Widely distributed future: Ludlam's unfinished business

The Australian parliament's unlikely cyberpunk fights for his future.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam's final parliamentary plea to voters in Western Australia before April's historic half-Senate by-election might have resonated with many across the country, but Ludlam is a Western Australian senator first and foremost.

Image: Screenshot by Josh Taylor/ZDNet

The speech, likely to be his last before the senator re-contests his seat at the by-election, was delivered to an almost-empty Senate chamber last week and has now garnered over 600,000 views on YouTube in just a week. It has earned him more than a few new fans, as well as a few new foes.

He was derided as "unhinged" and "extreme" by conservative commentators Chris Kenny and Andrew Bolt.

Given such a description, people might expect to tune into the speech to find a fire-brand radical preaching hatred of capitalism and national security. But as his parliamentary opposites hurl claims at each other, ranging from suffering a severe bout of "Conrovianism" or simply being a "demented plutocrat", Ludlam appears as the cool, calm, 44-year-old senator dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, and purple tie, speaking slowly, softly, all without missing a beat.

In his polite style, Ludlam railed against what he saw as the "racist" and "homophobic" policies of the new government under Prime Minister Tony Abbott, but admitted that this has likely encouraged more than a few voters to consider the Greens as an alternative.

"As for the premeditated destruction of the NBN and Attorney-General George Brandis' degrading capitulation to the surveillance state when confronted with the unlawful actions of the US NSA — even the internet is turning green, 'for the win'," he said.

"Geeks and coders, network engineers, and gamers would never have voted Green in a million years without the blundering and technically illiterate assistance of your leadership team. For this, I can only thank you."

While Ludlam credits Abbott with helping drive up Greens votes among geeks, it is among geeks where Ludlam has always found many of his supporters. He is, after all, the first MP to get Dogecoin into Hansard.

Ludlam was born in New Zealand in 1970, and spent much of his early life "in the back of a van" driving across India, the UK, and Africa with his parents, until settling in Perth at the age of eight. He obtained a bachelor's degree in design from Curtin University, and after working as a graphic designer became involved in politics with the Greens in 2001, working as a staffer for Greens state MP Robin Chapple and then as communications officer for federal Greens Senator Rachel Siewert until he was swept into parliament in the 2007 election.

In contrast to his most recent speech, Ludlam's first speech to parliament has a little over 1,000 views on YouTube since it was uploaded back in 2008, but the two speeches share the similar theme of a call to arms.

In the 2008 speech, Ludlam talked about new technologies that would improve human life, including world-class broadband, and he quoted his favourite author, science-fiction writer William Gibson, stating that: "The future is here. It's just not widely distributed yet."

October 2008 was what Ludlam said was a "turning point" for him in the parliament, where the senator questioned the Department of Communications and then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy at length during an Estimates hearing on the Labor government's proposed mandatory internet filtering system.

Ludlam gleaned that at the time, the Australian Communications and Media Authority had already put together a "black list" of content the agency would like blocked in Australia, and lab trials and live trials of the filter were already in planning.

The senator described the exchange with Conroy as "disturbing", and while he labelled Estimates as "boring" to the general public, he said at the time that it is crucial for democracy.

"The internal apparatus of the whole machine [of government] is laid bare and open to careful scrutiny, whereupon you realise it's all held together by human beings doing their best to keep their piece of this vast thing from coming off the rails."

As public opposition to the filtering proposal grew, Ludlam's public profile increased dramatically as one of the few voices in parliament speaking against what he said was censorship of the internet. The first-term senator suddenly became the Greens communications spokesperson tasked with taking up a fight against Conroy, whose appetite for heated political debate earned him the nickname "Factional Dalek" within his own party.

While some may have turned to the more libertarian wing of the Coalition for support, the Opposition spent two years on the sidelines undecided on the filter, while Labor held strongly to the filtering policy before deferring it prior to the 2010 election, and ultimately dumping it in late 2012.

In that time, Ludlam honed his skills for bringing scrutiny to the government through the Senate. In witnessing how Estimates could be used to pry information from often reluctant public servants, Ludlam subsequently used the power granted to the Senate committees to seek out information and evidence across a wide range of topics and issues, from the National Broadband Network (NBN) to copyright reform, to trade negotiations, to the government's relationship with the United States and its persecution of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, to government policy over mandatory data retention, and, most recently, the rise of the surveillance state detailed through the release of NSA documents by whistleblower Edward Snowden.

It is something that the public servants have caught onto. In the most recent Estimates hearing, Ludlam's frequent adversary in such hearings, Attorney-General's Department secretary Roger Wilkins, refused to answer any questions in person on whether the department has been working on data retention plans since the 2013 election.

"I was just comprehensively fobbed off by the Attorney-General's Department. [It was] just comically timed several hours apart, pretending they have no idea what is going on in their department," Ludlam told ZDNet in a phone interview.

Through the parliamentary broadcasting system, Ludlam's office has been able to upload this, and almost all of his recent speeches and interactions in parliament to YouTube. After last week's YouTube video went viral, some joked that he may have secured votes in the more socially progressive suburbs in eastern states, but might still be doomed to fail out west.

