The Palmer United senator regrets legislation her party is passing and fears it has already lost its way. By Sophie Morris.

PUP senator Jacqui Lambie: ‘I will get up and leave’

Clive Palmer speaks to his new senator Jacqui Lambie in July after she was sworn in.
Clive Palmer speaks to his new senator Jacqui Lambie in July after she was sworn in.

“I’m fuming,” says Jacqui Lambie. “Fuming.” And she is. There’s almost smoke coming out of her nostrils, so furious has she become.

“I thought Palmer United Party was going to be all about the battler,” she tells The Saturday Paper.

“Right now, I’m standing back and thinking, ‘Just a minute. We seem to be starting to steer off course a bit when it comes to the underdog: the pensioners, the people on disability payments.’

“I won’t betray the underdog. If it starts to move in another direction – the party – you won’t see me part of that party. Put it that way. I will not lose my own moral bearings.

“If the party starts to lose its bearings, then I will get up and leave.”

Lambie expresses similar sentiments a couple of times in our conversation on Thursday. It’s not a slip of the tongue.

Oh to be a fly-on-the-wall in their party room meetings, when this petite but punchy Tasmanian from struggle street takes on the expansive Queensland billionaire, watched by former rugby league star Glenn Lazarus and calm-as-a-millpond engineer Dio Wang.

She’s had a busy week, trying to ban burqas and urging the federal government to tackle outlaw motorcycle gangs in the style of Queensland Premier Campbell Newman.

And for those who would argue this is sideshow journalism, getting caught up in the colour of it, there is certainly a serious side: the power this bloc of unlikely PUP politicians wields in this parliament.

Her frank observations on how the Palmer United Party is managing, or not managing, to stay across the detail of legislation are telling and worrying.

“I think there’s only four of us and we’re trying to cover so much area and we’re probably getting a bit mixed up,” she says. “There has been a couple of situations … that we may have made a decision and found out a little bit later on, or more stuff has come in, and we are chasing our tails.”

One of the things about which Lambie is fuming is the government’s Future of Financial Advice (FOFA) reforms. Back in July, Palmer said he and his party would not support the government’s changes to rules the former Labor government introduced protecting consumers from financial planning fraud.

But in what has become a Palmer pattern, he abruptly changed course and in exchange for some minor amendments the three PUP senators, along with motoring enthusiast Ricky Muir, voted with the government. Pensioners and seniors groups complained they had been betrayed.

Now, Lambie fears that, in those early and frantic weeks of the new senate in July, she and her party supported a dilution of protections for consumers against the sort of fraud that has cost thousands of investors a large part of their life savings.

“I have a bloody problem with FOFA. I’ve let my party know I’m not happy. I think we’ve allowed the laws to be maybe watered down. I think we have got good intentions but I don’t think we’ve got it quite right,” she says.

This week, Palmer has performed another about-face, this time on the government’s $2.55 billion Direct Action scheme. After previously describing the scheme, which uses taxpayer funds to purchase emissions abatement, as “dead”, a “waste of money” and “hopeless”, Palmer this week did a deal with the government to support it.

In return, the government agreed to preserve the Climate Change Authority, which would – as a “gesture of good faith” – conduct an 18-month review of emissions trading, even though it remains opposed to introducing an emissions trading scheme.

The government has also agreed to four of five amendments proposed by independent senator Nick Xenophon, but rejected his proposal to use some funds to purchase international emissions reduction credits. Without this, there are grave doubts about whether Australia can meet its emissions reduction target.

It was a big win for Environment Minister Greg Hunt, who had negotiated for months behind the scenes to secure the passage of the legislation creating the Emissions Reduction Fund. But opinions are mixed on whether it is a good outcome.

Labor’s climate spokesman, Mark Butler, described it as “hopelessly flawed” and a “dirty deal”. 

Greens leader Christine Milne said the PUP had supported the government to “deliver a huge win for coalminers and big polluters”. 

