hair, a creation of (then-) Crikey's First Dog On The Moon cartoonist, had been around for six months before the ‘Welcome To WA’ speech blew up, but since then the fandom has reached another level. Everything from SLASH, the Scott Ludlam Appreciation Society (the ‘H’ stands for ‘Hodor’ from Game of Thrones, for some reason) to the office wifi password — “scottshair2014” — gives the impression of a rockstar politician. But there’s nothing of a rockstar about Senator Ludlam.

Quiet and diffident, with the faintest hint of a Kiwi accent, Ludlam plays his cards very close to his chest; he’s exactly the sort of person you’d expect to be puzzled at becoming a walking meme-factory. He looks faintly bewildered whenever references to his infamous hair or comparisons to a superhero pop up. He’s also a bit of a dork. The first time we sit down for an interview, he picks at a fruit salad with a pair of chopsticks. At one point, without a trace of irony, the word “lol” escapes his lips.


People Power

24 hours before the polls close, the final phone-bank at the Greens WA headquarters is gearing up.

No one on Earth likes phone-banking. It is a hideous thing to do to yourself. It involves calling people when you know they’re home — at dinner time, usually — and asking anyone who answers if they know there’s an election coming up, before spruiking some candidate they probably haven’t heard of.

People do not respond well to this kind of thing. First they assume you’re trying to sell them insurance, or convert them to a strange religion. Then they will rant to you about the government, or refugees, or the neighbour’s tree that grows over their side of the fence. They will scream in your ear and slam the handset down so hard you hear it before the line breaks. It is mind-numbing, soul-crushing work. Getting people to do it is hard.

Yet the room is packed, as it’s been packed every night this week, and Ludlam’s office in Fremantle is a full house too. Chairs are dragged out of storage. Laptops and old mobiles are swapped and bartered. All the gruntwork in the office appears to be done by an old battler with a bushman’s beard named Frank. He does the dishes, passes snacks around, makes the tea.

Rick’s a 60-year-old teacher trainer from England. He hunches over his laptop in checkered shirt and vest, peering at the screen through professor-style glasses. It’s his first time phone-banking, and the only people he knows who’ve been politicised more than he has in the last six months are his two kids, who are handing out how-to-votes for Ludlam tomorrow.

Four tables over sits 19-year-old Alistair. Like Rick’s kids, he’s never campaigned in his life, but he went to a Greens event on Monday night and Ludlam’s speech blew him away.

The place is lousy with Senators: Christine Milne, Rachel Siewert from WA, Larissa Waters from Queensland. They circulate, shaking hands, taking photos with volunteers, listening to people’s stories. Milne steps out of it for a minute and looks the scene over, arms folded. “I think we’re gonna get him over the line tomorrow,” she says quietly, before heading back in to become half of someone’s future profile picture.

The election is so near now, and the mood is electric: a mix of anticipation and dread, excitement and exhaustion, adrenaline and fear. In between calls the volunteers swap anecdotes and predictions, reasons why Scott has to win. A staffer calls me over and pulls some figures up on a screen, delirious with excitement: they’ve made 2,000 calls tonight, smashing their old record, and it’s only six o’clock. Such signs and portents, so minor outside this muggy room, have taken on a significance far outside themselves. The slightest thing becomes totemic.

But there’s a shadow looming over all of this. Clive Palmer, the great white blimp of Australian politics, is everywhere. Everywhere. Pick up the West Australian, Perth’s main rag; he’s got half-page ads on four or five pages each day, and he’s the lead story. Drive down the freeway; there he is on a billboard, giving you the big thumbs-up. Turn on the TV; one of his ads is telling you that the major parties are taking bread out of the mouths of West Australian babies.

Babies don’t eat bread. Nor does a federal Senator have any impact on GST distribution — that’s what state Premiers spend their time doing at COAG — but that hasn’t stopped Palmer United promising to get WA a bigger slice of GST revenue as his party’s major policy platform. Meanwhile, the guy actually running for election on the ticket, Dio Wang, is nowhere to be seen, so absent from his own campaign that Palmer’s been accused of hiding him.

The Palmer United Party’s lack of workable policy and visible candidate won’t end up mattering, though, because of the awe-inspiring amount Clive’s thrown at this election: $477,000 on TV ads alone. That’s more than twice as much as every other party’s entire campaign spend combined, and it doesn’t include the radio spots, newspaper ads, billboards, flyers and letterboxing, or the Palmer United-brand jet Clive hops around in.

