Greens senator Scott Ludlam on spying, terrorism and the bigger hidden threats. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Man in black Scott Ludlam keeps calm and carries on

At Melbourne’s Southern Cross Station, the senator waits at the top of the yellow staircase. Only the day before was it gift-wrapped in its public service announcement. On each yellow step is the crest of Victoria Police and a hotline. In the middle of the climb is a clutch of steps with thick, black strokes – meaningless while striding them, but comprehensible from across Spencer Street. It spells out the state’s new mantra: “If you see something, say something.” To yellow’s symbology of optimism and cowardice, we can now add mindfulness in the age of terror. 

It is because of these stairs that I’ve asked Greens senator Scott Ludlam here. The Friday before we meet, the state government quietly launched its public anti-terrorism campaign, comprising yellow placards, banners and stickers draped and plastered at public transport sites. Leaning against a railing, Ludlam seems relaxed. He hasn’t seen anything. Not yet. 

“Senator,” I greet him.

“Scott,” he corrects me and offers his hand. “Are you feeling safer?” Scott’s wearing his uniform – black suit jacket over a black shirt, jeans and scuffed boots. He’s in Melbourne to lend his voice to the Victorian Greens campaign – the election is fast approaching – and after strolling through the train station with me he’s off to a conference of hackers. “They’re interesting people,” he says. “I’ve been the past three years now.” He hasn’t been back home to Perth in three weeks.

Before we walk down to the platforms, we order coffee from a cafe on the station’s concourse. We take a seat outside. Ludlam has been a vocal critic of the government’s proposed anti-terrorism legislation, especially that which criminalises the receipt and publication of intelligence reports by journalists. Security, freedom and terror are on his mind. “There was a John le Carré column I read a couple of weeks ago, published in the British papers. He’s a former spy himself, and le Carré argued that being invited into the intelligence world is immensely seductive for politicians. There’s a thrill in possessing privileged information, and in the push and pull of that world. And sometimes they get it right. Sometimes they’re detecting and disrupting real threats.”

Ludlam stares off towards the city, while commuters stroll past us. About 25,000 passengers will use this station today. He takes a sip of coffee. “I do have respect for these professionals. They’re not trying to solve a crime that has happened. They’re trying to prevent it. They’re trying to detect thought crimes. It would keep you up at night, the question of ‘have I done enough to prevent something awful?’ ” 

I echo his sympathy, and ask Ludlam if he agrees whether it’s natural for intelligence chiefs – personally responsible for the prevention of terrorism – to err illiberally on the side of security. “Yes, I do. And I do sympathise with that. It’s a great burden. But our politicians who govern them must balance those instincts, however natural they are. The work of intelligence officers must be contrasted with the craven opportunism of politicians trying to look tough.” 

I wonder aloud if we’re a country soldered by the stiff upper lip, the fabled stoicism of the Brits in the Blitz. “Keep calm and carry on,” they said. I wonder what would happen to us if an attack occurred, if we’re capable of a tough and practical sort of fatalism. “I think probably the opposite is true,” Ludlam confesses. “I don’t like to think what would happen if the worst happened.”

We finish our coffee and walk across the pedestrian bridge to the escalators that will bear us down to the platforms. Before we do, Ludlam points out the new National Australia Bank building that now partially obscures Etihad Stadium in Melbourne’s Docklands. It’s an ostentatiously triangular design, all coloured glass and steel beams. “I love the architecture here,” he tells me. “You wouldn’t see that in Perth.” 

We descend the staircase and note, with bemusement, that there are far more banners advertising a gambling agency than the anti-terrorism slogan. They unfurl from the high beams. Everything about Ludlam is calm – his tone, the volume of his speech, his lithe movements. There are politicians who radiate manic energy or self-possession. Ludlam is not one of them. Each movement and comment is measured, made in a voice now expunged of its native Kiwi accent. 

We walk the length of platforms 11 and 12. The commuters don’t appear alarmed, nor do they seem to recognise the senator. The escalator on the opposite end of the platform takes us up to a busy concourse. As we step off, we see a store stuffed with sugary, gelatinous jewels. “The diabetes threat is high here,” I say.

Ludlam points to the nearby Spanish doughnut shop. “So is the cholesterol threat.” 

It quickly becomes clear that much greater threats than terrorism – obesity and gambling, say – are being happily promoted among the hive of commuters. “It’s not that there’s no threat of terror out there,” Ludlam says. “But this government is turning the heat up on it disproportionately.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 1, 2014 as "Keeping calm, carrying on".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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