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Jacqui Lambie and wildcard senators are not rogues


Jacquie Lambie tells the Senate she is quitting PUP

Jacqui Lambie has resigned from the Palmer United Party, apologising to the nation for weeks of acrimonious sniping and instability in parliament. 

The disintegration of the relationship between the Tasmanian Senator and PUP leader Clive Palmer prompts us to ask what we can properly expect of the new independent senators who took office at the beginning of July, and what they can expect of us as voters and commentators on politics.

On the first question, I suggest they are all doing their best to fulfil their mandates to  state voters, and to the nation. Sometimes some of them make poor choices before voting. So, of course, do senators representing one or other of the major parties, including the Greens. But the newbies can also make good voting decisions that add value to our threatened democracy, economy or environment. 

On the second question, the answer is simple. We should offer the independent senators – and Clive Palmer – no more and no less respect than we give to senators from the Coalition, Labor or the Greens. 

I think we are now failing at this. Regularly. This is concerning, because the independent senators all have strategic votes that are capable of determining the outcome of votes concerning important questions including human rights, climate change, counterterrorism, budget cuts in areas including health, education and the ABC, and more.

If we fall into the now habitual trap of treating the new independent senators or Palmer with mockery or disdain, our democracy and the interests of ordinary people will suffer. 

Setting aside the ten Green senators, who have arguably earned respect already, we need to consider what value the other eight crossbench senators bring to the Senate and to our democracy.

Two of them – Xenophon and Madigan – are experienced. Xenophon is almost universally well-regarded, and Madigan is finally earning some grudging respect. But the six new independents, and Palmer, have been copping a sustained bad press from many commentators including some from the ABC. 

There are two kinds of critique. First, that they are know-nothing ignoramuses – the result of flaws in the electoral system – who just should not be there. The second is that they are, at heart, right-wingers, vulnerable to being bought by the Coalition when the right bribe comes along. The former critique can be heard from anywhere, the latter comes from the left (from Labor and even, at times, the Greens). 

I have not found either critique justified in the five months since the six newbies joined the Senate. Lambie is doing strong lobbying for the ADF and families in keeping defence pay in line with inflation, and she is standing up for Tasmanian rights. Together with Ricky Muir, she made a good choice in joining Labor, the Greens and other independents – excluding the two other PUP senators, who in my view wrongly voted with the government this time – to reject the government's dangerous proposed new FOFA regulations. 

The PUP itself has spoken out against the government's proposed health, education and ABC cuts; has blocked the abolition of the Renewable Energy Target; has retained the Climate Change Authority. True, it helped the government abolish the carbon tax, but it held open the possibility of a future emissions trading scheme (also Labor's policy). PUP seems to have the right instincts on boat people human rights, although this remains to be tested in votes.  

Leyonhelm is doing good work on civil liberties under pressure of panic-driven terror laws. 

This is not a bad record over five months for six newbies. Listening to Lambie explaining to the media how she will conduct herself in Parliament from now on, given that she apparently no longer feels bound by PUP directives, I was impressed by her exposition of her responsibilities to ADF people and to Tasmanian electors. I hope that her present breach with Palmer will not result in either of them succumbing to Coalition blandishments. Lambie says she will vote with PUP where they agree on the issues; and she stressed it is not about personalities. Lambie could in time become a new Brian Harradine. 

I found Palmer's ability to negotiate good outcomes with Al Gore on important climate change issues impressive. Of course he carries baggage of self-interest - who does not, in this Parliament? – but he is no worse than most and better than some.

I can understand the hostility of the major parties, and even the Greens, to the newbies. They have upset the predictable protocols of a two or three party Senate. They are wild cards. It is in the major parties' self-interest to try to exploit differences, to weaken and destabilise them. 

But why the visceral hostility of many in the media towards the new senators and Palmer? Why do so many commentators and editorialists go out of their way to mock and belittle them? The present malignant coverage of the Palmer-Lambie split is perhaps the worst example. At the moment, some people are head-kicking Palmer, trying to worsen the split. There is developing some real or pretended respect for Lambie. 

But long before this, Lambie herself came in for heavy sexist and classist media bullying. In many ways she filled Julia Gillard's old slot: as a woman, with a broad accent and She has an earthy style, an unconventional taste in clothes, and a lack of the experienced politician's media instinct for self-preservation. On this, she has learned fast, and I don't think we'll see a repeat of her injudicious 'well-hung' joke some months ago. 

Xenophon – a smart, experienced operator - says that it is important to treat the newbies seriously and with respect. He is right. It's time, I suggest, for Labor, the Greens and the mainstream media to stop demeaning the independent senators and their parties.

Tony KevinTony Kevin is an award winning author and former diplomat.

Topic tags: Tony Kevin, politics, Jacquie Lambie, parliamentary democracy, Nick Xenophon



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Existing comments

Of the Independents in the Senate, I've always thought Nick Xenophon impressive. Jacqui Lambie will always attract attention - she is outspoken, unafraid of a stoush and cares deeply about her electorate. By definition, Independents are not given to 'party' politics and we (the electorate) generally like to see the Senate as the stamping ground of the maverick. It's easy to mock their idiosyncrasies though - a great Aussie pastime. Lambie, and other Independents, have my best wishes for a successful contribution to Parliament!

