Senator Ricky Muir is the only parliamentarian in Australia that’s been elected as a motoring enthusiast, so we thought we’d catch up after his first year in office.

IT’S A COLD SUNDAY morning at the Maffra & District Car Club headquarters in Boisdale, about half an hour’s drive north of Sale, Victoria.  The patch of ground that serves as a pit area is filling up as cars arrive, equipment is unloaded and everyone settles in for the day.  Once the setup is out of the way there’s usually time to relax before the driver’s briefing and first runs, but this time I have an unusual job to do.
My vehicle is parked some distance away from the noise and bustle because today it’s not just a competition car, it’s also a portable studio.  In the car with me for an interview is Senator Ricky Muir, who has given me the choice of location – at his office, or here on race day.  As a fellow motorsports enthusiast the choice was simple… 
PRACTICAL MOTORING:  Can you briefly describe how you came to be in the Senate?
SENATOR RICKY MUIR:  “The AMEP was formed roughly four months before the 2013 election.  It was a party that stood out to me, as I’ve had an interest in cars, and a very heavy interest in 4WDs.  At that stage I was making YouTube videos, trying to bring awareness when somebody does the wrong thing, that doesn’t mean everyone else, so we don’t need to bring in kneejerk policies that prevents other people from getting out and enjoying the lifestyle.”
PM: So how did the opportunity to run come up?
SRM: “I had been dealing with the central executive of the party a fair bit…they got in contact with me because of the videos I’d been making. The party was growing quickly, we thought well there is an election coming up we might as well run candidates, the question was put to me, and I thought, well, sure…nobody gets elected in their first election…I’ll thought I’ll be back in three years doing the exact same thing, I didn’t think twice, and the rest is history!”
PM:  What do you see as the main issues with the automotive industry, the challenges, the things the Federal Government needs to get involved in, or not involved in?
SRM: “There are a lot of challenges, and it’s not by chance the AMEP managed to get a senate seat. Things going on at senate level – we’re losing Ford/Holden/Toyota, we’re not going to be manufacturing vehicles here, so that brought the review of the Motor Vehicle Standard Act forward; there needs to be discussion around things like luxury car tax which was brought in to protect our manufacturing market, but we don’t have it any more; the jobs that are going to be lost when manufacturing leaves, that’s something that needs to be looked at seriously. There’s a federal government initiative the automotive transformation scheme, that’s a pot of about $900m, which was designed for manufacturers of parts for new vehicles, and the eligibility criteria is that you need to be manufacturing parts for new vehicles, so essentially that’s still there, the government recently came out and said we’ll support it, but nobody’s going to be manufacturing parts for new vehicles. So that money’s just sitting there…”
PM: So we’ve got the car manufacturing closing down.  What are the other issues that you see the automotive industry has to face in Australia?
SRM: “Well it’s an ever-changing industry. We’ve got service data, cars are electronic now, good or bad. Independent repairers need to be able to access up-to-date service data so they can perform their jobs.”
PM: So where do you stand on that, the ongoing stoush between car manufacturers and independent repairers over service data?
SRM: “I’m very much in support of small businesses. There are about 20,000 independent repairers around Australia, the dealer network couldn’t possibly pick that up. At the moment there is an in-principle agreement that the dealer networks will share service data, but it still comes at a cost to the independent repairers. In the US recently, General Motors spoke about its intellectual property in the computer in the car you buy, so you can’t modify that, you can’t do anything. I have great concerns about those sort of cases coming over here.”
PM: Is anything going on in federal parliament looking at that issue?
SRM: “Not yet. What will be discussed by 2016 is Australian consumer law which is where these sort of stories need to be heard.”
PM: Speaking of which, what about lemon laws?
SRM: “I was hoping you’d lead into that! If you buy a brand new car and you have repeated problems, you have the right to have it repaired, or if the problem is continuous, replaced. A lot of people have found themselves caught up in VCAT having to spend a lot of money essentially getting nowhere, that’s even led to people publicly destroying their vehicles…”