Milne’s estranged former chief-of-staff, Ben Oquist, who is now strategy director for The Australia Institute and advises the PUP, said: “Is it as good as a carbon tax? Of course it isn’t. Is it better than nothing? Of course it is. Was the government plan improved by Palmer? Of course it was.”

The about-face on Direct Action mirrored Palmer’s approach to the carbon tax in July. Despite his damascene conversion from climate sceptic, Palmer was still committed to repealing the carbon tax when he met former United States vice-president Al Gore in June.

But he toyed with the government, refusing to pass the repeal legislation until the government agreed to some amendments, involving guarantees that price cuts would be passed on to consumers.

The PUP leader likes to keep the government guessing, but in the end he has thus far fallen into line and not extracted major concessions.

He was at it again this week on the government’s plans to deregulate university fees. Education Minister Christopher Pyne has, of recent weeks, projected confidence that he will be able to cut a deal.

This seemed surprising, as Palmer’s huff-and-puff rhetoric had all been about supporting the “Whitlamesque” ideal of free education. Then, on Monday, Palmer teased them a little, hinting that he might be open to talking if there were enough scholarships involved to ensure that the brightest and best could avoid paying fees. This coincided with the University of Sydney running an argument that fee deregulation would allow it to devote extensive resources to scholarships.

The next day, Palmer was hosing this down again, insisting his senators would vote against fee deregulation. Lambie, for one, is firmly opposed to the government’s higher education plans and says she is pleased her party is sticking to its guns.

However, those in the university sector, who have been visiting crossbenchers, have noted that the PUP’s senator from Western Australia, Dio Wang, is open to being persuaded that allowing universities to set their own fees could help resource higher-quality education and mean some courses, such as his favoured engineering, might become cheaper.

Labor has this week launched a campaign against $100,000 degrees and “debt traps”. Pyne wants to secure reform by the year’s end, but has only two more sitting weeks to do this. And it remains to be seen if he will have as much success as Hunt did in landing a deal with Palmer.

Four months into the new senate, the government has certainly got serious about talking to the crossbenchers. And it’s not just the PUP and Muir they need to keep tabs on. All up, they need six of the eight crossbenchers for legislation opposed by Labor and the Greens.

Last week, Tony Abbott dined one night in his office with independents John Madigan and Nick Xenophon and the next with Family First’s Bob Day and the Liberal Democrats’ David Leyonhjelm.

The government often calculates that if they persuade Xenophon on a measure, they will also get support from Madigan, who has recently divorced himself from the Democratic Labour Party. But Madigan suggests that lumping them together for dinner dates may not be the best approach. 

“They should acknowledge they’re dealing with individual senators,” he says. “I think that would be a better way of doing it.” 

Day says that after a slow start the government has rapidly learnt to keep in touch with those whose votes it may need.

“At first I think the big three parties struggled to comprehend the new crossbench environment,” he notes. “On the budget, it would have been better to be talking with the government well before 1 July about those issues. They’ve been fast learners though, and my dealings with the government have been excellent.”

Lambie doesn’t have many good words to say about the government or Abbott. When we talk she has just returned from meeting Veterans’ Affairs Minister Michael Ronaldson, and that’s another reason she’s fuming. Sticking up for veterans is her mission and she feels the government just does not get it.

Surprisingly, though, one of her favourite ministers is Treasurer Joe Hockey. 

“I feel a bit sorry for Joe because they gave him something to sell [the budget] that was never going to sell and then they did a runner on him,” she says.

As for her future in the party, despite the fuming, she says she is not close to leaving the party for now, but that her PUP colleagues are very aware that it is an option she could take if she felt she were compromised.

“If [Palmer] lets me be extremely independent and come out and say what I want to say, I’m quite comfortable where I am,” she says.

But Lambie has certainly put Palmer on notice. Suddenly, she is no longer fuming, and she even has a little giggle to herself. Under her breath she makes a joke about how Clive will like her comments. “Every now and then he just needs a bit of a tap.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 1, 2014 as "Lambie: ‘I will get up and leave’".

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Sophie Morris is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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