Sleeves rolled up and hands clasped behind his head, Ricky Muir looks remarkably relaxed for someone who has just thwarted the government.
It’s only his third day in the Senate. He has just sided with Labor and the Greens to prevent the Coalition gagging debate on its carbon tax repeal, so he can try to salvage the Australian Renewable Energy Agency. Fittingly, in this colosseum he has just entered, the agency he is defending is better known as ARENA.
“It’s a fantastic job, isn’t it?” the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party senator says in his new and as-yet unadorned parliamentary office. “I’ve always had a keen interest in renewables, as far back as I can remember. Every kid is born a scientist. You run water through a wheel and see it spinning and wonder ‘Can it generate power in some way?’”
His larrikin streak is expected – he jokes that Street Machine and Australian 4WD Action magazines are his most trusted source of news – but most surprising is his earnestness.
Muir reveals he is keeping a diary, making notes each day of this grand adventure.
“Maybe, just maybe, it will end up [published] out there one day,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “It’s going to take me forever to fill in today.”
It is only mid-morning on Wednesday as we speak, and already he has publicly split from the Palmer United Party, redefining expectations of their voting alliance, and stunning the government, which had counted on his support for the gag motion. “I’m certainly nobody’s puppet,” he says. “I’m my own man. We’re an independent party.”
It is the first of what will be a week of shocks for the government, as its plans to deliver on the Coalition’s central election promise – of axing the carbon tax – founder on the reality of an unpredictable senate.
What was supposed to be a triumphant week for the Coalition spiralled into farce. The upshot, by Thursday, was that the senate rejected the government’s carbon tax repeal and sent it back to the lower house for further amendment. It will likely pass next week.
Palmer, who had been holding court just outside the senate chamber through the drama, seemed to be dictating terms to the government. The government’s tactic of bringing on a vote backfired spectacularly as it became clear it would fail. “Gobsmacked,” said a senior Liberal as it all unravelled. The government’s other promises, to stop the boats and fix the budget, were also in strife.
As Wednesday unfolds, Muir joins other crossbenchers in blocking the repeal of income tax cuts associated with the carbon tax, blasting an ever bigger hole in the federal budget.
Later in the day, he reconciles with the PUP, ditching his amendment to stop the funding cuts to ARENA, which supports research into renewable energy. Under the deal, ARENA survives, albeit with reduced funding.
In offices all around Parliament House, people are reassessing the man who had been pigeonholed as a petrol-head and a PUP proxy after being elected with just 0.5 per cent of the vote.
In his office, Muir is reflecting on what it’s like to be unemployed, to scrimp and save to pay the bills, to forgo new tyres on the car in order to make a mortgage payment.
He was out of work when he was elected, after losing his job during a downturn at the sawmill where he was employed. “I lost my job. The election happened. The media made me look like some kind of unemployed bogan, I suppose, and then I was back into work. It was only a little period,” he says.
Throughout his working life, Muir has moved from one manual job to the next, producing upholstery for cars for seven years, working on farms and, most recently, in sawmills. He became manager in one mill and was a union representative in another.
What he lacks in formal qualifications – he is coy about whether he graduated from high school – he has made up for with willingness to roll up his sleeves. “I just get in there and get my hands dirty,” he says.
He’s never been out of work for long and it’s a point of pride with him that he has never claimed the dole, always managing to budget for the lean periods and live off savings.
Muir hints that these experiences will influence his approach to policy, expressing empathy for those who would be vulnerable to budget measures that would withhold support from unemployed youth for six months.
“There’s a lot of concern around this budget. I’m certainly one person who’s been there, done that. I’ve been unemployed. I’ve lived at the low- to middle-income level,” he says. “If I was not in this situation and was under 30 and were to lose my job for any reason, I’d be very worried.”
Of course, he need not worry about his own employment for the next six years, unless the government tires of this obstreperous senate and risks a double dissolution election.
It was easy to interpret the awkward snippets on Channel Seven in June, of a tongue-tied Muir reminding himself to breathe and interrupting the television interview to request a drink of water, as evidence he was not up to the task. But perhaps it was instead the sign of a desire to get it right, to not stuff up as he enters the big league, a realisation he has much to learn.
“I’ve waited nine or 10 months to get here,” says Muir. “It is a big learning curve but it’s tremendously exciting. As far as being overwhelming? Not really. It’s more that I’m honoured and excited.”
On election night last September, the 33-year-old father of five was cradling his infant son in the glow of a backyard fire outside his home in the rural hamlet of Denison in Gippsland, about two-and-a-half hours’ drive east of Melbourne. At 11pm, he got a call to say he had been elected.
