Scott Morrison has just joined TikTok – but the most popular Australian politician on the social media app isn’t the prime minister, nor the man vying to replace him.
That honour goes to Julian Hill, a federal Labor MP from Victoria you may never have heard of if you’re not a user of the app famous for music videos and viral dances.
With 125,000 followers and 1.8m likes on his videos at the time of writing, Hill comfortably beats the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, an early adopter of the video sharing social media app with 103,000 followers, into second place.
The format allows users to post and share videos of up to three minutes (they are often shorter), rewarding those who can make an impression quickly.
Homemade music or dance videos, lip syncs, mimes and satire tend to rate best among non-political users, but Hill’s attacks on his opponents have sent his viewer count soaring.
Hill’s most popular video to date, with 1.1m views, is a three-minute clip of him finding creative ways to describe Scott Morrison’s “loose relationship with the truth” in a speech to parliament’s second-string federation chamber.
Hill joined the app this year, thanks to the suggestion of Sam Richards, the son of family friends who completed his year 10 work experience in the MP’s office.
“I was interested in [him joining] because he had a lot of social media platforms,” Richards tells Guardian Australia.
“We started putting videos of his speeches and all that on there and it started to take off.”
Richards says he and his friends are big TikTok users, and the platform appeals because the algorithm “tailors [videos] to what people want to see”.
Hill says he published a “wide range of material” from parliamentary speeches, to pieces to camera, and while sometimes a video is a sure-fire hit, at other times “the algorithm can be mysterious”.
“You’ve got to communicate with people where they are,” Hill says. “A growing number of people engage with social media through TikTok. You have to do them the courtesy of showing up and treating them as intelligent.”
Hill says his golden rules are “be authentic, don’t dance, sing or do stunts”.
Perhaps stunts are in the eye of the beholder – some might classify calling Indue to ask to be put on to the cashless debit card as a stunt.
Hill has become something of an attack dog for Labor, from labelling Morrison a “bullshit artist” to joking about his plan to become a male model by 2050 to ridicule Coalition climate targets.
Hill insists that what he posts to TikTok is often no different to content distributed through other social media, which he uses to amplify what he believes, whether said in parliament or outside.
Some colleagues wonder whether Hill’s tone – for all his online popularity – may detract from his ability to convey his policy nous, such as work in parliamentary committees covering everything from outsourcing and migration to funding of the auditor general.
Hill insists he does tackle the big issues on TikTok, including robodebt, climate change and jobs, immigration and visa issues.
He says there is “lots of silly stuff” on TikTok but “although politics is a serious business, it doesn’t always have to be boring and un-engaging”.
“That’s the line to tread.”
Hill says he gets “great feedback when I’ve taken the time to explain a policy topic or the politics, as I see it, of what’s going on”.
His videos about parliament sitting for just 10 days in the first half of 2022, or the Coalition’s move to block an investigation into Christian Porter’s donation disclosure are both in that vein.
Richards says many of his friends now follow Hill – but Hill insists it isn’t a medium just for young people.
“I had a woman in her 70s who messaged me, delighted by the [electoral boundary] redistribution. She said, ‘I’m glad I’m in your electorate because I follow you on TikTok’.
“I’ve had numerous emails from [parents] thanking me for getting their kids engaged in politics, current affairs and ideas.
“I get stopped in the street, in restaurants and shops by people wanting to talk to me because of something that struck them from TikTok, because I’ve taken the time to explain something by meeting them where they are.”
Hill’s success has caused other MPs to flock to the platform, including the shadow education minister, Tanya Plibersek. Some of his colleagues are already stars of his channel.
The manager of opposition business, Tony Burke, also rated strongly for comments attacking the government over Covid-19 vaccinations and quarantine.
Richards says a lot more MPs have joined TikTok since Hill, but “no one’s topped Julian yet”.
“I hope he stays in that top position, I’d love to see it … Of course it’s still going really well with the numbers – it’s exciting to see.
“It was a great experience – the experience of being part of something that’s done well, and helped Julian out was really exciting for me.”