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One year into his senate stint, Ricky Muir has developed into a confident speaker, a popular figure with unions and someone the ALP could eye as a future candidate. By Sophie Morris.

Senator Ricky Muir’s new-found confidence

Ricky Muir giving his maiden speech in the senate in March.
Credit: AAP IMAGE

When Ricky Muir meets Bill Shorten, the two Victorians have plenty to discuss. The senate crossbencher has told the opposition leader he had been a Labor voter in the past, but fears the party has lost touch with the working class.

“I’ve only met the prime minister a couple of times,” says the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party senator. “I would say we have a working relationship, nothing more. Mr Shorten I’ve met with significantly more.”

There is one topic the two men are yet to discuss, but it comes up after an interview with The Saturday Paper to mark his first year in the senate: could Ricky Muir, former sawmill worker and committed trade unionist, join Labor?

His answer is ambiguous.

“While I can’t rule it out completely, it is unlikely that I would join,” says Muir. “I never agreed with a two-party system and do not see myself being the type of person to vote on preconceived party ideas rather than on what is in the best interest of my state, or against my conscience or the people of Australia.”

From a politician more practised in doublespeak, that sort of answer could easily be read as an invitation to the ALP to recruit him. He says it has not been canvassed with anyone in the Labor Party, but he’s evidently given it some thought, amid speculation about a possible double dissolution election, which could curtail his six-year term.

It is not an absurd idea. A senior ALP source in Victoria says Muir is “much underrated” and there is common ground, including on industrial relations and economics. “In the case of a double-d, where the [senate ticket] positions have not yet been determined, it would be viable to at least enter into a conversation about it,” says the source. “It would be a conversation worth having.”

When Muir won the senate lottery, with just 0.51 per cent of the primary vote, there was an assumption he would favour the conservative side of politics.

The theory was that the revhead Gippsland timber worker and father of five, at that stage unemployed, must be a redneck bogan. A train-wreck television interview before he took his senate seat reinforced the view he was out of his depth and would be controlled by Clive Palmer, with whom he had signed a memorandum of understanding.

Muir now has the good grace and humour to say that cringe-worthy interview was a blessing in disguise: “It set the bar so low, I could only ever rise.”

He has spent the past year confounding expectations. It took him eight months to make his official first speech in the senate, but it was a corker, appealing directly to those who feel let down by a political culture in which promises are made to be broken. “Do not judge me by what I say; judge me by what I do,” he said.

It was not a one-off. Generally, his contributions in the senate have been thoughtful and worth listening to.

Unsurprisingly, he opposed the petrol tax rise, but he has also agonised over the plight of asylum seekers, spoken of his own “soul-destroying” experience of unemployment, defended senate processes and supported penalty rates and same-sex marriage.

“I am a family man. I ride dirt bikes, camp and four-wheel drive. I race cars and love getting my hands dirty. I like to live my life without judgement, and I return that favour,” he said during a recent senate motion on same-sex marriage, arguing, too, that legalising it could reduce mental health problems in the bush.

“When it comes to human rights and asylum seekers, I want to look at these issues compassionately,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “I believe that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.” In parliament’s final week, he opposed the fast-tracking of legislation to shield offshore detention from legal challenge.

A self-described “centralist”, Muir is a petrol-head with a bleeding heart. He is far from being a Palmer proxy or a Coalition stooge. “Traditionally, I would be seen as a Labor voter and perhaps I was, but they need to remember who they traditionally stood for,” says Muir, a former shop steward with the forestry division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.

Muir is a fan of renewable energy, but split from Labor and the Greens to support the burning of wood waste from logged native forests as a source of energy in the renewable energy target (RET). On this, he says, Labor put green rhetoric ahead of jobs.

“They seem to be trying to appease the left side of the Greens a little bit too much,” he says. “All they’re going to do is get the nod of approval from people who are going to vote Green anyway. Their traditional voter base are people like myself, paid-up union members working in forestry, working in manufacturing, and they should not lose touch with that.”

In senate debate on the RET bill, Muir cited CFMEU correspondence urging him to back the change in support of timber industry jobs and describing Labor’s opposition to it as “extremely disappointing and unfair”. It is worth noting that Labor was also bucketed by the Greens for failing to prevent the change.

