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With her crucial vote, Senator Jacqui Lambie wields untold influence over Scott Morrison’s government. How does she plan to use this power? By Margaret Simons.

The Lambie interview: inside her power play

Senator Jacqui Lambie.
Credit: Tracey Nearmy / Getty Images

Jacqui Lambie came in from the goat farm, washed the smell off her hands and collected her messages. Two people lay in waiting – foes in life but side by side in Lambie’s voicemail.

First was Gillian Triggs – former head of the Human Rights Commission, and now assistant secretary-general of the United Nations on refugee matters.

Triggs had left a long message. She knew Lambie to be a compassionate person. She hoped to persuade her to resist the repeal of the medevac laws that give doctors more say over bringing refugees in offshore detention to Australia for treatment.

The next message was briefer. “Jacqui, Peter Dutton here.” Would Lambie please ring him? The Home Affairs minister left his personal mobile number.

It was early September, just before the start of the parliamentary sitting that Lambie went on to dominate, and which ended on Thursday. She was in her Burnie office, preparing for what was to come. There was a frisson, an awareness of power.

That morning she had visited the Table Cape Dairy goat farm, where she had asked questions, made bawdy jokes about the male goats coming on heat, cuddled kids and heard about the job creation potential of goat farming in this depressed corner of Tasmania. She promised to connect the farmer with state government to talk about grants for expansion.

Meanwhile, Guardian Australia journalist Katharine Murphy had published a story that quoted Lambie warning the Morrison government not to rush the medevac repeal legislation before the conclusion of a senate inquiry. “Use your bloody manners,” Lambie had said.

“It shits me,” she said on the way back from the goats, “how the government ignores these inquiries, when work and bloody taxpayer money has been spent on them.”

Hence the calls, because Jacqui Lambie, the unlikely candidate, the self-described “rebel with a cause”, the woman who battled her way into the parliament’s upper house in 2013 fuelled by, as she admits, little more than “anger and vengeance”, is now one of the most powerful people in the country.

The government needs the votes of at least four of the six senate crossbenchers to pass legislation that Labor and the Greens oppose. Cory Bernardi, the man Lambie once described as having a silver spoon up his arse, will vote with the government. Often, Pauline Hanson and her One Nation colleague Malcolm Roberts will do the same.

That leaves Lambie and the two Centre Alliance senators as the deciders – and when Centre Alliance goes with Labor, as it will on medevac, Lambie holds the power.

In the past fortnight, she has pressed the government to let Newstart recipients work more hours before their payment is docked. On the government’s plans for compulsory drug-testing of welfare recipients, she called for politicians to be tested – and said she wouldn’t back the plan unless more money was invested in rehabilitation.

She wasn’t interested in the government’s religious freedom bill. Tasmanians weren’t coming to her to talk about religious freedom, she said, but about jobs and health. Jacqui Lambie is no player in the culture wars. She represents those Australians who barely notice those wars are being waged.

 

Lambie didn’t rush to return Triggs’ and Dutton’s calls.

Instead, she changed out of her goat-dung-encrusted boots. “I like Gillian Triggs,” she said. “She’s a tough lady.” The way the government had ganged up on Triggs when she was human rights commissioner, Lambie said, was “a disgrace”.

As for Dutton: “I’d say I get on with Pete very well. But I’m probably going to have a lot more to do with him this time around. I guess time will tell.”

Lambie hadn’t made up her mind about medevac, but on the day The Saturday Paper spent in her Burnie office it was clear something was cooking. There were talks about trying to find middle ground.

Meanwhile, she agreed, it weighed on her. This tough woman must make this tough decision. On the one side those sick and desperate people, on the other the security of the country she swore to protect.

And she had nowhere to hide, no party solidarity as an excuse. She said she tried not to get close to people in politics – to Dutton or Triggs – because she might disappoint. “That’s life. That’s politics.”

When Lambie entered the senate as a member of the Palmer United Party in 2014, she got most of her headlines for inflammatory comments. She called for anyone who followed sharia, or Islamic law, to be deported, though she couldn’t explain what sharia entailed. She called for an inquiry into the Greens – but exactly what that inquiry would consider wasn’t clear.

Many people bracketed her with that other battler-made-senator, Pauline Hanson.

But today, Lambie says she doesn’t want the kind of voters Hanson attracts. “Those people are bitter, and they are haters – and they are about 6 per cent of voters. I want a lot more Australians than that to like me.

“Pauline Hanson’s all about the ‘here, look at me for a few seconds’. Like, she tries to climb Ayers Rock to make a point, and I think, ‘Girlfriend, really?’ I just want to get the job done. I want mass support and I want respect, and respect has to be earned.”

Lambie hitched her wagon to Clive Palmer because she had run out of money for her initially solo senate campaign. Once they were in parliament, the relationship soon fell apart. She resigned from the party and went on to win another term in her own right in 2016, before being forced to leave upon discovering that – despite serving Australia in the army, despite having Indigenous ancestors – she was a British citizen by descent through her father.