SRM:! I’ve been in contact with people who know those people but haven’t actually made contact with them yet.  As the review goes on I will be speaking to them a lot more. If you’re buying a brand new car my view is that you should have some kind of consumer protection especially if it’s a lemon. As cars are more regularly being built down to a price rather than a standard and we’re going to be importing more, we need to make sure the manufacturer, not so much the dealer, the dealer has their part to play sure, but they’re even at the squeeze point now where they’re not making anything out of car sales, the manufacturer needs to make sure that they’re providing their dealers a quality product.”
PM: Let’s talk about the aftermarket industry. The major car manufacturers are shutting down, but we’ve got a thriving aftermarket industry, the 4WD accessories especially, how can you see the federal government helping that, developing that, where do you see that going?
SRM: “Well that goes back to the automotive transformation scheme, some of these manufacturers which are making parts for new vehicles may be able to step into the aftermarket, the eligibility criteria needs to be changed so that that way it can actually move forwards once manufacturing leaves and access some of that money for further development and employment. There definitely needs to be some kind of criteria to tick the box off to make sure we don’t invest in businesses that are going to close up soon after, anyway.”
PM: What do you think of federal government assistance for a trade fair, help the aftermarket promote their wares overseas, that sort of thing?
SRM: “The AAAA recently had an expo, kind of Australia’s version of SEMA, I actually helped initiate an enquiry into the future of the automotive industry. And what we really need is not just government or bureaucrats sitting back saying this is what we should do, but actually get the industry involved to say this is what we can do. One thing that came out of that inquiry [which is still ongoing] is that Austrade recognised the potential growth of the Chinese middle class, and there’s a lot of scope for us to sell products over there. They want to buy our products, it’s more expensive, it’s seen as a good thing, a good strong reliable product. It’s an image like Nike shoes, if you’ve got an Australian-made turbo or something like that then they’re impressed; they’re happy with it. There’s one thing we do really well here and that’s manufacturing high quality products, yet our government – both sides, not picking on any side – haven’t done the best to stand up for the aftermarket.”
PM: What do you think could be done?
SRM: “A lot of people used to be connected to their vehicle. You had an old HQ Holden, might do a bit of suspension work, put some wheels on it, change the paintwork, you liked the car, you were aware of what problems it may have, but you spent money on it regardless. Now, if you’re a motoring enthusiast that seems to be frowned upon, a lot of that’s State issues, which I don’t have much, if any weight on at all, but if we’re encouraging people to be connected with their vehicle in the end maybe look at nationalised standards. We have NCOP but every state looks at that differently.”
PM: Let’s talk about that, it’s a bit of a drag on the aftermarket, that every state has a slightly different interpretation of the rules.  Is there anything that can be done federally to make life a bit easier so people can spend more time developing product and less time reading rules?
SRM: “I think there is. One of the things is making awareness in parliament which I am, but there’s issues there. If we have national standards and consistency not just with modifications or personalisation but also road rules, it’s going to make things a lot easier for industry, we can make this product in NSW and sell it in SA.   Somebody in SA will be able to say my car’s going to be legal when I drive it into WA. 
PM: So that’s the ideal.  Do you see any way that can actually happen?
SRM: “There’s certainly a lot of discussion going on now where I don’t think it was in the past. Everything’s got to start somewhere. Now I’m in there I’m finding my feet, starting to realise who I need to speak to to kick some goals, I’d like to think in the near future things go beyond conversations and we start getting recommendations, and get everybody behind it, industry, public, recommendations need to be adopted.”
PM: In the federal government are there like-minded people who are trying to push for the same thing?
SRM: “There actually are a few motoring enthusiasts in the senate!”
PM:  Oh really?  Want to name names?
SRM: “I’ll leave names out, if they want to stand up and I think they should, there’s some very good senators in there…”
PM: Are you the only senator with a CAMS license?
SRM: “Ah, no, I’m not!  I might have to dob one in now. Senator Bushby from Tasmania has a CAMS license and he’s encouraging me to enter an event with him later on this year. I was told in the very beginning by everybody that everyone is going to be a motoring enthusiast…and you have no idea how many come up to me…I ride bikes, I drive cars…”
