Who is Australia's Bernie Sanders?

God, Australia's Left is bloody uninspiring this election. Where's our Bernie Sanders? Where's our folk hero?
June 30, 2016, 12:00am
Illustration Ben Thomson

God, Australia's Left is bloody uninspiring this election. Looking at asylum seeker policy, emissions reduction and negative gearing, Labor and Liberal are almost indistinguishable. The parties might not be twins yet, but they're certainly sisters.

Where's our Bernie Sanders? Where's our folk hero?

At first glance, there doesn't seem to be anyone in Australian politics who can reinvigorate (small l) liberal voters, or at least deal with Labor's terminal centrist drift. But there's potential out there—there's just gotta be, right? And if anybody is qualified to find us a hero, it's VICE writers, who're only just old enough to vote in the federal election. Let's go!

via Fiona Patten MP


When you think of Bernie Sanders, sex might not be the first word that springs to mind. The association could even make you uncomfortable—conjuring an image of Bernie's withered 74-year-old body, naked save for a pair of knee-high socks. But what Bernie and Sex Party leader Fiona Patten have in common has nothing to do with sex.

Fiona has got what it takes to rise up as the hero of Left. Like Bernie—and unlike other so-called "protest parties"—she's actually bloody good at passing legislation. Both private members bills she's put forward in Victoria's parliament have passed: The first created a protest-free buffer zone around abortion clinics, and the second will soon regulate (and effectively legalise) Uber across the state of Victoria.


Neither Fiona nor Bernie are fazed by centrist concerns of legitimacy. Take Bernie, admitting, "I've done marijuana twice in my life…it made me cough a lot." Fiona actually went a step further, penning an op-ed in The Age saying, "I have enjoyed the many blessings that cannabis can bestow for a lot of my adult life and have not lost my mind or become a serial killer."

Fiona is also open about her former career as a sex worker, and she remains the most vocal advocate for the legalisation of sex work in Australian politics. The Sex Party is also pushing the government to tax the church—something Sanders has shied away from.

Fiona's biggest roadblock to becoming Australia's Bernie Sanders is her own party. The Sex Party aren't really considered a serious contender—they've got a niche platform, a provocative name, and they run unorthodox campaigns. They're libertarians, not socialists. Even if the Sex Party do, in some years, hold a place in the political landscape more akin to today's Greens, we'll have to wait for Fiona Patten's progressive revolution.

via Daniel Andrews MP


Much like the smiling grandpa of America's independent left, Victorian premier Daniel Andrews has that "I smell like two dollar store antiseptic soap" vibe, which screams sensible, progressive politicking.

Dan and Bernie share more than a no-nonsense fragrance. Victoria's premier has real guts when it comes to public spending, especially around divisive issues. Currently, his government allocates more to domestic violence services than the entire federal government does. He also spearheaded the expansion of funding for 11,000 people seeking asylum to legally prove their refugee status.


In the 18 months Dan Andrews has spent as Victoria's premier, he's shown a Sanderian talent for legislative action; from the implementation of Australia's first statewide medical marijuana program, to the commissioning of Australia's first LGBTI Pride Centre.

More than any other current premier, Dan can lay claim to the "politically prudent, yet socially conscious bad boy" moniker. He was proudly defiant in the face of the Coalition's deeply ideological (and thinly veiled as such) inquiry into the Safe Schools Coalition, tweeting, "We're not winding back Safe Schools. End of story."

Unfortunately for Dan, Australia has only seen two premiers become prime minister, and in both of those situations the premiers in question have switched from progressive to conservative parties before taking the top job. In the US, on the other hand, 17 state governors have become president.

This means there isn't much historical precedent to suggest Dan is likely to successfully jump from the state to the federal level. More so, his propensity to walk outside party lines on topics like marijuana and LGBTQI issues makes him an unlikely candidate for federal office. Even if his Facebook page has double the followers of NSW premier Mike Baird.

In that sense, Dan's inability to match Bernie's federal level of success is oddly underpinned by one of their greatest similarities; both need major reforms to happen their respective party's platform before they're likely to lead at a federal level.


Phil is an interesting contender. In one sense, he's more like Bernie than anyone else on this list: he's firmly held his stance on controversial issues when it wasn't necessarily en-vogue (sexism, family violence, the Iraq war). On the other hand, he's never been embedded as deeply in politics as the others.