It’s an understatement to say his family was surprised. Politics had not featured heavily in Muir’s upbringing. One of his early impressions of politicians was John Howard’s visit to nearby Sale in 1996, to argue for gun controls following the Port Arthur massacre. “The only reason that stood out for me is that he had a bullet proof vest on. I thought, ‘You’re in the country. Relax.’”
Yet his apolitical parents could not hide their pride. The nation was somewhat shocked that this unpolished outsider had secured entry to parliament with just 17,000 votes. Such is the arcane senate voting system, and Muir had in his corner a man who understands it better than most.
Glenn Druery, the so-called “preference whisperer”, had engineered clever deals to ensure Muir was elected, despite attracting fewer votes than other minor parties, including Family First. Druery is now on his staff, along with the founder of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party, Keith Littler, who contested a senate spot in Queensland. Littler’s wife, Sharyn, is also on Team Muir, as are former New South Wales state MP Peter Breen and Sarah Mennie, a former adviser to independent MP Nick Xenophon. Druery and Littler have been constant presences by Muir’s side this week.
Since the election, glimpses of Muir have been scarce. There was a brief appearance in October, signing a memorandum of understanding with Palmer, committing the two parties “to work together and where it is practicable to vote together in the senate”.
YouTube yielded some colourful vignettes: the kangaroo poo fight, the tips on parenting, the footage of his eight-year-old daughter doing burnouts. But the man himself remained a mystery until he drove to Canberra, with family in tow, to be sworn in.
As a teenager, Muir’s first car was a Ford XD Fairmont Ghia. Since then, there have been four-wheel drives, dirt bikes, street cars and drag racer. But there’s something special about your first set of wheels.
“The first of the square-shaped Fords,” he sighs. “Being a Fairmont Ghia, it had a few luxury items. Nice velour interior. It was a nice car. Unfortunately, it didn’t last very long.”
He’s eclectic in his motoring tastes, even acknowledging an interest in the technology behind electric cars manufactured by Tesla, but adding the caveat that “as long as I can still have fuel to drive my four-wheel drive around, I’m pretty happy”.
For Muir, cars represent the chance to indulge his passion for “tinkering around”, but they are also about family and taking the kids camping. He chuckles about a Griswoldian family vacation, when things kept going wrong.
Cars have even shaped his relationship with his “marvellous – and you’d better print that” wife, Kerrie-Anne. They met when she was 17 and he was 23, with a five-year-old son from a previous relationship. They would go on to have another four children and he insists parenting just gets easier as the family grows.
“When Kerrie and I got together, she wanted to travel the world but I said, ‘We’ll get a four-wheel drive and see the sights in our own backyard,’” he says.
Muir first discovered the Motoring Enthusiast Party on social media and joined about a year ago, not long before the election campaign. One of the ironies of this story is that the issues that drew him to the group are not really matters for the federal government at all.
“I’m a passionate outdoors person,” he says. “I regularly see campgrounds shut down or regulations brought in that affect four-wheel driving and I started to think I really might be able to do something.”
Now that he is one of eight crucial crossbenchers in the senate – the government needs support from six of them to pass legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens – his vote may prove decisive on issues that have very little to do with these passions.
His party has broad policy positions on roads and vehicles, including enhanced driver education. The party’s website says that to conduct its senate review role, it does not need fixed views on other issues but will judge them against its “core values”. These 20 values include mateship, robust national security, a sense of family, lower taxation, minimal government interference and an “immediate region foreign policy focus”.
Muir reserves judgement on tricky topics. For instance, on the treatment of asylum seekers, he says: “I wouldn’t lean to making comment either way, but it’s pretty important so I’ll be paying a hell of a lot of attention.”
Since September, Muir has acquired a suit and a passport. In May, he took his first trip overseas, joining the three PUP senators – Jacqui Lambie, Glenn Lazarus and Dio Wang – on a team-bonding excursion to the United States.
Palmer was not pleased when Muir broke ranks on ARENA. As their divergent views became apparent on Tuesday, the PUP leader strode over to the senate to try to make sense of what was happening.
Amid this confusion, Muir was due to meet Bill Shorten. Druery rang the Labor leader’s office to cancel. It was the second time Muir’s camp had stood up Shorten, and the staffer who took the message was apparently abrupt.
“Just don’t reschedule then,” shrugs Littler.
“They need us more than we need them,” agrees Druery.
Druery is a political tragic from way back and is relishing the drama of Muir’s balance-of-power role and his part in orchestrating it. And he’s right: the major parties do need to talk to Muir and his fellow crossbenchers, as the government learned this week in the most painful fashion.
The man they will meet is modest, but he is also genuine. “I am just an ordinary bloke and I really hope to represent Victoria and my constituency to the best of my ability,” he says. “If you can say that, I’ll be very happy.”