The electoral implications of this contest are well-known. By winning his third Senate seat in WA on Saturday, Palmer can force the Coalition to bargain with him to pass anything that Labor and the Greens oppose — especially if the Liberals lose the third WA Senate seat they briefly won in September.

But perhaps more significantly, this kind of money has never been thrown around by a minor party before. The Greens have found common ground with Tony Abbott, of all people, who accused Palmer of trying to buy his way in: "[Mr Palmer] is out there trying to buy seats in the Parliament and that's something that I don't think the people of Western Australia will fall for," Abbott said while campaigning in Perth. It’s the kind of campaigning normally associated with US Presidential races, not a one-off byelection in WA; a bull-roaring, steamrolling juggernaut of pure cash, come rampaging out of the east.

Up against it is this room of Alistairs and Ricks plugging away, calling people who either have no idea an election is on or are sick to death of it. They’ve thrown themselves in front of this new behemoth and held up a STOP sign. The Greens are outspending both Labor and the Coalition, but people power is what they do — their entire ethos is built around it, and they don’t have a choice anyway.

They’ve made over 60,000 phone calls, knocked on almost 30,000 doors. 1,700 people will rock up to hand out how-to-votes on the day, including dozens who’ve flown in from interstate to help out, sleeping on mates’ couches and in dodgy hostels. And now they’re phone-banking, one last time.

You get the sense that all the viral speeches in the world are nothing compared to this endless, exhausting grind, this eking out of an infinitesimal advantage over your rivals one halting conversation at a time. This is where elections are won, vote by vote: with small groups of people fighting to determine the course of a country’s future in dusty converted office spaces, by the glow of insect-riddled fluorescent lights.

Tomorrow night they will gather in the Oxford Hotel, consume heroic amounts of liquor and watch their man romp home. But they don’t know that yet.

The Bigger Picture

Born in New Zealand, Scott Ludlam spent the first eight years of his life travelling the world with his parents. In the words of his first Senate speech, his earliest memories are of “Indian backroads, London snow and African railways”. His parents are retired now, and he credits his passion for design and creativity to them.

They were in the audience when he gave that maiden speech in September 2008. As Labor and Coalition Senators filed quietly out of the chamber, Ludlam spoke of curing the world’s dependence on oil, the vanishing sea ice of the Arctic Ocean, and the possibility of an economy that does not need to continually grow to survive. All this Big Picture stuff has its roots in Ludlam’s fascination with the sheer vastness of the earth, its history and its future. “I find that stuff very grounding,” he says. “It makes getting through the little bits and pieces of the day easier, remembering that it’s part of something a lot bigger than we are.”

In that first speech, and many times since, he dropped a favourite quote of his from sci-fi author and cyberpunk hero William Gibson: “The future is here; it’s just not widely distributed yet”. He beams when I bring it up and yells at his adviser: “Dave, he’s asking me about William Gibson!”

One of his favourite anecdotes is the first time he heard Dr Noel Nannup, a lecturer at Edith Cowan University and a Noongar man (the Noongar being an indigenous people of WA’s south-western corner), tell a traditional story passed down for twenty thousand years which speaks of nyetting, “the cold time,” when the ocean was metres lower and the Noongar would walk to what is now Rottnest Island, almost twenty kilometres out to sea.

“That story’s from the last Ice Age. Four times older than the pyramids. We’re just now coming to terms with climate change in a big way, and we’ve got actual stories passed down from people who were there during the last big climate event,” Ludlam says. “When I think about that, it makes my hair stand on end.”

His voice doesn’t change when he talks about something that really interests him, but he does start to fidget a little, swinging his legs, crossing and uncrossing them. When he does this, his trouser legs ride up, and out peek a pair of woolly red socks.



It’s Wednesday afternoon, and Ludlam is livid. A journalist has just quietly let him know that the AEC have stuffed up the handling of around 75 pre-poll votes in a retirement home, which have been declared invalid as a result. The West Australian is running a story tomorrow.

He says some things. I am not allowed to tell you what they are.

It’s been more than six months since Ludlam was first told he’d lost, before being told he’d won but the result was void, before finally being told that the whole thing had been chucked out and would he mind doing it again, please. This second lost-votes debacle is far smaller than the first, but it’s a prickly reminder of the state of limbo the Ludlam camp has existed in since September. Since then, they’ve inhabited a strange parallel universe, planning committee meetings and appearances that might never happen. Ludlam seems to be trying very hard not to think about it.

