GQ&A: Scott Ludlam
words and photography by Adam Baidawi
In Greens Senator Scott Ludlam’s Parliament House office is a skyblue sticker that reads ‘BERNIE WOULD HAVE WON’. Make your way through the moodily lit, mahogany-punctuated space of the co-deputy leader, and the memes start to appear.
On one wall, a series of Blu-Tacked printouts that sarcastically allege onetime Republican presidential candidate, Ted Cruz, is in fact, the Zodiac Killer. In the bathroom, another cluster of inkjet printouts – the standout being a photoshopped image of Senator George Brandis (who was last year engaged in a heated, months-long debate on digital privacy with Ludlam) walking down a fashion runway, sporting a grey jumper atop loose fitting black jeans and what could well be a pair of KT-26s.
In Ludlam’s Canberra HQ, the water comes poured from a repurposed bottle of Japanese whisky. Suntory, no less. Because the Senator takes his niche hobbies – from public transport system geekery to VR gaming to Asian spirits and role-playing adventures that most men leave in their youth – very seriously.
The Senator, alongside press sec and close friend David Paris, are the first to own the assessment they don’t belong in Canberra.
“We’re a pair of Dungeons and Dragons nerds who accidentally wound up in Parliament,” shrugs Paris. This, Ludlam’s supporters will argue, is precisely his talent.
“He has an absolute lack of ego,” chimes Greens leader, Richard Di Natale. “He has an integrity and a sensitivity that you’d hope to see in many members of our parliament, but often don’t.”
Indeed, Ludlam’s a clear-spoken outsider whose words penetrate where political rhetoric often doesn’t – not unlike the man referenced in that sticker, Bernie Sanders. He’s an optimist grounded in pragmatism. He’s also a political pin-up for Australia’s digital generation.
In 2014, a speech he gave sarcastically welcoming Tony Abbott to his home state of Western Australia – delivered to an empty senate chamber – clocked nearly a million views on YouTube. And he communicates to his 200,000-plus social media followers daily, usually replete with idiosyncratic no-caps.
(In response to a tweeted interview request from The Australian and Sky News’ Chris Kenny: “m8 i don’t want this to sound harsh but the main reason i won’t be going on your show is that *nobody watches it*”)
Late last year, however, his Facebook tone became serious – announcing he was to take immediate leave to treat long-term mental health issues.
“I’m really, really proud of him,” adds Di Natale. “I’m proud of the fact he acknowledged he needed to take a step back and that he was prepared to talk publicly about it. Because Scott’s a very private person.”
What follows is the first in-depth interview Ludlam’s given since returning to full-time Parliamentary duties in January.
Most Greens have an arrest story – what’s yours?
It came at Jabiluka in the Northern Territory – in the last big action of that blockade. About 130 of us all spent a couple of hours in the Jabiru lockup.
How dramatic were the arrests?
Oh, it was fantastic – I strongly recommend it. Though I recognise that has very different connotations for the Aboriginal mob up there – they’re getting arrested for trespass and the Jabiru lockup is a fucking deadly serious place.
You’ve been crowned Australia’s sexiest male politician, two years running.
That’s just fucking dumb. That’s silly.
It’s a published piece.
That’s because Dave Paris games their voting algorithm, I think.
Dave Paris doesn’t wield that kind of power.
It was a prank. That’s my official comment on that.
A prank – two years running?
What’s the next question?
You studied graphic design at university, right?
Yes, in the late ’90s before computers took over.
What were your tertiary years like?
That was when I was pretty lonely – I was a bit lost. I had a really tight-knit high school crew and then at uni, I kind of did my own thing and disappeared into my own little world.
Any lost ‘party’ years?
No, there were a lot of lost Dungeons and Dragons years. I used to make [video] games. Yeah, that’s probably enough. The less said the better.
You’ve previously stated that you hate cults of personality and general interactions between politicians and the press. Why?
Well, you’ve seen me squirming a couple of times already during this interview.
Yes, because most politicians love this – they have egos.
