When Victorian Ricky Muir was elected to the Australian Senate at the 2013 with on a record-low primary vote of 0.51 percent or 17,122 first preferences as the head of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party, his election was cited by many as an argument for why the nation’s voting system needed reform. Muir, many claimed, was the most unrepresentative of “unrepresentative swill” (as Paul Keating dubbed Parliament’s house of review) in the Senate.
On Thursday, Muir delivered his maiden speech in the Senate, revealing he didn’t even own a suit before becoming a senator. Yet his address was remarkable because it has much to say about the views of most voters as the look at politics. And in revealing his background and love for his family, it shows he’s one of the most representative Australians in parliament. This is an edited extract.
It may have taken eight months and four days, but finally I am standing here in this great chamber presenting my first speech.
Lately I have been receiving a lot of questions about why it has taken me so long. I think one old saying can sum this situation up quite well, with no confusing political spin, and that is, plainly and simply: better late than never.
I would like to thank everybody for being here and I would like to thank the people of Victoria for giving me the opportunity to stand here before you all, an opportunity that only 571 people since Federation in 1901 have ever had the honour of experiencing. I still pinch myself on a regular basis to make sure I am not dreaming.
Today, as I present this speech to you all, I am wearing a suit.
Before 7 September 2013, I did not own a single suit and I had no intention of ever owning one — and this topic I will get back to a little bit later. But, first, why would a rural-based, family-orientated timber industry worker with a love of family time, four-wheel driving, the bush, dirt bikes and competing in motorsport put his hand up to relinquish his quiet, idyllic lifestyle for the fast paced, highly stressed and highly scrutinised lifestyle that comes with being in the political spotlight?
May I quote the first line from the Museum of Australian Democracy website under the heading ‘Australian democracy: an overview’?
Australia is a representative democracy. In this political system, eligible people vote for candidates to carry out the business of governing on their behalf.
To stand for either house, a person must be at least 18 years of age, an Australian citizen and an elector entitled to vote or a person qualified to become an elector.
I ticked all the boxes to qualify to become a senator, just as I imagine our forefathers would have intended when creating the independent upper house in 1901. I honestly believe those watching at home, reading online or reading in the papers should always have the opportunity to stand up to represent their peers.
Our Senate and the decisions which govern our lives should not be solely represented by the political class. But that still does not explain why I gave up that idyllic lifestyle to sit here in this great chamber with great pride to be able to present this speech.
Why I went into politics
As a voter, I never agreed to be restricted to a two-party system, and I hear many others say the same. I was continuously unsatisfied that what appeared to be our only options at the time of an election were between two parties that were so ideologically different that middle ground was nowhere to be seen.
I was unsatisfied that our elected representatives were bound by preconceived party positions, which in turn goes against the very definition of representative democracy, as the voices of the people that they were supposed to represent seem to somewhat fall on deaf ears. If every person sitting in this room voted to represent their state, after taking on their constituents’ views, like I believe the Senate was originally designed to achieve in 1901, when Federation was formed, and if all senators voted with their conscience, only then would we see the true representative democracy that Australia could be proud of. And that is why I stood up to be heard.
I, like so many other Australians, am fed up with big political campaigns where, in the lead-up to an election, we are told, ‘There will be no carbon tax under a government I lead,’ or ‘There is no way a GST will ever be part of our policy,’ or perhaps, in more modern times, we are told that there is a mandate to repeal the carbon tax, only to find out after the election that this so-called mandate also includes ‘fixing the budget’ by hurting the disadvantaged in a barrage of measures that people were mute about in the election campaign.
‘There will be no changes to education, health or the renewable energy sector,’ and then, before you know it, bam, we are all faced with the biggest changes to our university sector since 1989, when HECS was introduced; reform that will completely change our Medicare system and could damage primary health care, potentially leading to negative health outcomes; not to mention the complete uncertainty in the renewable sector, which is affecting investment and stopping projects from beginning—projects which will create employment.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, and, to add insult to injury, this was done with little to no consultation. That does not sound like democracy to me. What justification is there for this? It usually sounds something like this: ‘We had to make the hard decisions because of the mess that was left behind because of those opposite.’ Is this fair on the Australian public, who voted under the impression that a government would honour its word? I can answer that, and the simple answer is no.
The system is not broken
Since I was elected, there has been plenty of commentary on how the voting system is broken and undemocratic, which in my eyes completely misses the point. For my crossbench colleagues and I to be elected, people had to be voting for parties other than the major parties, and they did — a huge 24 per cent in the Senate.
