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A Lambie loose in the top paddock of Parliament

Ever since arriving in Canberra in July, Senator Jacqui Lambie has had the media in a spin. AAP Image/Alan Porritt

If a movie is ever made about the life of the well-known PUP senator from Tasmania, we can be sure it won’t be titled “Silence of the Lambie”. After a little over two months in public life, quiet and stillness are not attributes that come readily to mind about Jacqui Lambie. She has created more waves than any prospective Titanic II issuing from the Clive Palmer shipyard.

After calling our Dear Leader a “political psychopath” just two days after entering the august upper chamber, she later humorously shared with morning radio listeners her favourite traits in a prospective lover.

More problematically, she leapt into the choppy waters surrounding Islamists, ISIS and Islam. There she was clearly out of her depth in an interview on ABC’s Insiders, when she was unable to explain what “sharia” meant while still claiming it involved terrorism.

Nevertheless, she has been undeterred either by what was described as a “train wreck” of an interview, or by the careful distinctions made by leaders of the major political parties, police and security agencies between the vast majority of law-abiding Muslims and the jihadists.

Jacqui Lambie on Insiders last Sunday.
Jacqui Lambie’s Facebook post (which is no longer visible on her Facebook page).
Lambie’s letter defending her Facebook post.

Rather than back down, Lambie instead went further by claiming supporters of sharia law were “maniacs and depraved humans” who will not stop committing “cold-blooded butchery and rapes until every woman in Australia wears a burqa”.

She has also defended sharing an anti-burqa Facebook post from anti-immigration group Britain First – which turned out to be a portrait of Afghanistan’s first female policewoman, Lt Col Malalai Kakar, who was killed by the Taliban. (You can see the original post and Senator Lambie’s response on the right.)

Lambie’s statements tell us she has little time for Google to clarify gaps in knowledge; research is a waste of time when it’s easier to have fixed opinions. Sorry, people at the Parliamentary Library.

Given her military background, it is appropriate to call her a loose cannon on the deck of Palmer United. And one that can swivel to hit all and sundry targets that anger her. She has pushed back at Clive’s attempt to rein in her comments by declaring she would not rule out leaving PUP.

She has the example of Senator John Madigan quitting the DLP and of Senator Ricky Muir (remember him?) having a rocky relationship with the Motoring Enthusiasts Party.

This lady is not for turning, to quote Margaret Thatcher. In that respect, both women have an appeal to some voters like that of Pauline Hanson: as “real” people, of the people, as opposed to those purported fakes who claim to represent the people. Hence, in a recent episode of Australian Story Lambie asserted that politicians:

live in a political bubble of delusion. Get your damned boots on and get out there and talk to the real people. Leave your office. Get out there and feel their hurt. And then you might make some decent decisions about these people and their lives.

Lambie has played the anti-politician card, which has been one of the main reasons for the existence of the Palmer United Party and the level of Clive’s popularity. It was also a reason for One Nation’s primary vote soaring to 23% in a 1998 Queensland election and to around 9% in the 1998 federal election. Similarly, the Australian Democrats successfully played the anti-politics card in the 1970s.

In other words, minor parties and independents arise out of dissatisfaction with current politics and particularly with major parties.

It’s always easy to lambast Canberra politicians as out of touch, as that can simply mean any of them are not complying with our personal view of the world. It’s also easy to come up with motherhood statements that politicians should be representing Australian people – though it’s hard to satisfy all 11 million voters.

There is a paradox here. On the one hand, minor parties feed off this ferment and the alienation from major parties. Their staying power beyond the short term, however, is another matter entirely. They can be fractious and fail, as we’ve seen with the Democrats, DLP, One Nation and a host of other parties.

On the other hand, features of the major parties that alienate people can also be sources of strength. Parliament needs to be the place of compromises between the various parts of our society that can’t compromise. This has to be done by the despised major parties. So it is good to have a diversity of people representing us in Parliament – though we wouldn’t really want our two chambers to be populated by 226 Lambies, fixed to their opinions.

Furthermore, the major parties have complex structures for filtering candidates, not always successfully to be sure, but certainly in contrast to PUP, which attracted some unusual types without much preparation. So the types of candidates attracted and excited by minor parties can become public embarrassments, which was certainly the case with One Nation. Strengths can become weaknesses.

Even before taking her seat in Parliament, Q&A nominated Jacqui Lambie for delivering the highlight of this April show.

But weaknesses can also become strengths. Major parties have the staying power of marathon runners and therefore strategise accordingly to squeeze out competitors like PUP. Abbott and his team can wait and cultivate the fault-lines in PUP.

Out of the shadows: in less than a year since this photo was taken, Jacqui Lambie has gained a higher profile than any of the other PUPs – arguably including her party leader, Clive Palmer. AAP Image/Paul Miller

Lambie is not only in dispute with Palmer but also with fellow PUP Senator Glenn Lazarus. Her chief of staff has shown an indiscreet lack of discipline with emails that publicly deride colleagues. Abbott and co. can rely on Lambie reacting in a headstrong way against those she sees as trying to oppress her.

Such a waiting game could see Lambie joining David Leyonhelm, Bob Day, Ricky Muir, John Madigan and Nick Xenophon to make a total of six independent or micro-party senators. If all vote the government way on a policy then the Coalition has a majority in the upper house. It’s a fragile scenario but one that would give the government more options than negotiating with the Greens and Labor.

Last year I had thought Palmer would prove to be a Clive-nado when unleashed upon the floor of parliament. He has since become relatively restrained – when he’s actually there – learning that being leader of a party is not as easy as launching a party with hoopla.

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