It is 16 September 2008 on a cool, overcast day in Canberra, and a brief silence has settled over the Australian Senate as the chamber awaits the next speaker — another new Senator giving their maiden address.
When the newly elected arises from his chair (wearing a conservative black suit and a blue tie) and starts talking, he gets going slowly and respectfully, acknowledging the traditional Aboriginal owners of the land Parliament House stands on, as well as his political lineage and his parents, who are in the gallery listening.
But after a few minutes he changes tack, starting to speak of the world’s current situation and its possible path forward. As the speech goes on, it becomes clear that his words are conjuring up a future vision in which the right kinds of technology are used to deliver the right kinds of human outcomes, while the wrong kinds are left on the scrapheap of history as being inefficient and outmoded.
The speech is peppered with words like “Pelton generators”, hot rocks technology, “large solar thermal plants”, “world-class broadband”, “fast, affordable mass transit”. And the speaker quotes his favourite author, legendary cyberpunk author William Gibson (author of Neuromancer and other cyberpunk novels), who famously said: “The future is here. It’s just not widely distributed yet.”
The Senator appears to wonder what the human race might become if we harnessed our engineering potential, our skill with tools, in a much better way than we currently are — a way that would not be inherently harmful to our planet.
He ends with a call to arms: “We know that the media dines out on the spectacle of conflict and abuse which our Westminster system seems to imply,” he says “But in my very short time here it is already apparent that a vast amount of what the Senate does is based on collaboration, hard work and a certain grudging respect for different points of view.”
“I really look forward to working with you as we bring our collective efforts, wisdom and good grace to bear on the challenges which confront us all.”
To those who have only started to follow Scott Ludlam‘s career closely over the past few months it must seem that the new Greens Senator from Western Australia has come from nowhere to become the pivotal point around which much of the Parliamentary action around the Federal Government’s telecommunications policies is revolving, in his role as Greens communications spokesperson.
But you can see the groundwork being laid for action as far back as that maiden speech.
This is because although the speech does build visions of a better future for humanity, its tone is not frivolous. Instead, the speech is delivered with a kind of cool implacability. A kind of quiet, relentless determination to see that vision realised, no matter how many obstacles stand in the way. The speaker is not a hothead. He contains an extremely slow burning fire within his modest frame.
The speech doesn’t build castles in the air. It builds castles on the ground that will slowly but surely reach the air.
Right back to the start
In a telephone interview last week, Ludlam says he asked for the communications portfolio when the then-six Federal Greens senators (there are now five, with the departure of Kerry Nettle) got together to re-shuffle the party’s portfolios at the beginning of 2008.
“It’s a field that I’m obviously interested in and have enjoyed a lot,” he said.
Ludlam says he had a little bit of a background in telecommunications — “not quite to the degree of the issues that we’re involved in now, obviously”, courtesy of his time running a web development studio in the mid-1990’s, “when such things were kind of fashionable”.
The politician holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Design from Curtin University and is now 39 years old — he would have been in his mid-20’s during the 1990’s internet boom. “I’m really interested in the future of the internet — the way that it’s reshaping society as it is,” he adds. “It’s a really fascinating domain to study and be a practitioner in.”
Interest in the broader telecommunications debate stemmed from this source. Ludlam says even back at that stage, he was aware that a Senate Select Committee had been established to look into the Federal Government’s much-debated National Broadband Network policy, which in 2008 was still focused on the first $4.7 billion tender, abandoned in favour of a wider policy in April 2009.
“As far as I was concerned, that was exactly the sort of thing I wanted to get my teeth into,” he says, pointing out telecommunications is particularly important in Australia — “a country of 20-odd million people, perched on the rim of a continent with half of the world’s population, many of them speaking different languages”.
“Technologies can help us solve sustainability challenges at home, and they’re obviously having a really important impact on human rights debates and social justice, pro-democracy movements in other parts of the world,” he adds.
It wouldn’t be long before Ludlam was thrust into the dynamic daily debate around the Australian telecommunications sector. The Senator took his seat in Parliament on 1 July 2008. Shortly after came the maiden speech in September.
But it was in October that year that Ludlam really started to switch up into a higher gear. He remembers one day in particular as being an inflexion point for him personally. It was his second day on a Senate Estimates Committee examining Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s portfolio. The topic? The internet filter.
“I actually felt like a bit of an innocent walking into it, not really knowing where they were going, having this fascinating exchange with Conroy that went out on the wires, and helped ignite this stage of the net filter debate that is still kind of boiling away a year and half later,” Ludlam says.
“That was a real turning point for me, because it opened up, in a way, a debate that had been sitting under a rock, or a proposal that had been bubbling along fairly quietly … that suddenly had a bit of a spotlight shone on it.”
Instantly Ludlam’s public profile started to shift upwards as he started to become a lightning rod for opposition to the filter plan, appearing, for example, on Triple J’s Hack program to comment on the filter issue. On that program, Ludlam was the last to be quoted, with his views being put forward after those of Conroy, Family First Senator Steve Fielding and independent Nick Xenophon.