“I decided in the run-up to the first campaign not to have a Plan B, a comfortable fall-back plan psychologically tucked away, and I still don’t,” he says. “There were a couple of days where I thought, ‘Okay, I need to get serious about what July looks like once we’ve packed this place up’. But suddenly we were back in the fight again. I still don’t know what I’ll do [if we lose].”

The desire to leave something of a legacy (or at least take one last opportunity to vent) might have been on his mind when, on a Monday night in March only a week after the second election was announced, Ludlam rose in a near-empty Senate chamber and quietly delivered the adjournment speech that catapulted him into that most fickle of states: internet fame.

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At the time of writing, Ludlam’s ‘Welcome To WA’ speech, ostensibly directed at an absent Tony Abbott but really geared towards would-be voters, has clocked up over 856,000 views on YouTube, drawn 718,000 people to this website, which first picked it up, and spawned countless flame wars between people who really shouldn’t be friends on Facebook.

Whether or not the speech’s virality had any effect on the final count will be debated until the End of Days, but the popular view seems to be that the internet has about as much influence on election results as a Sky News broadcast. Julia Gillard’s misogyny speech clocked up 2.5 million views, for instance, and look what happened to her. Most of the people who watched Ludlam’s speech aren’t WA residents and can’t vote for him; even those who can have had over a month to forget about a video that popped up once or twice in their Twitter feeds.

Despite his affection for all things Teh Interwebz, Ludlam hasn’t relied on it to get over the line. “We’ve not yet been in an election that wasn’t dominated by the four or five lead stories on the nightly news and in the paper,” he says. “Elections are still won and lost in the Daily Telegraph and by TV advertising spend, there’s no question about it. We’re still doing broadcast politics.“

Not that the Ludlam campaign hasn’t been flogging the beJesus out of those seven minutes and forty-one seconds. From the crowd-sourced selfie recreation of “Our Speech” to the campaign tees featuring just an outline of his hair and the word ‘Noted’ (the original design came from an online fan), every conceivable strategy to remind punters that Ludlam is That Speech Guy has been, in the parlance, noted. He is definitely playing to an audience — a small and disparate one, for sure, but one he believes is growing, and will come to have a far greater impact on the future than most people are giving it credit for.

“I got the sense years ago that, at every election, the internet will be more and more important. I wonder whether or not we’ll find, after this by-election, that we’ve just been through the first poll where the internet made its presence known — not decided the result, but made its presence felt. At some point in the future, the internet is where politics will be. It won’t be anywhere else.”

These little shout-outs to the online vote don’t always come off so well — like the cringeworthy pop-up Dogetext eight minutes and twenty seconds into this recent video. Even without the murderous eloquence of ‘Welcome to WA’ shuffling awkwardly in the background, “very animosity, such Liberals, wow” is not so much a burn as it is a cup of tea forgotten on the kitchen bench.

The Senator is aware of this, too; that clip’s been on his mind. “Can’t help myself. I put the Doge text in that video because it’s very now, but in two years people are gonna watch it and just go, ‘What was he doing?’“

The internet’s opinion matters to Ludlam. He’s worked very hard to make sure it likes him, and he doesn’t want to screw that up. “What the internet teaches you very fast is that if you’re rubbish, you’ll be told. You’ll be dismantled. It can be quite a cruel place because it’s not just a [one-way] broadcast medium anymore. It’s a massive conversation, and if you’re boring or condescending you’ll be torn to pieces.”

Perhaps the reason he gets away with the occasional online misstep is that, unlike a lot of other politicians, whose only arsenal of Getting Wiv Da Yoof online involves shitty, shitty memes (take heed, Wayne Swan), Ludlam’s relationship with the internet goes a lot deeper.

A few of his biggest policy bugaboos are the ongoing efforts by successive governments to introduce a mandatory internet filter, and security agencies who rampantly snoop through people’s digital movements without a warrant. A certain awareness of the endlessly-evolving quirks and foibles of online cultures comes with the territory. “If you want to run an effective campaign in defence of the medium, you need to learn how it operates, how it works,” he says.

It’s that rationale which best explains Ludlam’s massive online presence: the constantly-buzzing Twitter account, the “thunderclap” blitz of social media they planned for election do-over day, the Reddit AMAs. He’s turning more and more to the people who best know the internet to help him defend it.

