Scott Ludlam is the voice of the Australian Greens on ICT issues and has earned a reputation for not holding back when it comes to protecting civil liberties in the digital age.
The boy who grew up in the back of a van traversing India and Africa with a box of Lego has come a long way and managed to earn the respect of many in the ICT industry.
Ludlam has a portfolio spanning seven areas and is unsurprisingly strapped for time. While he sips green tea during a short break after Question Time, his mind appears to constantly tick over, regularly checking his phone and glancing at a live broadcast of the Senate on a TV.
With the current Senate home to only nine Greens members, Ludlam is responsible for nuclear, sustainable cities, infrastructure, heritage, housing and assisting on defence — as well as broadband, communications and digital economy.
Ludlam specifically requested the ICT portfolio, with his interest in the digital world coming from his days running a Web design business with friends in the mid-1990s.
“People using the media and new forms of journalism emerging like Wikileaks, for example — all those things have happened in the last five years since I started in here, [and that’s] been quite interesting to be in the middle of,” he says in his office in Parliament House.
“[But technology can] be used to hide things and it can also be used to deceive, but I think on the whole this is a positive … but it does cut both ways.”
But long before Ludlam had to deal with the tangled politics surrounding some of Australia’s key technology issues, he was a kid in a van on the road with his younger brother Glen and his parents.
This experience of journeying through India and Africa taught Ludlam that not every child comes from a “white-bread suburb” as he came across other kids who had much less.
“I think it’s left a profound and probably quite preconscious impression on me that kids are the same everywhere, even if some of them didn’t have toys,” he says. “A lot of the kids that we met made their toys out of sticks and they had as much fun as we did.”
Ludlam began his path to politics as an activist, protesting against the Jabiluka uranium mine. Astounded that the government would bulldoze a world heritage area and ignore the wishes of the traditional owners of the land, Ludlam says the issue “blew a fuse” in him.
He later went on to join a campaign against a proposal to dump nuclear waste in Laverton in Western Australia.
“The only people who were helping at that point were the Greens,” he says, “so I got to meet a lot of good people during the course of those campaigns and that was how I started crossing into politics from activism.”
It was through the Jabiluka campaign that Ludlam met his long-time mentor, Jo Vallentine, a former Greens senator, at an anti-uranium mining rally.
“This young man appeared and he sort of hung around a bit after everybody had gone and there was a cup of tea debrief going to happen, so I said ‘do you want to join us for a debrief?’,” she says. “He was obviously wanting to engage.”
“So he talked to us – the only young man, the only male person actually, with this mob of women who had organised the rally,” Vallentine says. “We liked him immediately. He was quiet and unassuming – definitely a bit shy – but he said ‘what are you guys doing next? I’d like to help’.”
Ludlam was eventually elected to the Senate in 2007.
While Ludlam’s political beginning has been anchored around environmental causes, his focus on digital issues comes at a time of both significant technological change and turbulent politics around issues such as the limits of online freedom of speech.
In Ludlam’s view, online platforms such as Twitter should not be regulated by government. He believes people largely “self-regulate” social media conversations in the same way they do during face-to-face conversations.
“For individuals expressing their freedom of speech, whether we agree with it or not, no – the less regulation the better,” he says. “We have defamation law [and] we have privacy laws, as flawed as it is.”
“I don’t think we need any further institutional framework of regulating how people express themselves in this medium,” the senator adds.
The debate has focused on the online medium itself and how it should be regulated, according to Ludlam, but he thinks the conversation needs to shift from this.
“The only people who use the expression ‘cyber bullying’ are politicians and people over the age of 40 – kids don’t. It’s just bullying, irrespective of the medium,” he says.
“What we’ve seen [is] the boundaries of conversation and discourse dissolve between what is an offline and what is an online conversation. The online forms of communication have basically bled completely across into the offline world to the point where there’s barely a distinction.”
Headlines in the mainstream media have frequently focused on the negative potential of technology to facilitate online bullying or other forms of negative behaviour. But Ludlam believes technology is beginning to erode the gap between the governed and those doing the governing, with citizens able to participate much more easily in the political process.
In the US, the We The People website set up by the White House lets people directly petition the administration on issues of concern.
Ludlam says that Australia is beginning to see its own forms of ‘Gov 2.0’ emerge and the “feedback loop” between what is happening inside parliament to those outside is closing.
“It’s becoming very tight and I think it’s becoming very interesting. I think that’s very positive and I think we’re only just seeing the beginning of that,” he says.