Senator Muir in his “Combaru”, a Subaru powered by a Commodore engine.
PM: So there’s a few senators and MPs into this then?
SRM: “Yes absolutely.  Not probably to the extent I am, my interest has never been just one facet of the motor enthusiast culture, I’ve always had an interest in dirtbikes. Strong interest in 4WDing scene, camping, outdoor living, I hunt as well as fish, I’ve got a huge interest in that area.  We’re here at the local hillclimb track where I still compete and will compete until the end of my time.”
PM: Speaking of clubs, how do you see car clubs developing, what they can do to advance what they want?
SRM: “One thing I’ve definitely learned is that if you’re going to lobby government – be organised. Don’t go to somebody with just a complaint, go to them with proof, evidence, and a solution, and if you can do that in 15 to 30  minute meeting you’re going to get interest, people are going to pay attention. If you just resort to social media, attack your local member time after time, ring their office and turn up demanding something to happen you’ve really disconnected yourself from the process. Do your research. Numbers. Numbers work in droves. If you’ve got a lobby group of 3-4 representatives that go to parliament house, state or local council with 100,000 members they’re going to think, well, ‘they’re all voters’, they have to pay attention, if you’re organised, you’ve got the evidence and a few possible solutions then you’re going to turn heads.”
PM: Let’s talk about road safety. What aspects of road safety are under federal control?
SRM: “A lot of people want me to turn the focus away revenue raising speed cameras. All that’s State issues. But at the moment we do have an inquiry at federal level into aspects of road safety and I’m using the opportunity to speak about driver education, but whenever we speak about driver education we are quite regularly shut down by driver education groups saying education makes young people overconfident. In the inquiry, I’ve asked who did the research, what did it focus on, how old was it, and can you table it. Nobody’s tabled it, and that includes the TAC. They couldn’t tell me who did it, but I know who did it. Last time it was reviewed it was 1996, and its focus was not on driver education but on skidpans. If people don’t know what ABS is and how to use it when are you supposed to learn? When you’re going for your license, when the technology comes out, or half a second before you hit the tree that kills you?”
PM: So what do you see as the solution to reducing the road toll? Victoria’s got the Towards Zero programme…
SRM: “Yes, that’s interesting. Been wanting to get involved in that. I think I’ll speak to Minister Donnellan as soon as I get an opportunity; I’m hearing on the grapevine that they’re thankfully starting to speak about education. Driving’s the only thing… if you want your kid to be good at football, swimming… you get them trained. Driving’s the only thing we say that’s going to do you no good if you get training. So we need to change that thinking. I’d like to think the Victorian government is looking at that seriously, and at the federal level we need that pressure down to states.”
PM: When you say driver training… there’s many different types of education you can do, 4WD, drift, racetrack, car control or low risk which looks at attitude and observation skills… which one are you talking about?
SRM: “It really depends. We definitely need to separate driver education from motorsport. If you’re going to go on the road, simple awareness, being connected with your vehicle. How may people know how to check their tyres? check their oil? hand placement on the steering wheel?  We teach people how to pass a test but not to be competent. Now we’ve got vehicles coming out that identify things in your blind spot… my concern is that that’s going to stop people being aware, looking over their shoulder and making sure there’s nothing there. There’s only so much technology can do.  AEB doesn’t realise there’s black ice on the road. We need to make sure people are trained to not rely on the technology, but know why it’s there, what it can do, and what it can’t.
PM: Is there any move at federal level to address road safety from that perspective?  Seems to be a lot of focus making roads safer and enforcing speed limits, pretty much everything apart from the driver.
SRM: “I think there’s a divide between State and Federal, and that’s why I’m so happy there’s an inquiry into key aspects of road safety. There’s an opportunity to get witnesses in who look at things differently, because if we keep looking at things the same way we’re going to keep getting the same result.  We do hear that we’re having less fatalities on the road – we are – cars have airbags everywhere, they’re safer, the technology is working, but the road toll is going down, but the rate of incidents is not, so people are surviving a crash, but the ultimate thing is avoiding the crash in the first place. We can’t solely rely on technology to do it. So the conversations through the inquiry are happening right now.”