Pam | 24 November 2014  

Good article. The two major parties need to remember that the newbies were elected by a substantial proportion of the electorate who have lost faith and confidence in either of them. When ministers, shadow ministers, and their tame-cat supporters in the media mock and ridicule the newbies, they are mocking and ridiculing those who voted for them. It won't be as easy for the major parties to get rid of the newbies in the Senate as it was for them to destroy the independents in the House. Like it or not, and for good and ill, they are here to stay so long as both the major parties remain out of favour with a substantial and growing proportion of the electorate.

Ginger Meggs | 24 November 2014  

The Australian Laberal Tea Party got their own way for years now they have only 75% of the senate between them and less than 70% of the vote nationally. It's time they realised that.

Marilyn | 24 November 2014  

Why the hostility towards Lambie? I'd like to think it's becuas the of the cheap shots she's taken at Muslims for her own political gain - knowing that the ignorant xenophobic voting sector will back her - I don't think it has anything to do with her freelancing political stance. And Palmer? Similar lack of principle on other issues.

AURELIUS | 24 November 2014  

Absolutely, Marilyn. The latest edition of Quarterly Essay by Guy Rundle makes this point precisely. Hopefully, whatever the outcome of next Saturday's election in Victoria, neither major party will gain a majority in the Legislative Council.

Ginger Meggs | 24 November 2014  

Nice work Ton=y. It's past time the people who are forced the vote in this country were also forced to learn something about our Constitutional arrangements. Lambie's first duty as a Senator is to the State which she represents. That's what the Constitution tells us. Her second duty is to the Parliament and the people of Australia to review legislation. I don't think Ms Lambie is conflicted at all. It's the people who elected Jacquie not Clive Palmer and they will hold her to account. And that is how it should be.

Kevin V Russell | 25 November 2014  

I don't read any criticism of Julie Bishop as a woman? No "ditch the witch" there. Do you have to be an Iron Lady like a man to gain respect in this Country? Jacqui Lambie and Julia Gillard's working class accents might mean that it is a class war we are battling in this Country.

Marce | 25 November 2014  

The present government leaders treat the opposition with disdain by turning their backs on them when they are speaking. And the speaker just hates labour she picks on them relentlessly.

Irena | 25 November 2014  

Xenophon is an exception, someone who actually seems to want the good of the country. The others are loose cannons and deserve the scorn they receive. The problem is that we had better get used to them because the electorate must now feel that there is no reason to believe any promises made during an election campaign. If there was an election in four weeks and if Tony Abbott said "There will be no change to the current rules on superannuation" (or child welfare or health funding or ... ) would you believe him? When society loses faith in the truthfulness of politicians, then we will start electing charlatans and fly-by-nighters and single-issue demagogues, a very dangerous form of democracy.

Frank | 25 November 2014  

I agree with the sentiments in this timely article. I treat all with respect until they demonstrate that they no longer are entitled to it. Thus currently I respect most of the newbies and very few of the more experienced senators.

Mike | 25 November 2014  

Unlike in the early centuries of Western Christian Democracy, modern society which has largely lost its sense of decency, ethics, morality and human virtue (even within the ranks of its ministers of the Christian religions) is likely to elect politicians who also lack such ideals. Welcome to the new Dark Ages.

john frawley | 25 November 2014  

I think most intelligent Australians - a far higher figure than many of the latte set admit - will give most independent senators the benefit of the doubt and judge them on their views and performance. Nikki Savva - one of the most astute commentators on national politics - said that the new senators e.g. Lambie & Muir were much more representative of normal Australia than the average professional politician. She (& I) don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. Someone like Mathias Corrmann thought he had a "done deal" with PUP via Clive on FoFA & was mightily peeved at Lambie & Muir for "reneging" on something they hadn't officially signed up to. The Government may find it hard/impossible to ramrod through much of the legislation it supposedly has that mythical "mandate" for. Jacqui Lambie is on the money: our Founding Fathers designed the Senate both as the States House and a House of Review. It was not intended to rubber stamp Lower House legislation. I hope the Senate finding its true role continues.

Edward Fido | 25 November 2014  

Some important points seem to have been missed. 1. The coalition was elected with a clear mandate - they must be allowed to govern. 2. Many of the new senators were elected with a handful of votes and were elected via a dodgy manipulation of preferences. This raises the question about how 'representiive' they are. 3. Labor, in blocking everything Including their own proposed cuts, are a destructive force which hands vital decision making to (arguably) unrepresentative, inexperienced senators. Those who are entrusted to govern us, are also entrusted to respect the democracy which elected them. Tony Bland

Tony | 25 November 2014  

I doubt if the writers of the Australian Constitution could have envisaged the way the electoral system enshrined therein could have produced the 2013 election result. Yet it reflects better than any opinion poll 'the will of the people.' I particularly like the enumeration of the qualifications of an MP (MHR & Senator) in para 34. (i) He must be of the full age of twenty-one years and must be an elector entitled to vote at an election of MHRs.... And (ii) He must be a subject of the Queen, either natural-born or for at least five years naturalised under a law of the UK, or of a colony which has become or becomes a State, or of the Commonwealth, or of a State. Putting aside the gender-specific 'he', it is heartening so see the few qualifications required by a person wishing to stand for parliament. Of the five disqualifications mentioned in para 44 of the Constitution '(iii) Is an undischarged bankrupt or insolvent' might be the only one that might concern some MPs. It is time for the major parties and mainstream media to treat independent Senators and their parties with respect. They are true offspring of the Constitution.

