Meet James McGrath, Australia's New Conservative Senator With A Healthy Love For Farm Machinery

Queensland Senator James McGrath with London Mayor Boris Johnson. Picture: Twitter

He’s barely posted 100 times to his Twitter account, most of it memorable.

He’s given one speech in Parliament since he was sworn in as a senator just three weeks ago, but it was the one that got everyone talking.

Outlining his 11 Principles of Politics and Power, Queensland Senator James McGrath made these bold claims:

  • I start with the greatest ever peacetime leader, Margaret Thatcher. I never met Mrs Thatcher, but I get her.
  • Taxes on jobs and productivity such as the payroll tax and company tax must be abolished and reduced respectively
  • To cover the states for the loss of income from payroll tax, the GST should be broadened to cover everything and the GST should also be increased to 15 per cent.
  • If they fail to make inroads to restore balance, then the ABC should be sold and replaced by a regional and rural broadcasting service.
  • I’m calling for the abolition of the federal departments of Health and Education departments, with universities also to be run at a state level.

You can watch it in full here. It’s what you might call, in American race car terminology, a rolling start.

But there’s still obviously a lot to learn about McGrath, who’s already holding up Queensland’s long and proud tradition of inflicting strong, colourful characters on the rest of the country’s voting public. Think “Red Ted” Theodore and Sir Joh, through to Barnaby Joyce, Bob Katter, Clive Palmer and George Brandis and you can see how it’s not easy to stand out as something unusual.

McGrath ran for office after 10 years in the back rooms as a political advisor and campaign director. That’s not an especially glamorous job – unless it’s in the Maldives or shadowing London Mayor Boris Johnson, both of which McGrath did.

The Johnson era ended in a setback that could easily have ended his career (more about that later) but instead, it’s been one long winning streak for McGrath ever since.

He left the UK and oversaw the successful election of Mohamed ‘Anni’ Nasheed in The Maldives, helped the Queensland Liberal Party target specific seats in Queensland for the 2010 Federal Election and was campaign director for the Queensland Liberal National Party and the Northern Territory Country Liberals in their successful election campaigns in 2012.

Now a Senator, he’s got grand plans for Australia, if its people will keep him. Here’s his story so far, told with the help of some of his tweets, and his explanations to Business Insider.

McGrath grew up on a cane farm near Bli Bli on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. His parents, grandparents and great-grandparents have worked on or owned cane farms since 1918.

So he knows hot machinery when he sees it.

“I come from a farming family and I just like industrial equip and that harvester was just an amazing harvester. It was almost out of a Mad Max movie, it was pure brutality in terms of its design and functionality. I thought it was fantastic.

“I can bore you but what it is, is it’s their planting harvester. It’s got rubber tracks on the harvester, not for the wheels, but by where the cane lands. They use it for planting so that the cane, when they cut it, isn’t bruised as much.

“I spent ages climbing all over it, I was like a kid in a toy shop.”

His desk and office are adorned with the kind of things you might not expect from a Senator, including The Dunny Seat of Shame…

McGrath first started handing out the dunny seat taken from his childhood farm in Bli Bli when he was campaign director for the LNP during the 2010 Federal Election.

“The toilet seat award was for the person who did the most annoying thing, so Peter Slipper got it eight times in 2010 federal election campaign.

“Sometimes you’ll find that local candidates and MPs – and I’m one myself – will go and do things that are not on-message or off the campaign grid. Slipper holds the record, he got it the most by anyone by about a factor of four.”

The Pineapple of Justice…

“When I was campaign director I would award the pineapple on a daily basis to the team member who stuffed up the most. In the Maldives, Australia, wherever I’d go to a team meeting, and if a team member stuffs up, they’re publicly shamed and the pineapple goes on their desk.

“Often I would threaten to – in a nice way – to shove the pineapple somewhere where it shouldn’t go and it’s just become part of the campaign paraphernalia.”

And The Lightsaber of Freedom

“Given to me by my godson so I could fight the bad people. It’s from Toby, whose father is the guy I was Best Man to and forgot the rings for.

“It’s all just part of my team building approach, and if somebody did a really good job they’d get the Flags of Freedom which is couple of Australian flags wrapped together and put on their desk.”

Queensland politicians are different, right?

Clive Palmer and Bob Katter – Queenslanders. Picture Getty Images

“I think Queensland’s different. Queensland is still a frontier state; when you fly over it you realise how actually undeveloped it and because of its decentralisation, we’re still effectively the only state that has more than half its population outside the capital city.