In my view, if you want a simple explanation of how this could occur, all the major parties need to do is to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
I can tell you now: the system is not broken and does not need to be fixed. The disconnect from the average Australian, the way you treat the voters of Australia by saying one thing but doing another, is, in my view, why voters are looking for alternatives. Then there have been statements thrown around such as: ‘The Senate is dysfunctional and unworkable.’ Yet, when speaking to many around these halls, it seems pretty much business as usual. Perhaps people are getting the Senate and the government confused!
Today I would be far more comfortable standing here before you all in jeans and a T-shirt or perhaps the working attire which I have worn for the majority of my working life: Hard Yakka trousers, steel-capped boots and a high-visibility shirt, the attire that represents a working-class background which I am proud of. I would be more comfortable in that attire, because that is who I am.
Since winning my seat, I have been offered a wealth of advice — say this, do this, don’t do that and so on — but the most important thing I have learnt, and indeed have also had encouragement to do, is to simply be myself. Sure, I came up pretty bad in a debut interview with Mike Willesee, but I was never going to let that bring me down. It became a point of reference for me to look back to at later stages of my life. I knew they had the footage, and I presumed they would use it, so I would like to pass on a thank you to Mike Willesee because he contributed to teaching me a valuable lesson, and that was really just to be myself.
My family background was not that of a political one. As a child growing up, my political know-how was usually that of witnessing my father or my grandfather being quite vocal, at times intensely vocal, at many different politicians across the lounge room to the TV, where the unaware pollie was safely nested. It was a good way to learn the meaning of words I could not even find in the dictionary and teachers would not dare decipher.
I grew up in rural Victoria and was born at Maffra Hospital in Gippsland. I attended Stratford Kindergarten — two years in a row, would you believe, because, as it turns out, I was antisocial and kept to myself. I spent my primary school years at Boisdale Consolidated School, which is nested in a rural setting at the base of the Victorian high country amongst some of Victoria’s prime agricultural land.
I spent all my primary school years there except for a small stint at Dargo Primary School in the Victorian high country, whilst my father was working in one of the now non-existent timber mills.
When I was about 11 years old, my father had a bad motorcycle accident, breaking every rib, front and back, on his left-hand side, breaking his collar bone and destroying ligaments in one of his ankles. My mother had a bad back that needed surgery. Work was scarce and we struggled. I watched as other kids at school went on holidays with their families, wore brand-name clothing, attended concerts that I would have died to attend and got to enjoy some of life’s simple luxuries that were simply out of reach for us.
Despite this, I think it is important to mention now that we may not have had much money growing up, but we were raised with love. I learnt to enjoy the simple things, and I am very proud of both my parents for doing the best they could with what we had.
My high school years were spent at Maffra Secondary College. This is where my schooling years were to end and the real-life experience began.
By the time I was 15, nearing 16 years old, my focus on schooling was minimal at best and a struggle at worst. I knew what I wanted to do, and that was to get out and enter the workforce. I had spent my time as a child growing up below the poverty line, despite my parents’ best efforts, and wanted do my best in the workforce.
I knew what I wanted to do; it was not to enter a long course of expensive education to become a lawyer, a doctor or a political apparatchik. I wanted to work in earth moving, or on a farm, or in manufacturing, a factory, or as a mechanic, with tools — to wear stubbies and hi-vis and have the constant pale shade of a singlet embedded on my otherwise tanned skin. I was not afraid of hard manual labour and had no interest in earning millions. I just wanted to be able to support myself and enjoy some of the things that I had previously missed out on.
During this period I got to learn firsthand how hard it can be to find employment as a young school leaver and had to find ways to be able to better present myself to employers in an effort to at least land an interview.
Contrary to this, as time progressed I also learnt the benefits of working hard and striving to achieve. Naturally, I am also aware of the benefits of budgeting hard and saving for a rainy day.
I have a long history of living at the receiving end of legislative changes, of feeling the squeeze of new or higher taxes, feeling the pressure and even losing sleep when you realise that the general cost of living just went up a tiny $20. To everyone sitting in this chamber, if you think $20 a week is nothing, or just a pack of cigarettes or a few beers, you have never lived in the real world.
I have worked in manufacturing, on farms both vegetable and dairy, in a bakery, in pine plantations, at a tannery processing automotive leather, gardening and lawn mowing, and most recently in the timber industry, both soft and hard woods.
Like so many others, through the lessons learnt of doing it hard I was able to learn the benefits of trying hard to achieve, and the benefits of furthering my skills to give myself a competitive edge in the case of a downturn. But I also learnt and experienced how no work, knock-backs from job applications, and struggling to put food on the table and keep on top of the bills at the same time can bring a feeling of low self-esteem and depression.
I have fulfilled roles such as a leading hand, a first aid officer, a health and safety representative, a supervisor, for a short time a manager, and even a shop steward for Minister Abetz’s favourite union, the CFMEU — in the forestry division, for the record.