There’s two things – on the personal side, the machinery of celebrity is such that publications get sold building up the next pretty face and then publications get sold watching them descend into hell. Or being part of destroying them. And the magazine sells either way. No disrespect, obviously, to GQ.
And then the second part of it is a bit broader – what we’re trying to do in the work that we do is distribute and decentralise power. And if anybody ends up too centrally important in that movement, then...
...you aggregate too much power.
Much too much.
On that front, thoughts on Di Natale’s 2016 GQ ‘turtleneck’ shoot?
He’s got a really sharp sense of humour and doesn’t mind taking the piss out of himself. And he’ll surprise you every now and again with a burn.
So you were happy to take the mick out of him?
Absolutely. But I think he was the one who coined, ‘The Black Wiggle’. And now he wears it with pride, but he doesn’t wear skivvies anymore.
Probably for the best. What do you do for fun in your downtime?
I make games. I go for walks. I drink Japanese whisky. I sit on [David] Paris’ balcony and have the occasional, sneaky cigarette. Very occasional. Almost never. Hardly at all.
No, just rolled tobacco. I definitely wasn’t going to tell you that.
And you’re almost 50. You don’t look it. There’s clearly a strong grooming routine in play?
I’m in my mid-forties and I don’t have any grooming routine.
A splash of cold water on the face?
That’s an immensely personal question. Sometimes, I guess?
And you have famous hair.
It’s not my fault.
There’s a Twitter account dedicated to your locks? Does Paris game that, too?
No, definitely not. No! We actually don’t know who runs it.
It’s a good head of hair.
Next. Doesn’t your editor want to know about our stance on nuclear weapons abolition?
We're well aware of the party stance on nuclear weapons abolition. Let’s talk Trump and the fact there’s much being made about the alleged return of the right in this country, marching on like America.
There’s some resonance, there’s some symmetry, but we’re a different country. And I feel like in Australia we don’t have Trump, but we’ve had [Tony] Abbott, we’ve got Pauline [Hanson] and we have Malcolm [Turnbull] trying to accommodate those positions while still notionally representing centre-right politics. Malcolm’s handcuffed himself to some pretty hardline, delusional, self-interested right-wingers.
And you guys want to block Trump from visiting Australia?
This is a guy who admits that he sexually assaults women. He’s clearly got some kind of narcissistic personality disorder going on. He’s proposing a new nuclear arms race. I think you could make a fairly sound argument on character grounds that he shouldn’t even be given a visa, let alone allowed to address the House of Representatives.
Would you meet with him?
Would I meet with him?
I don’t think there’d be any purpose to meeting with him.
None at all?
With Donald Trump?
Yes. There’s nothing whatsoever you’d want to say?
No, there’d be stuff I’d want to say. Would I meet with him? Just for lolz, I guess.
How will Turnbull fare in this bizarre transition the US is going through?
Well, I think the Australian government had a Hillary win in the bank. They figured they already knew who they were going to be dealing with. Suddenly, everything gets turned upside down and you had that humiliating phone call.
And what of [Australian ambassador to the US] Joe Hockey – is he a good choice for the frontlines in Washington?
No, I’d want him put into a small capsule and fired into space. The only thing you would say to credit from a contingency point of view, is that apparently he and senior DFAT people were working the Republican National Convention during the primaries. I guess that’s sensible from an insurance point of view. But I don’t think Australian interests are served by sucking up to such a malignant arsehole.
Julian Assange – how would you describe your relationship?
I only see him every couple of years. We’re not in contact a huge amount. The relationship is warm. I’m actually worried for him, I think these are pretty uncertain times.
With the Ecuadorian election?
With the Ecuadorian election, with the US election. Particularly, Wikileaks’ intervention in the US elections last year is deeply misunderstood. Like, Assange is the pro-Trump guy...
He’s the Russian puppet.
He’s the Russian puppet now. I just think progressives didn’t mind when he leaked Bush’s war, or Bush’s State Department cables.
So the global smear campaign, as you might call it, against WikiLeaks hasn’t affected the way you view Assange or the outfit?
