Tim Ryan, the 23-year-old IT student representing the United Australia Party (UAP) in Higgins and the party’s Shadow Human Services Minister, admits that his run for the seat is a bit of a gamble.
“I’ve always considered being a candidate at some point in my life, but you know, you can wait around forever and a good opportunity won’t come up. Sometimes, you know, you just have to roll a hard six and go for it.”
Founded by mining magnate Clive Palmer in 2013, the UAP, re-emerged as a political party last June. Yet on May 18, it is running candidates in all 150 lower house seats. This means everything must be streamlined — that things run a little differently from other, more established parties. This is made a little easier by the fact that all the money comes from one source. The billboards, the television ads, even the yellow shirts on the candidate’s backs, are on Clive’s Palmer’s dime. Party entry is free, as is candidacy. It’s a nationwide tilt built on Tim-Tam memes.
Roll a hard six indeed. Higgins is considered a three-way race between the incumbent Liberals, Labor and the Greens. A rare beast. A seat under the microscope of national media outlets. A seat looked at to illustrate a shifting nation. Perhaps unfairly, the UAP has been pushed to the back of the conversation.
“If you’re not Labor, Liberal or Greens, you’re not invited to these things,” says Ryan, of recent events where candidates have opportunities to speak to voters en masse.
On April 15, Jon Faine hosted his ABC Melbourne Mornings program live from Higgins. The Green, Liberal and Labor candidates were given five minutes of air time apiece. Tim Ryan heard about it the night before. He wasn’t invited as a guest, but he showed, a smart brown jacket over his oh-so yellow T-shirt. For his effort, he got on air. Unluckily for him, it was in the form of a tag-team takedown by Faine and his afternoon counterpart, Raf Epstein.
“It didn’t necessarily go too well for me,” is probably an understatement.
When Oxfam hosted a climate change debate for Higgins candidates, much was made of the absence of the Liberal candidate Katie Allen. Ryan was not invited on grounds that the night was for “candidates most likely to win”.
Ryan cites climate change as one of the reasons he joined the fray for this election, but that doesn’t mean his views are mainstream. Had he been invited by Oxfam, Ryan probably would have said something like, “I think our policy with nuclear power is the best way to go about it.”
Instead he says this in a gaming café just outside of Higgins, in Clayton, over a soup bowl’s worth of coffee. The joint looks like a huge teenager’s bedroom. The walls are covered in pop culture posters, couches circle around screens, the air is full of the clatter of keyboards and the tuning of guitars. Outside it’s stormy, but even on sunny days the café, which is under an overpass, probably isn’t brimming with natural light. This was Ryan’s choice for an interview location. Again, the UAP does things a little differently.
Ryan is a little coy about how many freedoms he has as a candidate. Early this year he attended the party’s privately filmed campaign launch in Queensland, where all the candidates filmed scripted campaign videos in front of uniformed yellow backgrounds. Hanging over all 150 campaigns is a sense of cautious similarity, despite the maverick nature of their leader. There is a Victorian head office, but only three of the candidates have a key.
Ryan realises his chances of winning in Higgins are slim, but he believes that Palmer is in it for the right reasons, even if many others are sceptical
“It’s not about the money, so why is he doing this? Speaking to him personally, it’s because he feels a responsibility to Australia.”
Plus, Ryan says, there is freedom if he wants it.
“I can start making my own memes, I just have to get them checked.”