“So in regional Queensland, you tend to get those characters who are larger than life who run for politics. You look at the Warren Entches, the Ken O’Dowds and Bob Katter… and those LNP senators are all very different people but characters in their own right. I think Queenslanders like politicians who say what they’re thinking and don’t beat around the bush. They like strong politicians.

“Queenslanders respond well to that as opposed to, I think, Victoria or the other southern states.”

Part of that translates to “being yourself on Twitter”.

“I joined about a year ago, but I don’t use it that often. What I find is that sometimes Twitter accounts become quite anodyne and my Twitter account is clearly me. My mates who follow me go “Yeah, scarily it is you”, so I think it’s a good thing because politicians on all sides of the debate are normal human beings but sometimes we get caught up in just politics and we forget we are human beings.

“The danger for me is I think I’ve got a pretty good sense of humour but humour sometimes doesn’t transfer across in politics. I’ve got to be careful of that.”

He learnt a lot from working with Boris Johnson and has a strong appreciation of Tory politics

“His greatest strength is how he can doesn’t dumb down to voters. I mentioned this in my maiden speech, my 11 Principles of Politics and Power, and the one thing I can say about Boris is he’s an intellectual, someone who is raised on the classics, but he doesn’t dumb down to voters and the voters actually respond very well with that. He’s a very good communicator; when I was with him it was like he had the X factor.

“Politicians are a bunch of boring men in suits, but Boris… people want their photos taken with him and because there’s something special about him. Boris is Boris. He doesn’t change – who you think publicly this wild-haired verbose character who’s a classic English eccentric is, is what you see in private life. He doesn’t put on a act and voters can tell he’s the genuine thing.”

It was under Johnson where McGrath’s political career, as The Australian wrote, “might have been ended”, when he was sacked over allegations he had made a racist comment to a left-wing citizen journalist. For the record, the journalist in question was equally as shocked as McGrath and told The Oz he didn’t believe the comment in question was racist either.

He also, like any true Queenslander, has that bizarre appreciation for Bundy…

… and the family Bible.

McGrath said he took the jump into front-facing politicians because…

Senator McGrath gives his maiden speech.

“It’s one of those case where I had to put up or shut up. I had been working either overseas or in Australia for a long time on campaigns and I thought well, it’s time for me to move from the back office to the front office and there’s things I think that Australia needs to have happen.

“I talked about some of them in my maiden speech, but it think tax reform is unfinished, I think that needs to be shared by the leadership, the Coalition. I’ve expressed my views on what should happen with tax reform and I think that maybe – this is me with my Queensland hat on – we are a federation… but states and territories are competing against each other, for business and for people to come and live there.

“Queensland led the way when Sir Joh abolished the Inheritance Tax back in the 70s that was the first emergence or reemergence of market federalism. This was the then Coalition government saying ‘Come to Queensland we’ve got lower taxes’and that was fantastic, we should have more of that.

“The centralisation of power and money in Canberra is strangling the states and there’s got to be a broader discussion about how the states operate. They can’t with all these tied grants and all that. They are effectively being told what to do and in my view that’s where there are things we can do to fix that up.”

And it’s not just Australian politics. McGrath’s maiden speech began with references to “the gods of War, Armageddon, wicked new orders of communism and political terror”.

“It’s not as sexy or exciting, but I do believe there is a broader battle out there between the forces of totalitarianism and sectarianism and the forces of enlightenment.

“In terms of whether it’s the Soviet oppression and Cold War or whether it’s the Islamist fundamentalism of ISIS and Al-qaeda and all that coming in, I think Western governments have always got to stand strong and stand up for those classic axis of enlightment – lower taxes, smaller governments, all those things I spoke about in my maiden speech – and democracy is the underlying pillar.”

Finally, he’s not interested in being remembered, just re-elected. His Twitter feed is littered with references to political history.

“I don’t want to be remembered for anything. It would be great if in 20 years time if I’m still in the senate, people still had no idea who I am – I’d be happy with that. I don’t have an ego, I don’t take myself seriously.

“But I would want in 20 years time to see a country with where taxes are low, people are free, we don’t have all this red tape and we still have a strong vibrant democracy and we’re surrounded in the Pacific Rim by strong vibrant democracies.

“Whether I’m there for 16 days or 16 years, I’d like to be there for a long time. The battles I want to fight are battles that I may lose, but I’ll re-fight them and re-fight them until I win.”

You can find James McGrath on Twitter.

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