Uncle Pat | 25 November 2014  

"Xenophon is almost universally well-regarded" - not by me! Nick Xenophon is on the record as saying he wants to reduce or abolish penalty rates. 1.5 million Australians, including nurses, cleaners and those working in childcare, disability and aged care, would be much worse off if Xenophon had his way. In this respect Xenophon is just like Tony Abbott - a reverse Robin Hood who takes from the (working) poor to give to the rich.

Monty | 25 November 2014  

Tony, as a Burnie resident, I doubt there is much similarity in Jacqui Lambie's constituency and that of Brian Harradine. Brian was a skilled negotiator having worked in the union movement. Having been expelled from the ALP because he was suspected of being an acolyte of Santamaria, he appealed to those who were regarded as conservative. Jacqui appeals to those disenchanted with the major parties. PUP garnered about 6.5% of the vote here; Harradine could expext three times that vote. Jacqui is female, young, inexperienced and inarticulate: so it is not surprising that those who regard themselves as more significant than Jacqui are taking pot shots. Double dissolution aside, Jacqui will be in the Senate until June 2020 Chances are that by then she will still be female but older, experienced and more articulate with the chance to serve another six years.

Kim | 25 November 2014  

There has recently been focus on Senator David Johnston and his ability to perform his role as Minister for Defence. [This was at the time when Scott Morrison was reported to be seeking to expand his portfolio of responsibilities]. Well, in Parliament today, as Minister for Defence, Senator David Johnston shared his passionate belief that the Government-owned Australian Submarine Corporation [ASC] could not build a canoe [in budget]! Meanwhile, PM Abbott offers his support for ASC. Does this spell the end of the Senator's service as Minister for Defence?

Bob GROVES | 25 November 2014  

Some more important points seem to have been missed by Tony. 1) The government and the parliament are not synonymous. 2) The coalition was elected with a majority in the Reps, which entitled them to form an executive to administer the law as determined by the parliament. 3) The executive is responsible to the parliament, not the other way around. There is no onus on the parliament to support any legislation proposed by the government just because it is the government. 3) Most of the major party senators who were elected polled fewer primary votes than did the 'new senators' but were elected via preference flows no less dodgy than those that elected the 'new senators'. 4) The major party senators, having been pre-selected by essentially faceless party executives via in-house factional deals, are less 'representative' of the electorate than are the 'new senators'. 5) We, the electors, got the parliament we voted for, and they, the major parties, got the parliament they deserved.

Ginger Meggs | 25 November 2014  

Uncle Pat Our constitutional fathers are not responsible for the Senate voting system which was changed in 1949 to give effect to the will of the people that we didn't want a Government to have unbridled power. Our Parliament bears only the slimmest of passing resemblances to that envisaged by the drafters of the Constitution.

Kevin V Russell | 26 November 2014  

I am not sure, given that the Coalition did not gain the majority in both Houses, that it has, in fact, a clear "mandate" (interesting word that and easily manipulated for rhetorical advantage) to push through any legislation it wishes, particularly as its Leader appears to have dissimulated widely on a number of policies before attaining office. Some commentators of repute: Peter van Onselen, Graham Richardson and others point to this dissimulation as being one of his major problems. I think this is one of the reasons why his legislation is being knocked back in the Senate. I think we need a return to honesty in politics a la John Hewson. On the Machiavelli Scale this would be a disaster but a damn good thing for the country.

Edward Fido | 26 November 2014  

Thank you, Kevin V Russell, for reminding me that important changes have been made to the Constitution with regard to the Senate. The point I was trying to make - a bit too heavy-handedly I'm afraid - was that the qualifications required by the Constitution for a person to be eligible to stand for election to the Australian Parliament are really not very demanding. Whereas the major political parties (for their own political comfort) and the mass media (for their own self-indulgence) impose outrageous conditions on how independents and members of minor political parties should behave politically and socially (even down to how they should speak and dress). I admire any person who puts him/herself forward for election, especially independents, even if they do make politics more complicated for the major parties.

Uncle Pat | 26 November 2014  

Kim - well said.However Jacqui Lambie garnered just 1500 of her own votes. Given Tasmania, population 513400 (Sept.2013) has the same number of senators as each of the other states; (NSW 7.5M and Vic 5.8M) she wields disproportionate influence in critical decisions while Labour does not participate. This says much about our democracy giving a voice to the 'little person'. If this result was brought about by some kind of divine influence, I just hope that connection stays in place for the next 6 years.

Tony | 28 November 2014  

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