Now she is back – moving straight into her old electorate offices in Burnie, which, in a measure of the region’s depression, had stayed vacant since she left them. This is her home, the region that formed her. The wide streets are whisper-quiet after dark. The hills behind give every humble home a bay view. One of the tallest things in town is the huge pile of woodchips on the waterfront – and all of it bathed in the chill buttery light off Bass Strait.

Through this Jacqui Lambie moves, head down, with a tough soldier march, her dark eyes intense.

Nobody here has much money. She financed her 2019 election campaign on what she earned as a participant in the reality television show I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here. They paid her $50,000.

She says she was a “wrecking ball” in her first term – ignorant and still in recovery from her lost decade. “I had no idea what I was doing.” She felt she was just getting the hang of things when she was forced to resign. She is putting a lot of effort into convincing people she has changed. It is “Jacqui 3.0”.

The key difference, she says, is good advisers – and here her choices are significant.

She has hired as her senior adviser Cameron Amos, who has previously worked for the Greens, for Labor and for the left-leaning think tank The Australia Institute. Amos started working for Lambie shortly before she was forced to resign and now he is back.

Meanwhile her new media adviser, Anna Bateman, also worked for The Australia Institute as well as for the independent production sector – producing the “live” series of the SBS show Go Back to Where You Came From, on which Lambie appeared.

Like most political staffers, Amos is reluctant to have the light turned on him. His political pedigree is not the point, he says. He disagrees with some of the votes Lambie takes, and she is no puppet.

But how Jacqui Lambie thinks and how she makes decisions have become matters of national importance – perhaps even nation-defining, at least until the next election.

The Saturday Paper was allowed to observe – though not report the content of – a long session in which Amos and Lambie discussed the medevac legislation, and Dutton’s and Triggs’ calls.

Some politicians work out their ideas through intellectual combat with their advisers. Others look to their staff to tell them what to think. Others bully. This was a conversation, such as one might have in the front bar of a hotel – a kind of extended pub test without the pub.

Amos gave facts and figures, told her what he thought the government strategy might be and what Dutton was likely to say when she rang him back.

Lambie threw ideas at him, sometimes going on a tangent. It was a bit like watching a pinball game, with Amos flipping the levers, but the ball bouncing around the board in its own sweet way. He certainly wasn’t in control.

Said Amos: “If you want to understand how Jacqui approaches an issue, there are three things you need to know. Jacqui backs the underdog. Jacqui believes in fairness. Jacqui is suspicious of power.”

And what does this mean for medevac?

It depends, he said, on who she decides is the underdog: the refugees now in offshore detention; the refugees who might die if a relaxation of the regime leads to a resumption of boats; or perhaps the Australian taxpayer, given there aren’t enough mental health services for Australians, let alone refugees. That final point was one the senator made several times throughout the day.

Added to that, Jacqui Lambie, the former soldier, will never take a vote if she thinks it will weaken national security, and she will always want to know what’s in it for Tasmania.

 

Last year, Lambie released an autobiography. It reads as she speaks – direct, aggressive, sharp, dark, sometimes bawdy, sometimes wandering.

It begins at her low point – when, massively overweight and addicted to painkillers, alcohol and antidepressants, she walked in front of a car on a Devonport street in an attempt to end her life. The impact left her scarred, but alive.

It all happened not far from where she was born in Ulverstone in 1971. She grew up in public housing. After some wild teenage years, she joined the army in 1989, and discovered she was pregnant during basic training. Later, while in a de facto marriage, she had another child – Dylan. She disclosed in 2015 in a tearful senate speech that he had become addicted to ice. Today, he is clean.

Lambie became a corporal in the military police. She injured her back during a field training exercise and battled on, despite the pain. She was going to be one of the first soldiers in Timor-Leste during Australia’s intervention, but her back gave out under the weight of a flak jacket and she was invalided out in 2000.

What followed was the defining battle of her life. For years, she fought the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for compensation for her injury and the resulting depression. She eventually won her case – but lost a decade to pain and depression, largely confined to bed and couch. Money was short. She was accused of malingering.

Lambie knows, she says, “what it is to have a government department shove its fist down your throat and ruin your life”.

It was after she walked in front of the car that she got the help she needed – intense psychiatric care and nerve-blocking injections for the back pain.

Anyone who doubts Lambie’s strength should consider what she did next. She lost 30 kilograms in a few months, quit most of her medication and, with single-minded determination, set about campaigning to enter parliament.

She had little idea how the two houses operated, or what it meant to be in the senate. She knew enough to judge that getting elected to the upper house would be easier than entering the house of representatives. She was driven by a single motive: “get into parliament and take down Veterans’ Affairs”.

She still struggles with back pain. She has regular massages and nerve blockers but is off antidepressants and takes painkillers only a few times a year. She manages with regular walking and swimming.

