Opinion

John Hewson
Jacqui Lambie did what John Howard and the Liberal Party wouldn’t

Now the various independents’ movements are gaining genuine momentum in a number of key seats, having identified good, strong, community-based candidates and launching their campaigns for the next federal election, it is instructive to contemplate how different our politics and government would be if they were successful and indeed may hold the balance of power, at least in the lower house.

Independents have made a real difference on many occasions in our past. Many will readily remember the roles and influence of Tasmania’s Brian Harradine and Ted Mack in the seat of North Sydney. More recently, we have seen Tony Windsor and Rob Oakeshott make a significant contribution in the Gillard years. Even though Julia Gillard led a minority government, she created the record for the number of pieces of legislation passed by any Australian government.

Kerryn Phelps’ win in my old seat of Wentworth, in the byelection necessitated by the resignation of Malcolm Turnbull, saw the passing of medevac legislation and drove the climate debates. Representing Indi, Helen Haines tried to force the Morrison government’s hand for a debate over a national integrity commission, while Andrew Wilkie will be remembered for his incessant push on curbing gambling.

In the more distant past, independents have been instrumental in the changing of prime minister – as in 1941, when Arthur Fadden lost support on the floor of the house and was replaced by John Curtin. At a state level, they have succeeded in changing parliamentary terms to fixed and longer.

Last week, on November 22, we saw the real value of an independent voice in our parliament, with the very passionate and substantive speech by independent senator Jacqui Lambie. The Tasmanian called out Pauline Hanson and One Nation on the issue of discrimination – something John Howard and his government should have done in response to Hanson’s first speech in 1996.

That speech was generally seen as racist. In it, Hanson claimed that we were at risk of “being swamped by Asians”. Although the Liberal Party had earlier disendorsed Hanson as a candidate, Howard was slow to respond. For several days he made no comment, before finally saying words to the effect that we need to recognise there are many Australians who hold similar views.

I recall challenging a senior member of the federal executive of the Liberal Party when our paths crossed in the Qantas lounge in Singapore soon after the speech. He was boasting how “clever” – his word – they had been in letting the Hanson view run, believing it would ultimately result in increased support for the Coalition.

I was appalled that they didn’t call out Hanson. I argued that if she built support the most likely outcome would be she would form her own party, which would pull votes from the Coalition and encourage somewhat meaningless “preference deals” into the future. There has been no joy for me in having been correct back then – just the pain of seeing my worst fears realised as it has all unfolded since.

Jacqui Lambie is a most effective independent senator. She has a clear idea of why she is in parliament, not for herself or her career but genuinely for Tasmanians and a few particular groups, such as veterans. She speaks in a way many can easily relate to – with passion and conviction. Some have described it as battler language. Her most recent speech on Hanson’s bill against Covid-19 vaccination mandates showed the strength of her contribution.

Lambie – who later addressed her own history of anti-Muslim rhetoric – called out Hanson’s record in relation to discrimination. Her key argument was, “If you want to champion against discrimination, you don’t want One Nation.” You might say this is an obvious point, but it is still beyond the Morrison government to acknowledge. Indeed, Morrison has been quite happy to let Hanson run the issue of “the pandemic of discrimination” and maybe even encouraged her with a broader deal including support on other issues. Remember, it also suited Morrison’s arguments against the Victorian and Queensland premiers.

Lambie powerfully listed some of the most significant and unpalatable and quite specific “discriminations” Hanson has advocated, including removing autistic children from public schools, promoting a ban on immigration from majority Muslim countries and opposing same-sex marriage. People don’t choose to be autistic, or Muslim. Moreover, Lambie noted, discrimination is just a fundraising exercise for them, saying, “One Nation seeks to profit from it.”

Lambie  went on to emphasise the significance of choice. For example, if you choose not to be vaccinated. She pointed out that all choices have consequences that must be recognised and accepted. “If you are able to get vaccinated and you choose not to, ‘discrimination’ is the wrong word. That’s not discrimination, you have freedom to make a choice, but if you make a choice, those choices have consequences.”

As with a choice to speed in your car, you can’t call the legal consequences of that discrimination. By speeding you are putting the lives of other people at risk, as with a decision not to be vaccinated. If this results in your being excluded from certain events and venues et cetera, that is not discrimination but a defensible consequence of your choice, which means you are more likely to get Covid-19 and to spread it to someone else.

Lambie was very careful to defend the right to choose but said, “you don’t have a right to put vulnerable people’s lives at risk”.

As much as this is what you would expect of a mature adult, it doesn’t seem to be appreciated by Morrison and his government, which claims an ideological superiority in recognising the significance of “the individual” and in defending their “right to choose”. Morrison, of course, is working to focus his re-election strategy on individuals being free of government intrusion, regulation and control.

With real cut-through, Lambie frames it like this: “Being held accountable for your own actions isn’t called discrimination. It’s called being, you wouldn’t believe it, a goddamn bloody adult.” She finished off by focusing on One Nation’s lack of credibility among her Tasmanian constituency, saying: “One Nation is the champion of the right for unvaccinated Covid-carrying mainlanders to come to Tasmania and create an outbreak … It’s not going to happen under my watch, and I doubt very much that it’s going to happen under Peter Gutwein’s watch. We are not going to stand for it.”

I was somewhat staggered that Morrison didn’t seem to accept that vaccine decisions have consequences. Even though he has based the whole return to normality on the percentage of full vaccinations – in terms of opening up attendance at events and venues, travel et cetera – he was still willing to argue that the unvaccinated “should be able to go and get a cup of coffee in Brisbane”.

I was also staggered and embarrassed for them to read a report of Coalition men barking and growling like dogs during speeches by Jacqui Lambie and other women members and senators. If this is the case, prime minister, chain them up.

Lambie delivered a very influential speech that not only called out One Nation’s lack of substance and credibility on vaccination mandates but more broadly as a political force in our country. One Nation is an opportunistic, populist mob that is very much the creation of the Howard government’s failure to call them out at birth. Subsequent Coalition governments have let or encouraged them to run amok across our political and policy landscape, and sought to do ridiculous preference deals with them.

The future of better government in our country depends on the success of the independents at the next election, which should ensure a better balance of significant, qualified and experienced adults in the parliament, including an improved gender balance, which neither of the major parties will deliver given their announced strategies and commitments.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 4, 2021 as "A wolf in Lambie’s clothing".

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John Hewson is a professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy and former Liberal opposition leader.

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