PM: What have been your achievements in your first 12 months?
SRM: “Well… simple little things like the establishment of Parliamentary Friends of Motoring, had a car show on the lawns of Parliament House.”
PM: What is that?
SRM: “There are Parliamentary Friends of just about everything…. think it’s 66 or so, and it’s a good way to raise awareness in the corridors of power of certain issues. So for us to establish the Parliamentarian Friends of Motoring was an opportunity to shine a light on grassroots motorsports like the type of event we’re at today, which is affordable, that anyone can get into. Then parliamentarians can speak to their state colleagues, local councils, and say there’s a big benefit here, brings a lot of money into the local economy. We’ve had CAMS come in and do a presentation… they had Enrst & Young do research on economic benefits of motorsports, $2.7billion, 16,000 permanent jobs, parliamentarians start to listen.”
PM: What have been the highlights of your first year?
SRM: “As far as motoring goes, helping establish the inquiry into road safety, being a founding member into the future of the Australian automotive industry, been working or at least having conversations with Minister Briggs in relation to the Motor Vehicle Standards Act, and just starting conversations that I believe have never been had before.”
PM: Like what?
SRM: “Such as the road safety conversation, economic befits of motorsport.”
PM: What do you want to achieve for the remainder of your term?
SRM: “I’ve loved the fact I’ve been able to come in as an ordinary person not with any major agenda, to review legislation as it’s put forward as an ordinary person, and to go out within the community and speak to people I would always have associated with beforehand rather than just listening to lobby groups, and not fall into the trap of just speaking to the political class. If I was to leave parliament at the end of my term knowing I voted with my conscience on everything, did the best I could by my constituency, kicked a few goals… in my first weeks I managed to save the Australian renewable energy agency… that’s something that’s important to me and a heck of lot of other motoring enthusiasts. When the removal of the carbon tax was done we managed to save the schoolkids’ bonus, because I know what it’s like to come from a low-income background, and I know that money was used to help pay for shoes and school excursions. I’ve literally been the beneficiary of that. When the government was going to squeeze through Medicare reform on the quiet I was the second parliamentarian to make noise about that, and to see that quashed before it went anywhere was amazing.”
“I would like to think that we have support for motorsport coming through federal channels. I think it’s about $9 billion a year the federal governments invests in swimming, and $375,000 for motorsport. I’d like to see that the Federal Government will identify that there’s opportunity for grassroot motorsport to grow, therefore encouraging the aftermarket industry to grow, if I could leave thinking that I at least gave people somewhere to go to enjoy their chosen lifestyle and the government recognised the economic benefits of it, I’ll be pretty content with that, but I hope I can do whole heap more than that.”
PM: Do you think there will be more representation from the AMEP?
SRM: “I hope so. If people want to see change they need to find their common ground and move forwards in numbers. I’d like to see representation at the State level. I think that’d be fantastic, because that’s where the magic will really happen for motoring enthusiasts because their issues are mainly state related.
PM: How do you find yourself viewed as a motoring enthusiast?  
SRM: “In the very early days if I was to jump on Twitter there’d be a common thing about Ricky Muir being a revhead bogan, but that’s the wrong perception. I was elected as part of the AMEP so that gives the perception I’m a one-trick pony but that’s not true. I care a great deal about youth unemployment, and trying to get people employed rather than taking money off people. Looking at different ways to make revenue, such as financial transaction taxes which are minute so the average person would never notice but corporations would paying their fair share. I think there’s other ways to do things. I like that I can bring fresh ideas to the table. I think a lot of people are disconnected from politics as I was for many years, and that’s fair enough, the political system has locked the ordinary people out for a very long time and I think that’s time that started changing…”
The Practical Motoring interview studio.