Ludlam doesn't buy into the claim.

"We do actually have the internet in Western Australia," he said.

"This peculiar thing is that I may have pushed my personal profile up in Fitzroy and Surry Hills, but I'm still headed for the slaughterhouse in April. We do actually have the internet here."

To his chagrin, Ludlam's interest in WikiLeaks, and assistance for the organisation through the parliament, is in part the reason why he has been forced to go back to Western Australian voters in April. The WikiLeaks party preferenced Nationals senate candidates ahead of Ludlam in the September 2013 election in a move that hindered the senator's chance of getting returned to his Senate spot.

In the initial vote count of the flow of preferences between the parties on the Senate ballot paper, Ludlam missed out on retaining his seat by 14 votes, with the last two of the six senate places in WA going to Labor's Louise Pratt and Palmer United Party candidate Zhenya Wang.

Ludlam appealed the result, and the Australian Electoral Commission (AEC) held a recount, where Ludlam won his seat. However, in the process, the AEC discovered that it had lost 1,375 Senate ballot papers. The High Court of Australia, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, last month ordered a fresh by-election to be held in WA for April 5.

For Ludlam, he said that the calling of a new election was a moment of relief.

"It was five and a half months where we've been zig-zagging between hope and disaster and feeling like a lot of it was out of our hands," he said.

"It's been a massive distraction, I assume not just for me, but for Louise [Pratt], and everyone caught up in this. So it was a relief when we get a deadline and we can just get to work."

Party negotiators in the background are again working towards a preference deal between the parties that may ultimately determine Ludlam's fate. He is staying out of the process, but is wary of how Labor may ultimately preference minor parties ahead of him to keep him out.

"One of my favourite things about my job is that I don't do preference negotiations; it is done by the party, so I don't have an inside view of who is doing what to who," he said.

"The story in play at the moment, that Labor is proposing to do a lucky dip and possibly repeat their Steven Fielding experiment, is that we need to change the system."

He said that preference deals can lead to election results that "bear no resemblance to the intention of voters", and said it remains one piece of reform that he would like to see done.

"I find the whole preference thing is just a massive distraction from the actual election campaign. If I could have one electoral reform it would be to abolish group voting tickets and put all the preference negotiators out of business," he said.

In many ways, the stakes in this election are lower than they were for Ludlam last time. The lack of a House of Representatives vote means all eyes are on the Senate, and Ludlam said he believes local issues will be key to Western Australian voters headed back to voting booths.

"Federal election campaigns tend to be dominated fairly heavily by east coast political dynamics, and that's going to be a much weaker gravitational pull this time, where Western Australian issues are going to be what I think shapes the politics," he said.

Also running in his favour is that dissatisfaction with the former Labor government that drove out protest votes is no longer a factor.

"There was a massive protest vote against years of internal Labor party dysfunction and leadership toxicity, which I think has largely abated, and the anti-Labor thing I think has swung back, and people have realised how much damage Abbott and his team have been able to do even in the last six months," he said.

"Things feel like they've swung sharply back the other way."

As he believes the by-election will be fought on local issues, he said he will be focusing on renewable energy in Western Australia, affordable housing, and the availability of broadband.

"The NBN, that is the one that is likely to have direct political resonance, because I think the penny has dropped here in WA just how badly we've been conned, and the rollout just isn't proceeding as people have been told," he said.

He said that due to high labour costs in WA from the mining boom, the state was put "at the back of the queue" in terms of rolling out the fibre network, and now, with the new government reassessing rolling out fibre to the premises and considering switching to fibre to the node, he said it is critical that the state continue to get the full fibre rollout.

"To me, it feels like the kind of infrastructure that can build resilience into regional towns after the mining boom has gone. If you've got fast telecommunications in Port Hedland, you can potentially still run a small business serving clients in Collingwood or Beijing; it doesn't matter what's happening in the mining industry," he said.

"But what, in a way, is doubly tragic, is that the network has been effectively stood down and wrecked right at a time where I think we could really use it."

While local issues remain front and centre of his re-election platform, Ludlam has promised that he will keep focusing on technology issues should he be successful in securing another six years in parliament, starting with his current inquiry on the extent of government surveillance through the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act.

"It'll stay very close to the top of my list, principally because there aren't a lot of other voices in there, particularly on the surveillance stuff. Labor is completely silent."

Ludlam does have praise for new Shadow Communications Minister Jason Clare, however.

"On the NBN and on the engineering side, I actually rate Jason Clare, and I think he's doing a really good job and he's on his brief," he said.

"But on the underside of the communications and technology portfolio, there aren't a lot of voices in the mix, so I look forward to be able to continue to do it in that space."

In the countdown to April 5, Ludlam said he will be spending as much time as possible in his home state.

"The last thing that I think we need is people on the east coast telling West Australians how to run their affairs. We have enough of that already. I want to be home, I don't want to be three timezones away in parliament," he said.

While his speech has gained him some new-found popularity, Ludlam is ultimately indifferent about whether it will lead to victory in four weeks.

"It is absolutely an open question whether a Twitter follower, or a like on YouTube will result in a vote," he said.

"In the meantime, we're just going to get out there and do the work."

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