No. But if you like, for your article, I’ll provide you with a list, just in the postwar era alone, of every time, dozens and dozens, the US government has interfered in the democratic process of another country. They’ve murdered. They’ve overthrown governments. They’ve interfered in elections.
They’ve fucked over countries from one side of the planet to another. And so this extraordinarily holier than thou, ‘Oh, Putin might have a favourite candidate’ thing... you know, the CIA is wringing its hands. It would be funny if it didn’t betray such incredible historical amnesia.
Is it true you and Assange spent some time together at Christmas?
I think it was Christmas night, 2013.
You shared a meal?
Yeah. They were very well catered.
What did you eat?
Kind of heavy English Christmas-y type food. Takeaway. Everything there is takeaway.
Australia’s participation in the Five Eyes program – does that border on being undemocratic?
It’s by definition undemocratic. This parliament can’t get straight answers out of those agencies – and we’ve tried. And that’s partly because Australia is a completely subordinate part of that arrangement, that intelligence sharing.
Why then aren’t more people up in arms about it? They’ve been told that their information is being indiscriminately collected, vacuumed up and stored by their own government and other agencies.
Well, some are.
What apps or protections do you run on your phone and computer?
The personal computer is owned by the Australian Government and our security is provided by [Australian
Signals Directorate] ASD, which is a Five Eyes partner. So that’s cooked; that’s done. Also, the Parliament House network is apparently a fairly soft target – there were Chinese government hackers resident on our email servers for months. On my phone, I use [encrypted instant messaging system] Signal, which is still reasonably strong. I also presume that I’m conducting life in the open.
What currently frustrates you most about this country?
It’s not its best self. Look at all the advantages this place has. It’s grounded in the oldest continuing civilisation on the planet. It’s one of the more successful multicultural societies on earth. It’s gifted with the world’s most abundant renewable energy resources. We have one of the highest standards of living in the world. And yet we’re still fucking up basic, simple things.
Off-shore processing being one?
For the people involved, they’re going to be damaged for life. The people who are incarcerated in those places, we are making them mentally ill. It’s urgent in the sense that people are on hunger strikes and people are dying every few months. That system kills people. People kill themselves in there or are killed in there.
Why then, do you think, two separate governments considered it a viable approach?
Labor thought they could exploit the humane concerns about drownings and use the policy to get one up on the Libs. Obviously that was a failure, because it’s hard to compete with people like Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton on intentional cruelty. So those guys will always have it over them.
Surely you don’t believe those two Liberal ministers to be intentionally cruel?
I think they are in way over their heads. Abbott was the same. It’s a politicisation of that cruelty to win their caricature of who Western Sydney is.
What do you say to claims the system’s done its job in deterring people from coming here?
Fuck, it hasn’t. That’s the biggest lie. It hasn’t deterred people. People are still climbing on to boats and they’re still making the voyage across. It’s just that they’re not arriving. I have no idea what happens to them anymore.
Describe Tony Abbott in three words.
Sad and pointless.
Why won’t he go away?
I just don’t think he has the imagination to go away – and what other life has he got apart from this? I think he actually cuts quite a sad figure these days. He had his moment, he was shit at it and they got rid of him before the Australian people could dispatch him. And that’s what he’s got to live with.
Is marriage equality going to happen under this government?
I think it may. I have more hope than I did before. It might be a bit closer to a free vote than people think.
What’s your stance on legalising recreational weed – it’s firing up across the world and propping up certain US states via taxation?
Having smoked a fair bit of it myself, I think the main thing with that stuff... this is like a distant past, not last week.
No, I can’t be around that stuff now.
I’ve been there, done that. And it’s actually quite damaging. This is probably going into more detail than I intended, but it just does absolutely nothing for me anymore. And Richard’s been good at helping me clarify my take on this stuff as well, from a medical perspective. The last thing you need, if you’re in trouble with that kind of stuff, is police intervention.
You back a Portuguese-style approach to recreational use?