As you can see from the interview Senator Muir is the real deal motoring enthusiast. He’s unusual because he took the step of speaking out about issues he cares about, which inadvertently got him the AMEP nod, then elected. So whether or not you agree with his opinions it’s pretty clear he’s in this because he wants to make a difference.

It’s also notable that he’s into so many different aspects of car and outdoors culture from 4WD to autocross to fishing, shooting to camping and dirtbikes whereas most people tend to specialise a bit more.

There is a perception that anyone into motorsports, 4WDs or camping is some sort of far-right redneck. Ricky Muir is proof that’s not true, and he’s no puppet of the Coalition or anyone else. The expert political commentators over at Crikey have a good rundown of his career to date, and even describe him as a “secret lefty revhead” (paywall).  It is true Muir supported same-sex marriage, but to claim that “support for same-sex marriage is something rather off-road for Motoring Enthusiasts — and quite possibly contrary to the views of many.” shows that they don’t understand the average motorsports enthusiast is an average Australian. The way Muir made his statement was also notable – sat back a bit, listened, considered, then delivered a long but eloquent reasoning behind his call which was well received.  He’s getting a reputation for that style of operation which makes a nice change from point-scoring soundbites.

The senator is also a straight shooter in another way.  Prior to the interview there were no requests for questions, on the day there were no minders or no-go areas, no request to see the piece before we published it – and we decided to go for a transcript so you can hear his own words.  The interview was really just an informal chat very similar to the hundreds that go on in motorsport paddocks every weekend. Except this guy has a bit more power than the average, so it’ll be interesting to see how he goes over the next five years.

jargon buster

Here’s a video of Senator Muir driving the Boisdale hillclimb, not on the day we were there, but nevertheless representative – Ricky Muir Hillclimb video, Boisdale
Grassroots motorsports runs on volunteer labour. Like any other competitor, Senator Muir takes his turn as a flag marshal, ready to wave a car down if the one in front has a problem.

of Senate, state and government

There’s often confusion between which type of government is responsible for what, and a misconception about how much power or influence senators and MPs actually have.  For example, I saw a Facebook comment a while back wondering why Senator Muir hadn’t got involved in some 4WD issue around Mansfield.  Well, first off at the time he hadn’t actually taken his seat, and second that was a state issue.  So we put the questions to Ricky:
PM: Can you tell us a bit about how the Senate and politics works? 
SRM:  It’s quite a complex beast.  You hear regularly from people that have been involved with politics for a long time, you will never stop learning.  My position in the Senate is essentially to review what the government puts forward.   So we don’t get to put the legislation forwards, we get to review the government’s agenda.  A lot of people get very confused about that thinking I should be able to put policies forwards… I get opportunities to move private senator’s bill, but the reality is you only get so many hours over a six-year term to even speak about it, so it’s very, very hard to get a private senator’s bill through.
PM: So you have to pick your battles?
SRM: You do.  If I was to solely focus on state-related issues I’d be burning my time and taxpayers’ money on something I can’t even vote on, so I have to be really careful.  I am making friends in the state government so I do have a couple of contacts I can speak to, and say ‘look I have an issue’, might be something in relation to, say… the great forest national park, I fear is going to interfere with hunting and the revenue that’s raised from it, 4WD, dirtbike, and I have come from the forestry industry and I know there’s a lot of mistruths about that industry as well. But that’s state, and I have essentially no power in that area, with the exception of lobbying state government but I can’t spend my whole time doing that or I’ll miss the things going on at federal level.

Does Ricky Muir know 4WDs?

PM: Okay, as a four-wheel driver, can you translate this – “I’ve got a twin-locked 80 on 35s”.
SRM: “Absolutely. You got a 80 Series Toyota Landcruiser running on 35″ tyres, locking diffs up front and back, could be a Lockrite, could be an autolocker, probably ARB AirLockers…”
I think we’ll call that a pass!  In case you were wondering, this is what a twin-locked 80 with 35s looks like.  I like to have one of these following me around when I’m testing new 4WDs in the bush.  It can generally manage to keep up…

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