But even in that recording, Ludlam comes across as surprisingly erudite on an issue which received only cursory attention in the broadcast from the other parties — he raises the worry that small special interest groups might be able to pressurise the Government to get certain sites blacklisted.
You can track the evolution of Ludlam’s thinking about the filter process.
Even in February 2009, Twitter was still viewed by most in the political sphere as something of an afterthought — a necessary evil that their press secretaries could probably take care of for them. But in an editorial on 16 February that year Ludlam was pointing out that “the interwebs never sleep” and that much of the internet filter debate was happening on Twitter.
“Senator Conroy is trapped by something akin to a virtual hydra — every time he “responds” to one piece of criticism, numerous other more refined, more powerful and more targeted arguments arise from all sides,” he wrote. The editorial was published by the ABC. Ludlam himself Twitters at @SenatorLudlam — he has around 1,500 followers and follows about the same number of people.
In that editorial Ludlam condemned the filter and attempted to change the nature of the debate from what wouldn’t work in terms of protecting people from objectionable material online to what would, noting that concerns about internet safety were justified, although an internet filter was not the right solution.
“How do we empower parents to make the best choices for their families, and law enforcement agencies to prosecute the creators and distributors of the worst material trafficked over the internet?” he asked.
This approach is reflective of the Senator’s own beliefs about the fundamental nature of the internet — he’s interested not just in its positive transformative power, but also what he calls its “dark side”.
“The internet, I suppose, is a reflection of human society,” he says. “It reflects the best of us and the worst of us. It reflects the pro-democracy aspirations of people taking enormous risks, in service to their community, and it also exposes the epidemic of sexualised violence in society — violence against children, violence against women.”
“The really predatory underbelly of human society naturally exists online, because in a way it’s reflecting all the different dimensions of the human character.”
Ludlam says he doesn’t believe technology is going to be a ‘panacea’ that will solve all of humanity’s problems, because it can be put to many different uses. In this sense Ludlam is somewhat frustrated by the tendency for society to have what he calls “proxy debates” which don’t delve into the real issues. The internet filter debate, he points out, is a debate about a certain technology — when there is a need for a much deeper and more interesting conversation about violence in society.
Back in the Senate, Ludlam’s experience on his first Estimates Committee quickly taught him a number of lessons about the way the environment works.
He points out that 99 percent of people on the street have never heard of the various Senate Committees, but that there is a lot that can be done with such accountability mechanisms built into the parliament, which have been set up over the years at “great personal cost”.
Ludlam has also won a role on the National Broadband Network Senate Select Committee (from February 2009) and was in March this year appointed to the Joint Select Committee on Cyber-Safety.
Being on the NBN Committee gave him access to to some of the best thinkers in the world on broadband, he says — those he agrees with, and those who he disagrees with. Although he notes the committee was set up by the Coalition for “quite politicised reasons”, it has helped him in grappling with the complexity of the telecommunications portfolio.
He says he has worked with everyone, from Telstra lobbyists to representatives of rival carriers such as the Competitive Carriers’ Coalition and end users groups like ACANN and ATUG. Most of the interesting discussions happen behind closed doors, but he has also learnt from what he describes as “a really lively technology press” that is “pretty well informed and pulls no punches”.
If you watch Ludlam in the Senate — during question time, in committees or otherwise — you can see him utilising the accountability mechanisms available to him and aspects of the environment that are sometimes overlooked.
For example, the Greens Senator makes great use of questions on notice. When written questions on notice are directed from senators to ministers and other senators, the questions are forwarded to their offices and to departments, where replies are then drafted and appear later on in Hansard and are delivered to the Senator who originally asked them.
Thus, you’ll often see responses popping up in the press or on Ludlam’s web site from Ministers in response to questions Ludlam has asked — but at odd times, due to the reply delay.
On the actual Senate floor, Ludlam usually presents a calm and methodical exterior (see the video below), insisting on his speaking rights as a Senator but also bringing Ministers and other Senators back on topic when required, with the assistance of the President of the Senate — whether it be on telecommunications issues or other areas such as Australia’s relationship with Burma.
In the interview, he says that every parliamentarian has a different style — “Some people are very forensic, some people appear to be using it as theatre,” he says, while some “seem to be using it as some strange form of personal therapy.”
“Personally I try to take the approach of respecting most people in that debate,” Ludlam says of the Senate chamber.
He notes that while you can call politicians all kinds of things, you generally don’t get to take a place in the Senate chamber if you’re stupid. Hence, Ludlam believes it’s not worth burning bridges with too many people. “My personal style doesn’t involve too much name-calling,” he says.
One of the reasons this can be effective, he says, is that senators are around for a long time in Australia’s upper house compared with the House of Representatives — a Senate term is normally six years, so it’s worth getting to know people, and you have enough time to settle into a portfolio without worrying too much about the next election in three or so years.
Ludlam says he draws inspiration from “good teachers” in his life — his Greens Senate colleagues have shared a lot of their experiences with him. He especially mentions Bob Brown, Greens Leader and long-standing Tasmanian Senator, as having “a lot of grace” in the chamber.