That’s what we’re working on. They took risks and now they have evidence that deaths from heroin overdoses have fallen rapidly. If you’re actually interested in saving kids’ lives, then the most solid body of evidence lies with the medical community, not the criminal justice system.
Beyond some pot – have you dabbled across a spectrum of recreational drugs?
I’ve tried everything I wanted to try. I shouldn’t be saying shit like this. I don’t want to be out of my head. I’m more comfortable in my head than I was when I was in my twenties.
Being from Perth – are we talking pingers? Truckie dust?
I’m 47. I have no idea what the stuff’s called these days.
What was it called in your day then - LSD? Tried it?
Yeah, I have. It actually didn’t agree with me. It didn’t do a lot for me.
Are politicians overpaid?
Oh man, you wait until now to get all populist on me. Most of our colleagues in the chamber took big pay cuts from their law firms or their businesses to come down to a two-hundred-thousand-dollar-a-year job, flying around at the pointy end of the plane being picked up in chauffeured cars and shit like that. Please do not feel sorry for politicians. But we do work hard. I don’t think we’re overpaid. I think the amount that Australian politicians get paid wouldn’t piss people off so much if they weren’t so keen on knocking other people’s pay down.
What of him?
Does his movement have legs?
There’s one guy with some niche obsessions. This isn’t a movement; there’s no stampede.
He represents nothing? Nobody?
Niche obsessions like 18C – honestly, leave it alone. Put it down. It’s not what people are talking about. If your media consumption consists entirely of The Australian, then you campaign on 18C, but nobody outside this building reads The Australian.
Why do you think tabloid columnists like Miranda Devine and Andrew Bolt still have support and influence?
Do they? They have support, but I don’t know that they have much influence anymore. And as much as I’m increasingly aware of the lefty-Green echo chamber and bubble, that’s nothing compared to the News Corp stable – a small handful of individuals who sit in a closed room sniffing each other’s farts.
We’re published by News.
Oh, shit. Well, present company excepted.
Do you hope to one day lead the Greens?
You don’t like leading?
No, I don’t. I’m still kind of uncomfortable with it. What I like doing is sitting at home on my studio computer doing graphic design and making stuff.
Honestly, will the party ever form government in your lifetime?
It’s entirely possible. We’re not really interested in stuffing around on the sidelines. We’re not here to provide commentary. We actually want to change stuff.
What of the opposing Greens’ factions and the reported infighting...
... They don’t exist.
But what’s happening in New South Wales seems real...
I think in New South Wales it is. My feeling is that the tactic of running these debates in public ends up detracting from the valuable policy argument that could be happening internally. It’s counterproductive. I don’t think we should run internal policy arguments in public.
We know you’re hesitant to address mental health too personally – but what of the continued stigma that seems to cloak sufferers?
Yeah, see, this is why it wasn’t high on my list of things to talk about – because I don’t want to pretend to be an instant expert. There’s no question that it’s stigmatised – my personal experience was I was treated with extraordinary respect...
..by the media? Supporters?
By people I’ve spent eight years fighting with.
People down in the Red Room. People were respectful – they left me the hell alone and sent cards. And so my experience is peculiar and not at all representative of what a lot of people go through.
Do we have a healthcare system ready to catch people when they fall?
No. People get dropped all the time. The Medicare entitlement for mental health treatment is really arbitrary.
You just get cut off. Ten sessions and then you’re kind of on your own, unless you have private health. You wouldn’t do that to somebody with a liver condition or a lung condition. But because it’s in your head, it’s treated kind of awkwardly. The treatment in Australia, as far as I’m concerned, is second to none – world class. But access to that treatment is incredibly uneven.
Are men uniquely vulnerable here?
Probably just more broadly regarding health and self-care. I did all the wrong stuff. I kind of kept everything to myself until it was almost too late.
How long and hard did you consider that Facebook message detailing your own issues? You could have said you were taking stress leave.
I had to be dragged kicking and screaming to do that.
It was quite courageous to lay it out there.
Yeah, this is what I don’t want – to be pitched as some kind of courageous champion of mental health. I’m not – I had all the advantages and privileges.