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He is popular and has a burning desire to champion equality and opportunity. But while Senator Scott Ludlam is a poster boy for the Greens, he’s no career politician. By Rebecca Varcoe.

Scott Ludlam and the appeal of the Australian Greens

West Australian senator Scott Ludlam.
Credit: RICHARD MILNES / ALAMY

I met Scott Ludlam halfway between Elizabeth and Exhibition streets, after giving him the wrong address for our coffee meeting. He was in Melbourne for the Greens National Conference and, though I was flustered, he was as affable as his recent GQ interview would have had people believe him to be.

His first interview since returning from leave due to mental health issues, the men’s magazine profile looked at topics ranging from hair care products to LSD and marijuana use. Ludlam’s candour on the latter topics has certainly not made him popular in conservative circles, though you’ve got to wonder if in the current landscape he could ever be or want to be. 

The profile shone a light on the senator’s seeming ill-ease at being a political celebrity of sorts – albeit a senator being interviewed in a magazine that would name him one of “Australia’s sexiest politicians” and repeatedly ask him how he kept his hair looking good, amid a smattering of flattering photos and self-effacing answers. For the man sitting at a cramped pub table on a Sunday afternoon, proclaiming to be so reluctant to be in the public eye, it was an interesting choice. 

“I don’t know,” he says. “Maybe I’m just being a massive hypocrite cultivating some kind of anti-brand. If you want to call me out on that, that’s fine.

“If you’re going to do a profile in a lifestyle magazine, then you deserve to be asked about that stuff, so I was probably being a little petulant in pushing back in the way that I did. But also I feel as though that’s the least interesting part of what we’re doing. It really is. There’s much more interesting stuff to talk about than the shit I put in my hair. Seriously, there is.” 

Says the man in the GQ spread. His hair does look good, though. 

 

In a climate where identity politics is at a fever pitch, and access to politicians in the public sphere is greater than it has ever been, it’s worth wondering if there really is more interesting stuff to talk about than who exactly Ludlam is, and if it’s possible for his personal identity, or any politician’s identity, to remain secondary to the work they want to be doing. 

“I am aware that people don’t vote for cardboard cutouts, people vote for people,” he says. “It’s going to be your name on a ballot paper, and a lot of folks are going to vote for the Greens triangle, and won’t even recognise the name underneath it. But I don’t know. It’s a really tricky balance.”

Adam Baidawi, the writer behind the GQ profile, notes a Bernie Sanders sticker in the senator’s electoral office, and later draws a comparison between the two. Ludlam is no Sanders, but when talking with him, his optimism and desire to see change from the top down is palpable. The comparison is an easy one to make.

Our chat oscillates gently between respect and enthusiasm for the mechanisms of democratic government, and his frequent suggestions that you can do potentially more important work outside of politics. On aspiring career politicians, he was discouraging: “If you’re really desperate for a political career, then you shouldn’t do it. Fuck no.”

Perhaps this is part of where the popularity lies, in his idealistic stance that seems somehow one step removed from the career politicians and party apparatchiks who typify those usually preoccupied with a career in the senate. It’s certainly refreshing to hear a political figure say, “There are people with a very legitimate point of view that say the state just exists to crush people and suck money out of them and you should stay as far away from it as possible. I kinda get that.”

With the opposition taking a centrist stance on many issues facing the Australian public – Ludlam mentions Bill Shorten being photographed with United States Vice-president Mike Pence: “It’s, like… Mike fucking Pence. I don’t know how they do it. They’re trying to do something increasingly irreconcilable” – the senator sees opportunity for the Greens to seize the demographics Labor once held by showing themselves to be a genuine alternative. 

When pressed on the role of the Greens in the Australian political landscape, he expresses that same duality between the need for legislature and the presence of the party, to stressing the importance of community action and culture change outside of politics. The Greens, according to Ludlam, are there “to demonstrate, hopefully, that there is a different way of doing politics … You can’t go out and say, ‘We are the ones with integrity’, you just have to damn well show it, and people will form their own judgements over whether they believe it or not. The other part of it, which is just as important, is having access to the machinery of the soapbox, to run a different argument and express a different point of view that’s not being heard elsewhere. And if we don’t do it, to be honest, nobody else is going to do it.”

But are they putting out that different point of view? By Greens leader Richard Di Natale’s own admission, and Ludlam’s confirmation, they don’t see themselves as radical. 

“I don’t think what we’re working towards is particularly radical. I think the idea that we should be working really strongly for climate stability, economic justice, less violence in the world, and a world in which everyone can grow up with some measure of equality and opportunity – I don’t think they’re radical notions at all. And that was what Richard was saying in his very first press conference: we’re kind of sick of being painted as an outlier when poll after poll shows that most people want that stuff. So it’s progressive, but these ideas, if you go out and ask people on the street, are actually really mainstream concepts.”

This certainly sounds nice, but if it were true, wouldn’t we see more votes rolling in for the Greens across the country? While nativism likely played a large part in the election of US President Donald Trump, class undoubtedly played a significant role, too. Sitting in an inner-city pub drinking fancy beer with a senator for an article for The Saturday Paper, I wondered if Ludlam, a Fremantle-based former graphic designer, thought the Greens have a class issue. 

“The inner-city ‘elites’. The ones who drink the fancy coffee, and give a shit about tolerance and trans kids and people from overseas … hate the greenies,” he says. “They are the elites. Actually when I was growing up, an elite was someone with money in a hedge fund. An elite was someone with a private yacht. Somebody with massive political connections and political patronage, and not really working as such but seemed to own a lot.”

There, perhaps, is the ambivalence that defines the senator. “I don’t want to do this job until I’m properly old,” the 47-year-old says. “I don’t want to hang on to it for too long. I want to write. And I want to draw. And I want to design stuff.”

He mentions trying to teach himself how to do things in VR, wanting to get back into design, and I ask if there’s any way to manage dual lives as a politician-campaigner and a reclusive artist.

“For my tiny little moment of pop psychology – one of my colleagues stuck this thing up which is a Japanese concept called ikigai. It’s four overlapping circles and ikigai is at the intersection of what you love to do, what you’re good at, what you can get paid for, and what the world needs. I like that. I don’t know much more about it, but I like that conception.”

He goes on to tell me that somebody apparently once asked the Dalai Lama what the meaning of life was, and he was meant to have said, “To give service and to be happy.” I wonder aloud if that is really possible, as a politician.

“I’m having a ball,” Ludlam says. “Mostly. To give service and to be happy – I’m trying to do a better job of both of those things.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 29, 2017 as "Ideals or no deal". Subscribe here.

Rebecca Varcoe
is an arts and culture writer and the editor of Funny Ha Ha.