I have been the beneficiary of penalty rates. I worked shift work and weekends not for the love of the job but because there was financial incentive to do so. I did it not only keep my head above water but to actually have a few bob left over each pay to support my hobbies and interests. As we know, this is called disposable cash, and in my case this was spent on hobbies such as riding dirt bikes with my wife and children, buying camping supplies as it was an inexpensive way for us to go on holidays, maintaining my four-wheel drive and competing in affordable grassroots motorsports.
That disposable cash ended up supporting Australian manufacturers in the aftermarket industry, local businesses, communities and retailers, helping create and maintain Australian jobs. Without the reward of penalty rates, this money would not have circulated through our economy, and I am one person; there are millions more who support different sectors in the economy just by being given that little extra for their efforts. This is something all levels of government need to consider when reaching into the purse of taxpaying Australians when they think they need to tighten their belt. Where you may gain somewhere, you may lose elsewhere, and at what cost?
I can tell you, as somebody who was not born into wealth, who has had to work my way up with absolute honesty, that working-class Australia is absolutely sick to death of working our lives away just to pay the bills and having to struggle to spend the very money we work hard to earn on actually enjoying our existence rather than feeling like a slave to the dollar.
Let me quote part of Prime Minister Abbott’s budget reply speech from May 2011, when he was the Leader of the Opposition:
Tonight I want to reach out to Australian families: to small business people, police, nurses, firefighters, teachers, shop assistants and workers in our steel mills and mines—the people who are the backbone of our society and our economy. I do not think you are rich. I know you are struggling under a rising cost of living. And I know you are sick of a government that does not get value from your taxes.
So my commitment to the forgotten families of Australia is to ease your cost-of-living pressure.
But now, four years later, I feel like I could use that section of his speech myself. I will quote another line from that budget reply speech:
We will increase the education tax rebate for all families to $500 a year for primary and $1,000 a year for secondary students and make it available for all expenses connected with education, including school and sports fees.
Well, I am glad, four years later, we have a strong crossbench representation because the education tax rebate was to become the schoolkids bonus and, alongside my crossbench colleagues, I was able to help retain it.
Holding leaders to account
People are entitled to change their minds but national leaders cannot on something as important as a great big new tax on everything unless they first validate that change by seeking a new mandate at an election.
I do not recall a mandate for education reform, for Medicare reform or to completely damage confidence and investment in the renewable sector. Not to be a hypocrite though, I must admit that in my time here I have changed my mind on one thing, that being FOFA. But I did so in the realisation that perhaps I had made an error of judgement in the first place. I changed my mind not for the benefit of big institutions but for the benefit of ordinary Australian consumers. I am a big enough man to admit I am not perfect and may make some mistakes from time to time. But I am happy to own up to it and to try to rectify it.
I believe in consumer choice. An example would be an area that has been discussed a lot in recent times, and that is food labelling. As a consumer and proud Australian, I am happy to look past generic, cheap brands to pay a little extra for an Australian product — a product where our farmers are supported, where Australian citizens are employed, where Australian owned businesses circulate revenue through our own economy rather than abroad.
I am also supportive of mandatory labelling of genetically modified foods. Remove the argument of whether the science is right or wrong and simply give the consumer the right to make their own decision as to whether they choose to eat it or not. Give the consumer choice.
In the lead up to the 2013 federal election, at a time I was making short videos about responsible four-wheel driving, promoting the lifestyle that I and thousands of other Australian families love, the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party was forming. Founding members of the party with a similar drive and passion were promoting the social and economic benefits of the motoring culture and calling for the community to come together to send a strong message to government that we are not a minority and must be respected. I joined the party, put my hand up to run as a candidate, and the rest is history.
What my party stands for
Our message is clear. We are not environmental vandals tearing up the bitumen or destroying our bushland. We are responsible, law-abiding citizens who love our cars, our families and our culture, and it is offensive to a whole community of people to be tarred with the same brush as those who engage in antisocial behaviour on our roads or the minority who disrespect our national parks. Most importantly, we came together to get a voice to stop unfair legislation being brought in with little or no consultation with our community — legislation that potentially could see our culture legislated out of existence.
With vehicle manufacturing in this country coming to an end in 2016-17 and the urgent need to refocus our skills on rebuilding the motoring industry in Australia, we believe it is no accident that we are here at this important time in our history. The Australian automotive aftermarket industry alone is an $11 billion industry that employs some 30,000 people. It is an industry that is responsible for things from wiper blades to four-wheel-drive accessories, suspension components, tyres, brakes and replacement brake components, parking sensors, reverse cameras, tools, coolants, lubricants, testing equipment and so much more.
