Why rev-head Ricky Muir is really a Labor man

Would former Labor Prime Minister Ben Chifley successfully contest preselection today?

This is the counterfactual scenario party types routinely like to explore. A Bathurst-born engine-driver without a university degree stands no chance, some say. The ranks of modern-day Labor politicians are reserved for party officials and former staffers, full-time union officials and middle-class professionals such as lawyers.

Others respond that a 21st century Chifley would in all likelihood prevail. Australia, they point out, is a vastly different place to that of the 1920s. Bright working-class kids such as Chifley would typically progress to higher education, a virtually impossible path for their predecessors. As former ALP national secretary Tim Gartrell put it a decade ago: would Ben Chifley have been a train driver today?

Both responses contain elements of truth and yet each is flawed. Chifley’s Australia is almost unrecognisable. The old industrial working-class continues to disappear before our eyes – even if class still matters – but we are more socially mobile. Our workplaces and parliaments are less blokey and more multicultural. The stereotype of the ex-Labor staffer or apparatchik with no “real” life experience, Gartrell insists, is largely a figment of the fevered imagination of right-wingers keen to paint modern Labor as out-of-touch with the concerns of the battlers of mainstream Australia.

Yet there is no doubt that Labor’s parliamentary ranks and membership have narrowed and are less reflective of the nation’s occupational and geographical diversity. Few of the current parliamentary caucus toiled on the shop floor or hail from working-class stock (Bill Shorten, despite sniping at his private school education, is a partial exception to the rule – his father was a waterside worker) or even enjoyed a career outside of politics, for that matter. This is not to say that ex-staffers, union officials and lawyers can’t be good politicians. But their narrow career paths scarcely assist the Labor Party’s pitch to an electorate whose life experiences are alien to them.

A case in point is the current federal Senator for Victoria and member of the Australian Motoring Enthusiast Party Ricky Muir. Muir is regularly described as the accidental politician who landed in Canberra on the back on dodgy preference deals favouring a fringe right-wing party of rev-heads. Yet he defies easy characterisation: in many respects he is a working-class Labor politician drawn from central casting. Having not seen out high school, Muir has mainly worked manual jobs – farming and in the manufacturing, timber and, of course, automobile industries. He has suffered anxiety-inducing periods of joblessness, as he revealed this week writing for Fairfax on the topic of our soaring youth unemployment rate. It is one of the best opinion pieces I’ve read in many years. In Muir’s time as an East Gippsland–based forestry worker, he was a paid-up member of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union. He was shop steward for its forestry division, which by definition entails a sizeable degree of activist zeal and concern for the wellbeing of one’s colleagues. As a 33-year-old politician he helped salvage the Australian Renewable Energy Agency and voted against the Abbott government’s reckless decision to deregulate financial planning. His stellar maiden speech, delivered this week, was punctuated by a passionate defence of working-class living standards, including the right to enjoy penalty rates.

Muir is, in short, the archetypical Labor voter – a small ‘c’ conservative social democrat, although he would never be silly enough to use that phrase – whose basic concerns revolve around the wellbeing of his family, his workmates and his community.

So why wasn’t rev-head Ricky ever one of Labor’s preselected candidates or parliamentary representatives? For that matter, why wasn’t he ever a member of the ALP?

Perhaps Muir simply doesn’t identify with what some vapidly describe as “Labor values”. Certainly tribalism played no part in his upbringing by apolitical struggle-street parents. More realistically, his failure to be recruited to the Labor cause starkly demonstrates the failings of the modern ALP. It is supremely difficult for workers operating outside the formal employ of the Labor machine and wider labour movement to actively involve themselves in party affairs, to say nothing of the challenges confronting an unemployed (or underemployed) person trying to support a family.

No matter what Tim Gartrell might say, Muir’s lack of university education and high-powered connections means that he flies under the radar of party preselection. That his former union failed in its most basic task of enrolling him in the ALP is an all-too-common occurrence. If I were to suggest that Labor HQ or Muir’s local ALP branch contact him tomorrow with a view to gauging his interest in joining the party, mockery would follow.

And yet Labor is all the worse for not having the likes of Muir in its khaki.

Historically, the best governments, especially Labor ones, were occupationally diverse. Bob Hawke’s successful ministries of the mid 1980s, for instance, included a doctor, shearer, farmer, police officer, teachers, lawyers, a clerk (Paul Keating, who had also managed a rock band), two businessmen, a priest, and an accountant. A Japanese POW during World War Two, the late Tom Uren enjoyed careers as a boxer, rugby player, supermarket manager and retailer.

Perhaps we are also to blame. We bemoan the “political class” as robotic, out-of-touch types who couldn’t lie straight in bed let alone answer a simple yes-or-no question. Yet the moment a Ricky Muir is elected to parliament we cackle at the tabloid ridicule of an awkward TV interview, a kangaroo poo fight, footage of his eight-year-old daughter doing burnouts, his ill-fitting suit or a piece of unvarnished commentary.

So Ben Chifley the train-driver would certainly not win Labor preselection today.

Because, in the end, we wouldn’t want him to.

Nick Dyrenfurth

Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.

@dyrenfurth

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