Scott Ludlam’s legacy
I wasn’t sad to shred files full of my handwriting and annotated amendment sheets last week, because that work is complete. It was less thrilling to watch the busy walls of the office where I worked for Scott Ludlam, an old Fremantle bank now owned by musicians John Butler and Danielle Caruana, as they became barer and barer. As the High Court does its slow work, an era ended. Because I helped pack the boxes, I can verify that one of Australia’s most effective parliamentary operators has left the building.
Scott left a pretty interesting legacy of policy work and some significant victories. His last speech was to the final negotiations of the nuclear ban treaty at the United Nations, which led to the Nobel peace prize going to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), a campaign he helped launch in 2006. One of Scott’s aims from the outset was to hold parliamentary doors open to campaigners and voices from the community, and he did open question time and senate estimates up to social media in a whole new way. Despite a ferocious capacity for sarcasm, and notwithstanding invitations issued to Tony Abbott to ram his racism, Scott enjoyed a high degree of respect from colleagues across the political spectrum. While not all of the well-wishing during his leave of absence from the senate eased his depression and anxiety, even George Brandis issued a heartfelt hurry back, swiftly followed by a fuck right off when citizenship matters came to light.
Scott’s first day of being a senator in July 2008 started at our temporary digs on the 38th floor of the Perth Commonwealth Parliament Offices. Views of the Swan River down to the Fremantle port were magnificent that day. Confirming several myths about Greens, our team was sprung by men in suits, there to hand over manuals and computers, exclaiming over dolphins frolicking in the river immediately below us. We all had a last look at the pod of dolphins, chuckled at the hippies, and got to work. I spent the rest of the day on the phone to waste experts and witnesses so Scott had a solid set of questions and background notes for a hearing the next day on Australia’s waste crisis and the need for a container deposit scheme.
Scott’s first day in Parliament House involved being greeted by the Black Rod. I documented the Westminster ritual, and the haircut Scott had splashed out seven whole dollars on the day before, which made him look like a criminal child. At first we talked probably too much to Comcar drivers, who were friendly but appropriately restrained, also with their dread at yet another Ludlam milk run, dropping people to safe harbours on his way home on cold Canberra nights.
Outside the unfortunate theatrics of question time, there actually is a great deal of collegiality and constructive work among senators across party lines in committee and legislation negotiation, and Scott learnt a lot about his colleagues, issues and movements through this work. Some of the committee work was heartbreaking: we both cried reading testimony for a foreign affairs, defence and trade committee hearing into the abuse of military personnel at Australian bases and defence colleges. Other committee work was great fun, saving the Liverpool Plains food basket from coalmining or preventing reckless nuclear waste dumping at Muckaty Station. It’s likely Scott will recall playing at gaming and tech conferences as the standouts, though.
Holding responsibility in the Greens for the attorney-general’s portfolio during his first six years, Scott got to challenge surveillance legislation and the scope creep that law enforcement, intelligence and national security agencies were utilising through the legal and constitutional committees, where he also initiated an inquiry into access to justice and advocated community legal services against severe cuts from both Labor and Liberal governments. In his work on the foreign affairs, defence and trade committee, the terrible suffering of the veterans upon their return from Iraq and Afghanistan, and particularly that of their families, was an enduring concern. Scott was told in a parting exchange with a chief of the Australian Defence Force to continue his athletic use of defence estimates and that his concern for veterans was viewed as sincere and appreciated.
Scott also joined protesters at parliament, one of the few who paid a visit to the tent embassy upon his arrival, often speaking at the front of the building to 10 or 1000 people. He joined an encirclement of Parliament House on climate issues and linked arms with Save the Barrier Reef protesters in the marble hallway. As Scott became better known, car hire companies often upgraded him to huge, official-looking, boat-sized cars. Several times we needed to wait around to revert to the smaller kind of car you want to drive to the climate camp.
Kevin Rudd didn’t have time to meet June Norman, who walked from Brisbane to Canberra to speak to politicians about saving the Barrier Reef, but Scott took her to lunch with about five of her friends in the members and guests dining room. Many people appreciated Scott’s hospitality in parliament at briefings, roundtable discussions and launch events he organised or participated in, such as crypto parties for journalists, briefings on Myanmar, nuclear or surveillance issues. I was often signing in large delegations from the Burmese community, Aboriginal representatives from Muckaty, and members of Save Our SBS and Friends of the ABC. A stream of people came and went: communications specialists to talk about broadband in the bush; defence specialists to talk about submarines; artists to talk about copyright; mining experts and media experts. So, too, advisers from the government to brief us on legislation, sessions in which I got pretty terse and Scott got to practise his Buddhism.
Calmness was the quality Scott took into being a senator. Calm at every meeting, calm when delivering speeches, chairing the senate, sitting next to Barnaby Joyce, being condescended to by George Brandis. Calm also characterised his manner among his staff. During one team exercise, I asked everyone to say one thing they gave the team and one thing they took from the team. The thing Scott tried to give the team was never freaking out on us. That really was a gift – never yelling or being outwardly angry. Not once. Our small team of five or six people became a pretty tight crew, holding regular planning retreats and lunches, and surviving the frenzy of parliament with good humour when stress and exhaustion loomed. Because parliament is stressful, there was a great deal of hilarity – pranks, inappropriate estimates questions and media statements, the delivery of enormous balloon creatures through the Parliament House loading dock, and efforts to make Scott laugh in the chamber that hardly ever worked, but certainly must feature in any surveillance file on the poor man.
With an aversion to fluorescent light, Scott’s offices were always dimly lit and beautifully decorated, including an enormous black rock we picked up at a tiny West Australian town called Coolgardie. When he unpacks again after some travel and rest, it won’t be in a parliamentary office. Please no. He’s good at it, but Ludlam is looking forward to something else.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 21, 2017 as "Campaign tastes". Subscribe here.