The primary manufacturing base of the aftermarket industry is four-wheel-drive parts and accessories, with four-wheel-drive parts and accessories being a $2 billion industry, comprising $1.25 billion in parts and accessories and $750 million in tyres. They export to over 100 countries and are recognized as global leaders in design and manufacturing of four-wheel-drive parts and accessories. That, Mike Willesee, is what the aftermarket industry is.
The Motoring Enthusiast Party are strong supporters of motorsport and are keen to spread the word on the social and economic value it brings to our community, particularly in regional areas. Recently, Ernst & Young prepared a report for the Confederation of Australian Motor Sport that reported four-wheel motorsport contributes $2.7 billion to the economy and creates 16,181 jobs.
The core values of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party are values that I share. The one that stands out to me the most is that we believe that all levels of government are servants to the will of the people. I do not want to use my position to be an obstructionist, but I do believe that I have a great opportunity to express the views of my state and my constituents and to try to balance legislation with the view of whether it is fair or not.
Good ideas well presented will get support. Bad ideas or ideas that are likely to hurt those who are worse off will not, or they are highly unlikely to be supported. Further — and perhaps this message best applies to the government — good ideas that are poorly presented are also unlikely to be supported. Some may say that the current government has no good ideas, but I will leave that debate for another time.
I am proud of my achievements to date. To save ARENA in my first weeks was an incredible feat, and, as I once said, if I never achieve anything else I could still be proud of that.
I am proud of contributing to the retention of things like the schoolkids bonus and low-income super contribution. I am glad I was able to help the government to achieve a $1.1 billion saving over the forward estimates only after they agreed to Senator Wang’s amendments through the research and development tax concession bill.
But, without a doubt, and although one of the most emotionally challenging decisions I will ever have to make, my most proud moment of my short time in the Senate was having the ability to prevent 31 children and their families from returning to Nauru.
I would have liked to have achieved more, but I did the best I could and cannot possibly begin to explain the emotional roller-coaster that came with it. I hope into the future that I am able to continue to have positive input to decisions that affect us all.
The role of government
The Treasurer has said that the best form of welfare is a job and, in some circumstances, I agree.
I believe, in that case, that it is the role of the government to create these jobs, not just in highly populated areas but also for those in rural, regional and remote areas. I have spoken with farmers who would love to employ apprentices but who struggle to get youth to the area. I have spoken to youth who would love to get a job, but who cannot get access to transport to a farm. It is our job, as representatives of the people, to try to create targeted programs to help get people into employment. I am supportive of rural and regional growth and employment. I understand that industries like our timber industry are not only sustainable and managed to world-class standards but also bring wealth and employment to regional areas.
My journey to date has been exciting, fast, emotional and intriguing; a change of lifestyle that, without prior experience in politics, I could not possibly prepare myself for. It is a change that would have been impossible to adapt to without the strong support of my family and friends.
Firstly, I would like to acknowledge my family and friends who could not be here today. I received numerous apologies from those who could not make it and I would like to thank them all: my father, two sisters and my grandparents from both sides of the family, including those of my wife.
I would like to thank the family and friends who are here: my mum, Peter, Daniel — I do not know where to start! There are people everywhere! Maurie, Taylor, Matt, Ozzy, Kiara and Tracy. I will not go through my kids just yet. Everybody else who I have missed: I thank you all for being here. I really do appreciate it. It means a lot to me.
I would like to make a special mention of my best friend, who happens to be sitting in the gallery. For 30 years we have maintained a bond that has been impossible to break. We have supported each other through hard times and good, fought occasionally — maybe, at times, regularly — but always been there for each other no matter what.
Over the years we have constantly competed against each other: when we were young over things like who had the biggest muscles; now, over who has the biggest belly! Who could jump their dirt bike the highest or longest or who was quicker on the drag strip? (It was me, for the record.)
And to my wife, Kerrie-Anne: I do not think that I would be standing here today if it were not for the support of my wife. Not only does she look after the children when I am working in the office in Sale, she also comes to the office in Sale. She does everything she can to try to make sure that I am home to eat tea with my wife and kids. She is absolutely dedicated to helping me out here. We actually get the kids looked after and she will come up here and assist in the office. And I say to her, ‘From the day I met you, I have only had eyes for you. For the 11, 12 years that we have been together, my life has only got better and better. I thank you for that and I thank you for my family. I love you very much.’
Now, I would like to refer back to my suit. I wear this suit out of respect for this great chamber and the position I hold.
But, most importantly, I wear this suit to represent people just like myself. So many politicians say the right thing at the right time, but do the opposite.
Do not judge me by what I say; judge me by what I do.
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