She says the painkillers and antidepressants have affected her memory. To put it bluntly, spending a day with her shows there is a lot she doesn’t know.

Discussing border security, she talked about an increase in refugee boats coming from India. In fact, it was Sri Lanka. She had trouble remembering the name of former Liberal prime minister Malcolm Fraser, with whom she had dealings over children in detention during her first stint in parliament.

Later in the day, she was talking about her admiration for the people of Syria whom she encountered during Go Back to Where You Came From, but referred to Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

Perhaps more concerning than her losing these easily Google-able facts was the difficulty of discerning Lambie’s political framework, an ideology against which policy issues might be held up and assessed. Though she would probably say this is a strength.

On the other hand, she took in facts and arguments with sponge-like readiness and spat out deliciously sharp observations. She’s no fool.

Does she still want Australia to discriminate against Muslims?

She compared Muslims to public housing tenants. When she was growing up, a small percentage gave the rest of the estate a bad name, and that wasn’t fair. Most were decent people.

But later, when asked about immigration policy, she questioned whether Australia should select people on “moral” grounds. Did she mean Christians should be preferred to Muslims? She replied: “Yeah, I think that would make myself and many other Australians feel more comfortable.”

She agrees with Peter Dutton that white South African farmers might make good migrants. She disagrees with him about his attempt to deport the Biloela Tamil family that has been in the news.

“They should be allowed to stay,” she says. “They’ve shown that they’re good people. They’ve come here. They’ve obviously got themselves involved in their community. They’re the kind of people you want here.”

Dutton’s approach, she adds, has been “just plain bloody heartless”.

Jacqui 3.0 is spending a lot of time getting on with people. She has apologised to Cory Bernardi “a thousand times” for the silver-spoon comment. They get on well now, even though “he still has a bit of a spoon up his bum. You have to forgive him. It’s his background.”

As for the leaders of the major parties in the senate, she likes Penny Wong, who she says helped her find her feet in the early days. The respect is mutual.

Wong says of Lambie that a lot of people have underestimated her, “though I think that’s starting to change”. Lambie, Wong continues, has “great consistency and integrity … She is completely unpretentious and refuses to be intimidated. Lots of independents have been great at grabbing the spotlight but few have been as genuinely dedicated to representing their constituents.”

Lambie finds dealing with Labor is straightforward because Wong is respected within her party. “I can talk to Penny and she can fix things.” Most recently she has gone to Wong when the shadow minister for veterans’ affairs, Shayne Neumann, was being “as useful as a wet paper bag”.

Dealing with the government is more complicated. She trusts the leader of the government in the senate, Mathias Cormann, but says the Liberal Party is so divided that working out whom to talk to is a matter of “splitting the tribes and working out who doesn’t like who”.

Cormann says Lambie is a “straight shooter … You are never left in any doubt about her views on any issues she feels strongly about.” And her experience in dealing with the pressures of the crossbench has increased, he says.

Senator Rex Patrick of Centre Alliance also says Lambie has grown in the job. She has achieved more for Tasmania in her first few weeks of parliamentary sitting than in her entire previous terms, he observes, by getting the government to wipe the state’s public housing debt in return for her support for tax-cut legislation.

Centre Alliance and Lambie consult each other on legislation. Where they agree, or have common ground, they work together. But they have yet to convince her on medevac.

Patrick describes Lambie’s passion as being both her strength and her weakness. She has become savvier, but sometimes is so passionate that she misses the chance to negotiate an outcome.

He declines to give examples, but it is easy to read her intervention in the toxic internal Labor politics surrounding union leader John Setka in this way. Lambie has said she will back the government’s legislation limiting union power, unless Setka resigns.

“I’ve got no reason to step down,” Setka told ABC Radio’s RN Breakfast on Wednesday morning. The union leader denied comments he made to a meeting of shop stewards were a “threat” to Lambie, Patrick and the other crossbench senators. “It’s called campaigning,” he said. “There has been no threat made, we don’t go around threatening politicians or senators.” Patrick has referred Setka’s comments to the Australian Federal Police.

For Lambie, being in Canberra is painful – both literally and metaphorically. The long sitting hours are hard on her back, and the politics leaves her cold.

Her aims for the parliamentary term include a royal commission on veterans’ affairs and the treatment of defence force personnel, an upgrade for the Burnie port, and more money for health services.

She doesn’t rule out moving to the lower house in the future – if she can hold the balance of power.

Does she miss the army? She loved it, but she has had to separate out from it, to leave it behind.

If there were another war though, bad back or not, Jacqui Lambie would pick up a gun and defend her country.

“And that kind of service is more honourable than bloody sitting in the senate, I can tell you that right now.”

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 21, 2019 as "The Lambie interview: inside her power play". Subscribe here.

Margaret Simons
is a freelance journalist, author and associate professor of journalism at Monash University. Her biography of Senator Penny Wong will be published by Black Inc on October 1.