He briefly held a seat in House of Reps during the 90s, but soon swapped the floor for the press gallery. That post-parliamentary career as a journalist might mean he's light on policy experience, but it's gifted him with the kind of media awareness career politicians are paying someone for.


In the 80s, Phil was a VFL star (before the AFL rebrand) and he stuck around as a commentator after retiring. This means two things: he's already familiar with a little celebrity, and he's got what it takes to infiltrate an institution that's resistant to his progressive politics—the AFL boys club—and tell everyone inside they're full of shit. His quick response to Eddie Mcguire's recent drowning comments: they "only give succour to the men who kill and bash."

Violence against women is a big one for Phil. After his sister was killed by her abusive partner in the 80s, he's been out nearly every week talking the under-reportage of rape, loopholes in family violence laws, and the casual sexism that's the bedrock for domestic violence. It's rare to hear a male politician say "patriarchy" with the venom Phil does. In fact, there isn't a man sitting in parliament that's so willing to shit on his own gender.He's more of a campaigner than a legislator.

That's the thing about Phil, he's not really a politician. He's an outsider — or at least, not a great fit in our two party preferred system. This election, he's endorsing the Greens. If Phil were to stage a heroic return to politics, and reach Bernie-level heights, he'd probably have to abandon his lifelong commitment to staying independent, and join Labor's ranks. And that's not bloody likely.

It's refreshing, and that's where Phil taps into the sentiment at the core of Bernie appeal: he feels different.

via The Greens/Jean Paul Horre


Scott Ludlam is one of the few politicians on this list who actually operates with millennials in mind. Like Bernie, he understands they are his core supporter base. He's even engendered enough goodwill from somebody, somewhere, for there to be a Twitter account dedicated to his hairstyle.

Sometimes this means he does gimmicky shit—like DJing at music festivals. Generally though Scott's awareness of people raised on the web works to his advantage. He's mastered the "viral parliamentary speech," and pulled off a popular Reddit AMA.


Progressive policies aside, Scott's biggest asset is that he's very good at looking like he's standing up to something. That's exciting. It's the same reason why people rally around Bernie Sanders: It feels like he's coming for the powers that be. When both of them speak, you really feel like they're sticking it to the man.

That shouldn't be as exceptional as it is. It doesn't take much for an Australian politician to come across as inspiring—advocating for basic human rights will usually do the trick.

Of course, if there's anything holding Scott Ludlam back from being the folk hero Australia needs, it's that he's young and sprightly. Both he and Bernie position themselves as underdogs, but a handsome 40-something with clear skin and a fancy voice is far less believable hero than a crotchy septuagenarian that bought his last pair of shoes to celebrate the signing of the treaty of Versailles.

via ALP


Okay, I know I already had one but Penny Wong matches Sanders on too many key issues not to include her.

Both began their political careers at university, both are known for their rousing speeches on issues that have historically been points of party room contention. Take Penny's vocal support for marriage equality, even as the Gillard-Rudd Governments failed to amend the Marriage Act under pressure from Labor Right. It could be said both have played second fiddle to their respective party's centrist favourite with a Lucille Bluth haircut.


Bernie and Penny also both worked their way up from the bottom in politics. After seizing control of the Adelaide University Labor Club at just 18 years old, Penny has worked with student unions, the CFMEU, and been a delegate at the South Australian Labor Convention every year since 1988 (except 1995). She's generally established herself as one of the most powerful and hardworking cogs in the Labor Party machine.

More than that though Penny has done all this while battling unending torrents of sexism, racism, and homophobia. Her recent comments on the inability of straight politicians to fully understand the seriousness of the proposed marriage equality plebiscite have won her the Sander's Cup for "Inciting Dickheaded Politicians to Make Completely Fucked Statements About Fairness and Equality," when Scott Morrison made the gaffe now known as "homophobes have feelings too."

Plus, she's almost as meme-able as Bernie. There's even tumblr page dedicated to cataloging the truthy, juicy soundbites she's dropped over the years—like her 2014 assertion that "Abbott will go down as one of the most short-sighted, selfish, and small people ever to occupy the office of prime minister."

Assuming Wong can help make marriage equality an Australian reality, her next opportunity to prove herself as a Sanders-esque folk hero will be using her status as the first Asian-born member of an Australian cabinet to take serious shots at our country's racist immigration policies.

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