“There’s a whole generation coming through who aren’t getting their politics from the evening news. They’re not reading newspapers. Some of what we’re doing is resonating partly because Labor and the Liberals have been so crap — on data privacy, on digital rights, on stuff that affects the medium where young people are actually getting their politics from — that I’ve had that space to myself, unfortunately. The others have just been on the wrong side of the argument.”

That generation turned up in droves to ‘Ludapalooza’, a dance night-cum-fundraiser at one of Perth’s largest nightclubs on the Saturday before the election, starring Senator Ludlam as DJ S-Ludz. Like the original Gary/’Noted’ shirt design, it was a free kick for the campaign that came out of the blue: the people who run Capitol nightclub messaged Ludlam’s Facebook page, and offered to set it up.

That night was like something from another planet: hundreds of raver kids in fluoro and snapbacks going berserk over this mild-mannered politician in his forties, up on the decks like someone’s gatecrashing dad. The Spotify playlist he put together included Underworld, Nine Inch Nails, The Presets and Chet Faker; he mouthed the chorus and pumped his fist to The Herd's '0.77'. In the corner was a merch table packed with the cover-nothing singlets your average club-going Slave To The YOLO loves so much, only with the word ‘Noted’ on them in place of an acronym.

These kinds of people — hard-partying, hard-drinking, young people — aren’t meant to give a shit about anything. But neither are the type who make memes and host club nights, and this time around at least, some of them felt strongly enough to use their skills to influence politics.

“I don’t know why we had 500 Gen Ys jumping around on Saturday night, but I’m bloody glad they were there,” Ludlam says. ”And it was fun.”

I don't know why we had 500 Gen Ys jumping around on a Saturday night, but I'm bloody glad they were there.

Playing Politics

Press conferences are easy to spot when they’re outside. Look for a gaggle of well-dressed people milling around in the middle of a field or somewhere picturesque, conspicuously doing nothing in particular. On the Thursday before the election, Ludlam’s due at one down by the water, in the middle of the inexplicably vast Langley Park. To call it a ‘park’ is pretty optimistic; back in the ‘20s it used to be an airstrip, but now it’s just there, a mammoth expanse of grass and a few trees with literally nothing else. Perth is weirdly full of such spaces — huge, empty vistas where nothing is going on.

The little knot of politicians and advisers is waiting to see which media outlets show up, if any. A press conference is only considered a success if you get at least one TV station there, preferably a commercial one. For the Greens it doesn’t happen often, but Christine Milne’s in town and there’s an election on.

As the cameras roll she rips into the usual suspects — Tony Abbott, the coal industry, the “big end of town” —  while Ludlam stands at her right shoulder and nods solemnly. It takes about twenty minutes, and his eyes glaze over slightly while he stares across Langley Park’s great big nothing. A lone seagull potters about. Its politics are unclear.

Ludlam doesn’t do this kind of thing particularly well. At an earlier presser a bored-looking reporter asked him how the result of the election would reflect on Milne’s leadership. “I think that’s a bit of a weird question,” he deadpanned. An awkward silence ensued.

“I’ve always found the 24-hour news cycle — having to do messaging discipline, having to crunch complex ideas down into short, snackable statements for the evening news — an extraordinarily degrading way to have to communicate complex policy ideas,” he says later. It’s not a great sentiment to come from a Senator fighting for his political life two days out from an election, but according to Ludlam, there’s nothing he can do. “I’m not very good at it, and I’m not very interested in it, that kind of broadcast politics.”

I've always found the 24-hour news cycle an extraordinarily degrading way to have to communicate complex policy ideas. I'm not very good at it, and I'm not very interested in it.

Another of his pet hates? The glorified pissing contest that barely passes for Question Time.

“It’s theatre. Question Time is theatre; it’s the least interesting part of the job. It’s become so completely debased, because the tactics in there — shouting each other down or scoring points or throwing someone off-message or whatever — that make sense inside that pressure-cooker look completely ridiculous from outside the building,” he says.

You can understand why Ludlam might not be wild about the Question Time schoolyard, given that he sometimes seems like the weedy little nerd the bigger kids pick on. Just two weeks after ‘Welcome to WA’ went viral, his questions to Finance Minister and fellow WA Senator Matthias Cormann were drowned in a constant barrage of jeering and hollering from the government benches. It makes for depressing viewing, watching him try to get to the end of a sentence without deflating. When he calls for a debate between the WA candidates, a Coalition Senator yells, “You debate real political parties, not children and anarchists!” The boys all cheer.