Muir’s critique of Labor mirrors some of the themes of a report commissioned by the CFMEU’s forestry division after then opposition leader Mark Latham enraged timber workers by agreeing at the 2004 election to lock up more native forests.

The Brompton Report: A New Approach for Labor argued that the propensity of Labor’s “latte set” to appease the Greens was alienating the party from its traditional base.

“The people running the Labor Party machine – the apparatchiks, advisers and politicians – are no longer attuned to the basic aspirations of honest working men and women but sing to a completely misguided (and electorally wrong) tune that seeks to appease the unappeasable,” wrote Trevor Smith, the then national secretary of CFMEU’s forestry and furnishing products division.

“They have fallen for Green propaganda (consistently found to be inaccurate and/or embellished) and, worst of all, they actually believe these policies are in the best interests of the country.”

The CFMEU’s current national secretary, Michael O’Connor, says he knows nothing of the motoring enthusiasts’ party but, if there is a double dissolution, he wants to see Muir re-elected. “We’ll be telling our members that, on a number of issues, he’s stood up for their rights at work and their job security,” says O’Connor. “From the start, he has taken his role very seriously.”

Indeed, if the recent debate on the RET is anything to go by, Muir might be more use to the union outside the ALP than within it.

Voting Labor

Muir’s admission he used to vote Labor, just weeks after new Greens leader Richard Di Natale said that he, too, came from a Labor-voting background, highlights the ALP’s dilemma as it risks losing votes to both the left and the right.

When asked what turned him off Labor, Muir says the two-party system has not resonated with him for a long time, citing broken promises on both sides, but notably on the carbon tax.

As for his views on possible reforms to senate voting, to prevent upstart outsiders such as him securing a seat with clever preference deals, he insists the system is not broken and should not be messed with.

“There’s been over 120-odd bills that have passed since the new senate sat, about 25 that are in committees – they’re not rejected, they’re in committee – and about 16 that have failed,” he says. “To me, that literally highlights that the senate is doing its job, because it’s not supposed to be a rubber stamp.”

As we talk, I’m struck by how much more confident and comfortable he is than when I interviewed him in his frantic first week in the senate last year. It has made a big difference that, after shedding all the staff who started with him, including “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery and AMEP founders Keith and Sharyn Littler, he is now surrounded by advisers he trusts.

As parliament headed towards winter break last week, Muir and his staff were workshopping a tricky problem. An opinion piece he had written, warning of a “slippery slope” if the government drums up fear to pass its citizenship-stripping counterterrorism laws, had generated a twitterstorm of approval and hundreds of online comments, many expressing surprise at how thoughtful Muir was.

Muir, his wife Kerrie-Anne, who now volunteers in his office, and his chipper and efficient staffer Jonathan Sharman, a lawyer who used to work at the Australian Building and Construction Commission (they have “interesting” conversations on industrial relations), were trying to devise an appropriate 140-character response.

They contemplated retweeting one of the messages, along with a tongue-in-cheek apology for surprising people. But Kerrie-Anne, a sensible woman, was reluctant to retweet messages from an unknown source. Eventually, they settled on a formulation that was fittingly earnest and was, in turn, rapidly retweeted. “Overwhelming response to my article in @GuardianAus today. Thanks for the kind comments (and apologies)”.

Muir may not have yet mastered the art of the cheeky tweet, but he can give a good speech, he thinks carefully about what he says and he’s increasingly confident in saying it.

A CFMEU delegation of burly, bearded, blue-collar blokes, including O’Connor and some of Muir’s former co-workers, sat in the senate gallery for his first speech. Later, they presented him with a framed copy of the first speech delivered by a past secretary of the Victorian Timber Workers Union, a man who would rise to great heights in the ALP and reach the peak of Australian politics. His name was John Curtin, Australia’s 14th prime minister.

With such encouragement, it’s no wonder Muir, as he warms to his senate role and considers whether there is a future in it, has given some thought to his relationship with Labor.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 4, 2015 as "Muir de force". Subscribe here.

Sophie Morris
is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.