Other teachers have been Greens WA state parliamentarian Robin Chapple and former WA Federal Senator Jo Vallentine, who, he says, have taught Ludlam not to take the whole thing too seriously. “It is serious business, and people’s lives are impacted by what goes on in that chamber, but if you took the personal stuff too seriously, I think you’d just wind up a bit of a wreck,” he says.
The Senator says seeing some of the shenanigans in the Senate Chamber is a reminder that after being in that environment for a long time, people get “ground down” and lose perspective on the wider world.
Greens policy itself is set by the party as a whole (especially being reviewed around the electoral cycle), with Ludlam emphasising the collaborative process which ends up becoming policy, where propositions are accepted from “right across the party” and ideas are tested.
The Senator says most of his involvement hasn’t been in testing Greens policy, but instead in engaging directly with issues in Parliament. He describes his role as partially being a spokesperson for his portfolios, but also partly having a decision-making capacity.
One example where there is current debate within the party is on the contentious proposal to create a R18+ classification for video games, which would allow violent games to sell in Australia without being modified from overseas markets. Ludlam says there are “pretty strongly divergent” views within the Greens about the issue, and “some truth on both sides”.
Perhaps Ludlam’s biggest victory so far in the Senate has been forcing Conroy to release the controversial $25 million National Broadband Network implementation study which the Government received from consulting firms McKinsey and KPMG in February.
According to its original brief, the implementation study will determine the operating arrangements for the NBN Company, as well as detailing network design and financial details — for example, attracting private sector investment.
Ludlam had threatened to pull the party’s support for the Federal Government’s controversial telecommunications reform legislation which could see Telstra broken up, due to Conroy’s decision not to release the study. At the time, Ludlam warned the Government was “basically burning the goodwill of the crossbenches”.
Conroy is yet to release the study, although he has promised to table it before the May Federal budget. But the move starkly demonstrated the power of the Greens’ five Senators when they team up with the Opposition on specific matters, and shifted Ludlam to the forefront of telecommunications industry consciousness due to his pivotal role in the matter.
The video footage of Ludlam calmly but resolutely demanding the Government hand over the study — in the intermissions between loud and outraged debate between Conroy and now-resigned Opposition Senate heavyweight Nick Minchin over the telco legislation — will likely remain in the collective consciousness of Australia’s telecommunications industry for some time.
Ludlam says it was easier dealing with the Opposition on communications issues when Minchin was Shadow Communications Minister. “He had very strong views, many of which I disagreed with, but at least he’d take a position, and he’d take it up to Stephen Conroy, says Ludlam. “And there was a good contest there — we feel we played a valuable role and made it a bit of a three-cornered issue.”
Since Tony Smith took over the portfolio following the ascension of Tony Abbott over Malcolm Turnbull as Opposition Leader, Ludlam adds, the Greens haven’t heard much from the Opposition.
“I wouldn’t describe it as difficult — we just ignore them now,” he says, noting that if the Opposition chose to make itself irrelevant in the portfolio, it became more of a problem when the debate turned tactical — as it currently has done in the Senate, with the Opposition blocking most legislation the Government attempts to put up.
For Ludlam, the debate in the Senate about the Telstra legislation is important, because there is a chance to work through the problems of the telecommunications industry and get past the “corporate self-interest” of both Telstra and its rivals and to real solutions for consumers.
He believes the sooner the Government and NBN Co finish their negotiations with Telstra about how and under what terms the telco will move customers and infrastructure into the National Broadband Network, the better, as that will herald the point where the debate can move forward.
However, in Ludlam’s view, with the magnitude of taxpayers’ money on the table, the NBN Co shouldn’t eventually be privatised like Telstra was, as it provides essential services. “This sector is not operating for the benefit of corporations — it’s there for people,” he says.
“They day they privatised Telstra, we lost the ability to get the executives, and get the board in to estimates hearings for example, to scrutinise the budget, to ask the hard questions.”
With legislation around the National Broadband Network, Telstra and most especially the internet filter ahead in the next six months, it seems as if Ludlam has grabbed ahold of a policy bronco in the telecommunications portfolio — it is likely to provide more than few bumps and pitfalls along the way. But he is clear in his goals.
“I’d like to see the net filter dead before the election,” he says. “That would be something worth doing — if we can knock that proposal on the head and come back with a much more balanced discussion.”
With that out of the way, he says, the real debate about how to protect children online can emerge, without the taint of censorship in the way. With the Opposition not yet having espoused a clear policy on the internet filter project, it may take until Conroy files the filter legislation before the debate on that issue will fully happen.
Ludlam also wants to push for a lot more clarity around the NBN process, including the swirling vortex that includes Conroy, Telstra, NBN Co and even the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
His long-term future, however, is much more up in the air. Ludlam notes even the six-year Senate term might not be certain if a double dissolution election was called. “I don’t know if you can ever make long-term plans,” he says. “Mostly what I’m focused on is the issues in front of us.”
He notes that in a broader sense he wants to be part of “turning the ship” of sustainability and the environment. “People like me — I’m incredibly fortunate to be doing what I’m doing, and working with these people on these issues, in a full-time way,” he says.
“We’ve just got to keep our heads down and keep working.”