Ludlam grimaces when I bring it up. “And that’s being screamed in your face.” He smiles tightly. “It’s funny, isn’t it? That people have no sense of irony.”

There’s a moment in the footage, after the Coalition erupts yet again into braying hilarity, when Ludlam stops and contemplates them outright, as though only just realising the absurdity of how he is spending his time.  “If only you could hear yourselves,” he calls to them, barely audible over the sound of their derision. “If only you could hear yourselves.”

The March In March, And The Brewing Storm

The Monday before the byelection, 103 schools in WA closed as their teachers took to the streets against the Barnett Liberal government’s cuts to education funding. In Sydney a few days later, protestors clashed with police as busloads of asylum seekers were removed from Villawood Detention Centre under heavy police guard, bound for remote camps in Western Australia. Over 2,000 people in a paddock north of Lismore on the NSW north coast gathered to physically block CSG company Metgasco from drilling by locking themselves to gates and machinery, and halfway across the state sixty protesters were arrested, including a 92-year-old veteran of Kokoda, for doing the same thing at the Maules Creek open-cut mine project north of Gunnedah.

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But the biggest symptom of a brewing discontent — what Milne called “the vibe” in a recent address to the Canberra Press Club — was the March in March: the huge, all-purpose protests against the Abbott government that brought over 100,000 people out into the streets. The march was either ignored or derided by much of the media, dismissed by many on both sides of politics for having no clear message or purpose. Ludlam argues that the range of voices represented at the marches was a sign of potential, not weakness.

“For a fair proportion of the mainstream media — those who reported the March at all — missing the point is just an intrinsic part of the process now,” he says. “What made those protests interesting for me was the diversity of people who showed up.”

“People are switching on to the fact that their whole future is getting shafted. When people realise that they’re on their own — that the government’s not going to protect them, that the Environment Minister doesn’t give a shit about the environment — all that’s left to do is link arms. People are looking around and realising that, and we’re finding each other.”

Thoughts like these make the prospect of enduring another six years of Question Time a little easier to bear. “You sit through it for an hour, and then you leave, and you get back to work.”

When people realise that they're on their own, all that's left to do is link arms.

Two weeks after ‘Welcome to WA’ did the rounds Ludlam gave another speech: ‘Our Vision For Western Australia’. The Senate was just as empty as last time, but Ludlam had hoped, like last time, that that wouldn’t matter. “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,” Ludlam told Junkee, the Friday after he’d found online fame. And in this speech, ‘Our Vision’, he did just that.

He spoke of a state transformed into a greenie paradise of renewable energy and bike lanes; of “a field of ten thousand mirrors”, a power station that “runs in total silence, on no fuel but sunlight”; of the 1.1 million Australian homes with solar panels on their roofs, and a plan to turn Perth into the world’s first city run on 100% renewable energy. It was Big Picture stuff: Fukushima; the beleaguered island nations of the Pacific; the Wadjuk Noonyar people, on whose traditional lands the Swan River colony was founded. All very “Oh Captain my Captain”, but definitely something a little different in a Parliament relentlessly focused on the here and now.

It has about 11,300 views on YouTube — not even close to the 855,000 who watched ‘Welcome To WA’.

Whatever impact that first speech had on the final result, watching it go viral must have been nice — if only to have people pay attention for once. The hype surrounding it makes it easy to forget the guy’s been plugging away in the Senate for six years now, most of that time spent in comfortable obscurity. Ripping into Tony Abbott got people interested, but most of them didn’t stick around to see what else he might have to say.

Ludlam isn’t the only one who’s had to deal with the short attention span of the voting public. In the days leading up to the election, politicians of all stripes spent money and energy urging WA voters to put aside their frustration with having to vote yet again. It was the third election in just over twelve months for them, having gone to the polls in March to re-elect Colin Barnett as Premier. WA had the lowest voter turnout in the country at the federal election, and the parties were worried people would simply stay at home this time around, twenty dollar fine be damned.

Of particular concern for Ludlam, though, was the possibility that young people would be the biggest group to stay away. 400,000 people aged between 18 and 24 didn’t enrol to vote in the federal election — a huge number of potential votes begging for someone to come along and scoop them up.

