Scott Ludlam V The Wild West


Last night in Perth, a crowd gathered in His Majesty’s Theatre to watch Scott Ludlam speak about the Greens’ vision for Western Australia: WA 2.0. There were diagrams, maps, graphs, numbers and Machiavelli quotes about the lot of the reformer: this was, in Ludlam’s words, an evening of “long form” rather than soundbite.

Despite the detailed, wonkish exposition of the need for a closed-loop economy (with renewable inputs and biodegradable outputs) and the discussion of possible alternatives to Perth’s urban sprawl, this was still recognisably a campaign event.

Balloons and green triangles were plentiful and activists urged attendees to sign up to email lists and donate cash. There was, as the star speaker reiterated, a real “sense of urgency” about this Saturday’s half-senate vote.

Singer-songwriter Abbe May opened the event with a song and a speech; disavowing her former cynicism about politics, she described Ludlam as “a great leader for WA”. Lollies branded “Scott Rocks” were handed out and a variety of Ludlam t-shirts were on sale, several representing the Senator’s famous hair. It felt almost like a gig, and indeed Ludlam also DJ'd at a local club last Saturday night.

In an interview last Friday, Ludlam fielded questions about the “cult of Ludlam”, pronouncing himself uncomfortable with it. He expressed a preference for “toiling away quietly in obscurity”. Moreover, he suggested that celebrity could obscure important work, citing Julian Assange as an example (“people know more about his socks that they do about what was in the state department cables”).

What was left unsaid, of course, was that the election will be a tight race, and if it takes a cult of personality to get another Green across the line, so be it.

Ludlam’s presentation set out some of the challenges facing Western Australia — the south-west regions of which, Ross Garnaut announced yesterday, are the parts of the country most vulnerable to climate change.

Ludlam spoke of the irreparable damage done to a biodiversity hot spot, of our overreliance on the fortunes of the Chinese economy, of a housing crisis, homelessness, poverty and Indigenous incarceration rates.

A major focus was our economy (which currently “only knows how to double or die”): Ludlam emphasised the need to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and lauded the enormous potential of renewable energy as exemplified in the “Solar Goldfields” region.

He showed the audience a model for a “transit city” approach that could improve on Perth’s sprawl and allow the city to grow without impacting on the bushland that remains and described the potential of sustainable, cheap urban housing (“because we can’t all live in an eco-village in Margaret River”). Beyond the more big-picture items, Ludlam sketched out, in effect, the kind of city many of us wish Perth could be: a place with light rail and bicycle paths, a sort of second Melbourne with more congenial weather.

What makes this hopeful vision so noteworthy is simply that it counters the standard narrative about Western Australia: that the state is imbued with some special rugged quality and that that colonial words like “frontier” or “pioneer” remain applicable here (how often do stories about WA politics use the phrase “wild west”?).

The mining boom is of course a big part of this narrative, and the sheer dumb luck of the presence of mineral reserves within state boundaries almost seems to be taken as an achievement in itself. In the tellings of some politicians and journalists, the mineral sector is indistinguishable from the rest of the state; hence Tony Abbott’s line that “the mining tax and the carbon tax are anti-Western Australian taxes”.

As Claire Jones wrote over at The Conversation recently, one gets the impression that people see WA as “one great mine site, the Kalgoorlie Super Pit on growth hormones. A huge gaping hole on one side of the country filled with giant-sized Tonka trucks”.

Linked to the idea of WA as a craggy landscape of venture capitalists, of course, is the notion that the state was uniquely hard done by by federation. In a mass mail-out letter touting for votes for PUP, Clive Palmer writes: “For years Western Australia has been carrying the rest of the nation on its back”, giving rise to questions about what his electorate in Queensland might make of this analysis.

Yesterday, perhaps feeling this approach had been overly subtle, Palmer announced that “the Liberal Party and the Labor Party keep on raping Western Australia for all its GST”. There have been skilful rebuttals of such arguments (see for instance this one from ACTU economist Matt Cowgill) but they have continued resilience. That the Greens’ stated vision for WA seems to lack this victimhood theme is, frankly, refreshing.

The Abbott government has gotten off to a rocky start: it’s dropping in the polls and the Greens are of course not the only ones hoping that voters prevent the government gaining the balance of power in the Senate.

Labor’s campaign plays to its strengths on health and education: in his campaign launch speech, Bill Shorten warned that “if the Senate becomes a rubber stamp for Tony Abbott, he will…cut Medicare, he will cut hospitals, he will cut school funding, he will cut penalty rates and working conditions”. Yesterday Shorten addressed a rally against the Barnett state government’s cuts to education funding, describing them as “shameful”.

Alannah MacTiernan, the Member for Perth, argued that voters opposed budget cutbacks because we “don't support that whole ‘get out of the way’ agenda – that whole agenda that says the government won't get in there, roll up its sleeves and actually work for jobs, investment and tackle the hard issues but have a mantra of just cutting”.

If you listen carefully, this almost sounds like a case being made against neoliberalism, and it’s promising (notwithstanding Guy Rundle’s gloomy prediction earlier this week that Labor would inevitably screw up its chance to “forge a politics of universalism and communitarianism that suddenly sweeps away the Libs”).

As Jonathan Green notes, “there is an inherent paradox for a government whose main ideologically-driven purpose is to work assiduously for a diminished role for…government”. The Opposition looks set to chip away at this theme: Australians are accustomed to having governments that do things.

Nevertheless, the ALP has greater difficulty providing an alternative precisely because it is implicated in so much of the growth-fetishising approach Ludlam critiques; the mining tax the Greens champion is that which was originally proposed in the Henry Review and was jettisoned by Labor in 2010 in a series of events doomed to eternal analysis.

In closing last night, Ludlam counselled the audience not to trust politicians to fix the serious problems he discussed, warning that “voting a middle-aged white guy into the Senate won’t do it all”. The audience knew this of course, but in the darkened theatre there was a sense that for a few more days, in this increasingly troubling time, people just wanted to believe.

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