It’s Bondi Hipster Christiaan Van Vuuren, but not as you know him. So what’s he doing sniffing around the political arena?
When we first meet the actor and comedian in his debut docuseries Big Deal, which premiered on the ABC in October, the self-confessed political ignoramus is “watching America slowly falling apart” and wondering if the same fate could befall Australian democracy.
Across two one-hour episodes directed by political satire writer Craig Reucassel (The Chaser’s War on Everything, The Hamster Decides), Van Vuuren has some uncomfortable revelations as he follows the money trail in Australian politics: scrutinising the conduct of the fossil fuel, gun and gambling lobbies, as well as the political parties that lap up their gargantuan donations.
At a time when public trust in Australia’s political system is on the rocks, when there’s scant truth in political advertising, and when “transparency” around corporate donations is as opaque as ever, it’s cathartic watching a comedian brandishing oversized blank cheques as he tries to give our two major parties the tools to declare political donations. (Spoiler: it doesn’t work.)
The show asks the question: is the secretive nature of the political donations system in Australia one of the worst in the western world? (Spoiler: it is. When Big Deal appeared on Channel 10’s Gogglebox not long after its launch, the TV nuts were aghast at the way wealth buys power and access in Australia and its likeness to the US system.)
Van Vuuren made a name for himself in 2010 as The Fully Sick Rapper, filming YouTube videos from his Sydney hospital room where he was quarantined for six months with drug-resistant tuberculous. A decade on, he muses that the same (free) healthcare he received in Australia would have bankrupt him in the US, where private health insurance companies have a stranglehold on democracy. Suddenly for him, the personal is political. But the fact Van Vuuren is no political guru is part of what makes Big Deal so compelling.
To the experts Van Vuuren interviews – including the Sydney Morning Herald’s Kate McClymont, senior political lecturer Lindy Edwards and Guardian Australia’s own Katharine Murphy and Ben Smee – the comedian’s incredulity may seem naive. But his exposé of how big donors exert influence on policy and election outcomes really does beg the question: how are we OK with this?
As Van Vuuren cajoles current and former politicians to dish the dirt – including the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, former rising ALP star Sam Dastyari, Labor MP Linda Burney and fiercely independent senator Jacqui Lambie – his investigations seem rooted in a desire to make the world better for his two children. At one point, we see his kids build Lego towers to represent donations by the fossil fuel industry to the two major political parties. Not only do the towers almost topple, but when his son’s Coalition tower overtakes his daughter’s Labor tower thanks to coalminer donations, she giggles and says, “I want Adani!” It’s endearing and frightful. For young people in Australia, it’s another cause to get behind to secure a fairer future.
But Big Deal is not all doom for our democracy. Van Vuuren comes to the conclusion that people can often be more powerful than money. The success of the grassroots Voices for Indi campaign – which led to the election of two independent MPs (Cathy McGowan and Helen Haines) in a traditionally conservative rural electorate – is a case in hope. So too is the community in northern New South Wales who fought off coal seam gas exploration.
Big Deal is a wakeup call to the Australia public. Asking for only two hours of your time, it doesn’t preach or pummel you with political facts as it exposes the “forces operating behind closed doors”. Ever the YouTube star, Van Vuuren even throws in a catchy song and dance to keep spirits high.