The day before polls opened, Ludlam headed to Moana, a cafe up the road from the Greens' HQ in the city. Earlier that week he was a guest on Triple J’s Hack, and took calls from young Western Australians who wanted to broadcast their voting intentions and have a vent. One of them, a girl named Billee, caught his attention.

Billee had no intention of voting — she didn’t know any of the candidates or any of their policies, and saw no reason why she should — but when host Tom Tilley asked her if she cared about the way the country was going, she became indignant.

“Of course I care! Of course I care about it, I just don’t see the point of voting for someone I don’t know.” Ludlam took a punt: “Billee, send Triple J an email and we’ll grab a cup of coffee before the election, and you can meet one of your representatives face-to-face.”

The Moana stunt went well; he got her vote, and got to send out a happy Instagram of them eating toast to show he’s a politician who Keeps His Promises. “She had the flu; I think she would’ve much rather been at home in bed.”

Billee’s obvious frustration with the political system struck him when they spoke on the radio. “She reminded me a lot of myself fifteen or sixteen years ago; being very frustrated with how things were going, but not seeing any reason to get excited about politics,” Ludlam says.

That night, Ludlam delivered an address at His Majesty’s Theatre, delving further into the details he had touched on in that Senate speech no one watched.

WA 2.0 is Ludlam’s baby: his vision for a city and state completely transformed by the year 2029. Affordable housing, mass light rail, urban green corridors, jobs in renewable energy — you name it, WA 2.0 has a plan and a brochure and a bunch of futuristic-looking maps for it. Umpteen studies and reports and collaborations have gone into this thing — over six years of work — and on that Monday night Ludlam pitched it to a crowd of hundreds for all he’s worth. While the room was full of people obviously well-disposed towards him, perhaps the most important attendee was Billee.


A Party In Full Swing

As the count progresses and it becomes obvious the Greens have pulled it off, the 500 volunteers who’ve rocked up at the Oxford rapidly move from anxious-drinking to happy-drinking. On TVs in every corner of the garden, Antony Green is working his numbers sorcery on a touchscreen the size of a wall. He brings up a graph showing who’s done better than last time and who hasn’t, and as the red and blue lines go down and the green one goes up, up, up, the air thunders with cheers.

While the numbers will jump up and down all night, and into the coming weeks, the Greens look to have locked in at least 15% of the primary vote. It’s an upswing of more than 6% in six months.

Ludlam is loudly exhorting people not to look at the screens, but he doesn’t have to watch the results at all. He’s done more than keep his Senate seat — it’s only the fourth time a federal Greens Senator has won a quota in their own right, without having to resort to preferences. The WA Greens have been sending Senators to Canberra since 1990, when Jo Vallentine became the first, but they’ve never had a result like this.

On the ABC, Tasmanian Coalition Senator Eric Abetz looks like he’s swallowed glass. The Liberal vote has dropped by more than 5%, and the third Senate seat they won in September is at risk. It’s their worst Senate showing in WA for 25 years.

Labor’s Sam Dastyari also seems to be heartily wishing he was somewhere else. The ALP’s primary vote has collapsed to a miserable 22%, and sitting Senator Louise Pratt is on the verge of losing her seat.

Her running-mate, right-wing union powerbroker Joe Bullock, is probably the reason why. The day before the election, a video surfaced online of him giving a bizarre speech saying his own party can’t be trusted, and openly wondering whether Pratt is a lesbian. Bullock shoehorned himself into the number one spot on the Labor ticket a year ago; he’s safe to win his seat, but he might have crashed the WA Labor campaign into a tree in the process.

It is too early to tell, but if Pratt does eventually win, it will probably be because of Greens preferences. The party deliberately preferenced her far higher than Bullock, and they’ve gotten enough votes over and above quota that their surplus might decide it.

At the time of writing, the two parties with almost 90% of seats in Parliament — Labor and the Coalition — have scraped together just over 55% of the vote between them. They’ll blame voter apathy and a low turnout, but the Greens are more than 30,000 votes up on last time. If people were meant to stay away, it seems they missed the memo.

In the corner of the garden, Ludlam pulls discreetly on his beer, looks around at the buoyant crowd and shouts over all the noise they’re making.

“What I love the most about this is that there are a heap of kids here who’ve never really been involved in politics before. Their first experience is gonna be that if you work your arse off and you’re clever, you can win. That was the start that I got, years ago. It’s a good feeling.”