The Jacqui Lambie conundrum

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Serendipity is defined as the gift of finding valuable things in unexpected places by sheer luck. It is a good description of Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie in Australian politics.

In this cartoon by Fiona Katauskas, people line up in a movie theatre. The poster besides reads, 'Un-silence of the Lambie', with the subtitle, 'The balance of power is in her hands'. The poster image depicts Jacqui Lambie holding a list of demands. One of the moviegoers says, 'I can't wait to see how it ends'.She is fortunate to be in the Senate and doubly fortunate to find herself in a position where she can influence the outcome of government legislation. We are fortunate that she has the personal character and history which makes her a welcome presence and that she possesses the values which she applies to the legislation which comes before her.

But there is a sting in the tail. The community is unfortunate that the outcome of crucial legislation, like Newstart, Medevac, cashless welfare cards and much more, is determined by serendipity or sheer luck. What if the deciding vote was held by someone else but Lambie, someone with different values? Should our system put so much power in the hands of one person?

Senator Lambie has had a roller-coaster ride as characterised by Fairfax journalist David Crowe in his portrait 'Lambie 3.0: Psych ward to Senator' (14-15September 2019). She was first elected in September 2013 with a start date of July 2014 as a member of Palmer United. She quickly became an Independent, was re-elected in 2016 and served until her eligibility for British citizenship meant Section 44 of the constitution forced her out of Parliament in November 2017. After 18 months she was re-elected in May 2019.

Her personal and family circumstances have been trying and her manner is unpolished. She calls on her past life experience in the Army and as a single mother with troubled children. She can be abrupt and sometimes even crude, but she is learning on the job. She is a distinctive presence among the many faceless senators representing the major parties. In the modern jargon she is authentic because she speaks her mind.

She is now one of six crossbench senators, with the others being the two One Nation senators from Queensland, led by Pauline Hanson, the two Centre Alliance senators from South Australia, Rex Patrick and Stirling Griff, and the conservative former Liberal from South Australia, Cory Bernardi. Notably all six come from three of the smaller states.

The dynamic varies among the six so others play a role too. The government needs four of these six votes to pass its legislation. One Nation and Bernardi tend to stick with the Morrison government, leaving Centre Alliance and Lambie to do the negotiations. Centre Alliance is a micro-political party, but while Lambie has a network she is much more like a lone independent.

 

"Some may see her as comparable, though a very different type of person, to her Tasmanian Independent predecessor, Brian Harradine."

 

Centre Alliance, as its name suggests, plays a negotiating middle-of-the-road role like the former Australian Democrats and the former Senator Nick Xenophon. They can also sometimes play the home state card to attract specific benefits for their own states. Lambie does too, but she is harder to categorise, always a strength because she can keep the government guessing and is harder to dismiss as just an Opposition Labor/Green figure in disguise.

In her first Senate term she supported the far-sighted Future of Financial Advice laws and helped save some of the remaining Clean Energy mechanisms from the rampaging Abbott government. In vain she tried to help children on Nauru but found herself in the minority.

In the current debates Lambie swings backwards and forwards on issues like random drug tests on welfare recipients (opposed without big concessions), cashless welfare cards (supports), Newstart (supports extending allowable hours of paid employment) and repealing the Medevac legislation (undeclared). This leaves Coalition government supporters grumbling, while Labor/Green supporters feel they are just getting crumbs from the table. In the wider community, opinion about her probably varies from irritant and upstart to voice of reason and compassion. Some may see her as comparable, though a very different type of person, to her Tasmanian Independent predecessor, Brian Harradine.

The role of the Senate crossbench is totally unpredictable. No one can predict just what it will throw up. That is the price we pay for a parliament not dominated by the four big parties: Liberal, Labor, Greens and Nationals.

While we may celebrate the presence and impact of someone like Lambie we should remember that a system which depends on serendipity potentially also has a big downside.

 

 

John Warhurst John Warhurst is an Emeritus Professor of Political Science at the Australian National University.

Topic tags: John Warhurst, Jacqui Lambie

 

 

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Existing comments

What I like about Jacqui Lambie: 1. Regaining her Senate spot for Tasmania. They obviously like her enough in that neck of the woods. 2. She negotiated to wipe the public housing debt of Tasmania. 3. A nice smile. That's a real person not a party hack. It's not possible to please all of the people all of the time so maybe a bit of history about serendipity would be a good thing for her to know. FYI Jacqui: the origin of serendipity 1754 coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes were always making fortunate discoveries.
Pam | 16 September 2019


John, I met Jacqui Lambie during her first incarnation in the Senate, when she was fighting for a fairer go for Veterans like myself, fighting with the DVA (Department of Veterans Affairs). She struck me as being sincere , big hearted and out to bat for the battler, for which she has had plenty of experience of in her own life. We need more of her type in the Parliament, not just the party hacks!
Gavin A O'Brien | 18 September 2019


As with others, I also feel pleased to hear her raw utterings and I even believe she genuinely believes what she says at the time. However, we cannot be governed by one renegade. It is an indictment of our system that we have come to this. Has our Parliament become so weak it is willing to allow reliance on one'raw recruit' to run the army of legislators?
marion Hosking OAM | 18 September 2019


One could reasonably argue that Scomo is a serendipitous PM. That is if one overlooks the "miracle", as Scomo himself describes it, of his election.
Uncle Pat | 18 September 2019


Ah, serendipity! Legend's Three Princes of Serendip found so much that was precious. Serendip? The island nation now known as Sri Lanka. What joyful Serendipitous Sinhalese fate do Morrison and his minions have in mind for a Tamil family of four fallen into their clutches?
James Marchment | 19 September 2019


Lambie is a rara avis. The antithesis of a populist, she digs well into the better aspects of a popular antipolitics to use her Senate seat to impressive political advantage. I am not aware of a proletarian polly who has yet done that. Harradine did it to extract political advantage for a conservative Catholic cause and, no doubt, was egged on by remnants of the DLP/NCC, as well as the odd Tasmanian bishop or two to do this. Jacquie, to all intents and purposes, is authentically independent. And while no Edmund Burke, in terms of her eloquence and subtlety of argumentation, she is hardly a delegate but one who truly honours Burke's vision of what a representative should be.
Michael Furtado | 22 September 2019


This article perpetuates a common misconception of how parliament works. No member has more voting power than any other. If Jacqui Lambie wants a particular bill to pass, or not, then she needs the agreement of 37 other senators. It's the same deal for each of the 75 senators who aren't the President of the Senate. The illusion of more power to a particular senator comes about when they are the last to declare their position.
Michael White | 11 December 2019


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