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Loose cannon Lambie risks being hoist by her own populist petard

Has firebrand Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie fallen into the populists’ trap of political overreach? AAP/Lukas Coch

Apart from the brouhaha over some Victorian schools bumping one minute’s silence to before or after the traditional 11am, Tuesday’s Remembrance Day commemorations went off without a hitch, soberly recognising – as they should – the solemnity of the occasion.

Also thankfully absent was Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie’s back-turning on government figures in protest at what most agree is a pretty paltry pay offer for Australia’s military servicemen and women.

Lambie didn’t follow through with threats to protest, although she would reportedly have done so had any government MP spoken at her local service. Military personnel around the country also refused to turn their backs despite Lambie’s plea. That Lambie and aggrieved service personnel put protocol before politics was surely a relief for government and top military brass alike.

But has Lambie still blown it? Has the working-class warrior, who even before taking her seat in July this year declared she wanted to go “all the way”, fallen into the populists’ trap of political overreach?

Many of her critics, and even some of her supporters in and outside the Palmer United Party (PUP), would surely think so. Queensland PUP senator Glenn Lazarus, for example, sensibly appealed for military personnel to ignore his Tasmanian colleague. But, despite the backdown, Lambie’s personal political capital may already be compromised.

In politicising such an iconic event, Lambie, in an ill-conceived if altruistic attempt to stand up for a voiceless military, has risked what every populist most fears – being seen as just another bloody politician.

Lambie’s populism is a complex type. So often compared with Pauline Hanson, Lambie is probably closer to America’s Sarah Palin than to the One Nation Party founder. Each is on a mission as a fervent, pro-military Christian. Each hails with a sense of entitlement from a poor and far-flung state.

While Hanson, too, won support as a marginalised woman, Lambie, since her election last year, has looked like succeeding where even Hanson failed. In arriving in Canberra as the outsider’s outsider, Lambie’s even more humble origins and even less compromising rhetoric once suggested this underdog from Ulverstone could galvanise more votes, and for longer, than any previous maverick.

As a single mum and Aussie digger who battled a government department, Lambie’s mix of fruity language, self-deprecation and political spade-calling made her the populist’s populist. For evidence, look no further than Lambie’s maiden Senate speech. She demanded “a fair go for all Tasmanians and Australians, not just the privileged and rich”, and promised to:

… always take the side of the elderly, sick, needy and disabled, of the battlers, small-business owners and workers, because we know what it feels like to be knocked down.

Heady stuff.

This time last year, few knew Lambie’s name. Today, she’s one of the nation’s most easily identified politicians. It’s for that reason I’m often asked how an ostensibly naive Lambie – a woman who announces on radio she likes “well-hung” men then is surprised by the media mêlée – can come so far so quickly.

But what many perceive as nascent naivety is almost certainly pure political nous. In sharing her most personal predilections – and in exploiting existing xenophobic frames by warning of a Chinese “threat” and demanding to “ban the burqa” – Lambie was throwing well-placed media bombs to establish her own credentials well clear of Clive Palmer’s political shadow.

Fourteen months ago, Lambie needed Palmer. Today, Palmer needs her even more – a fact not lost on the renegade Tasmanian who is now almost daring the party to sack her for outspokenness.

With support for PUP collapsing everywhere – now at 6% in Queensland and just 2.5% in Victoria – Lambie will undoubtedly growl even louder off the PUP leash. If expelled from PUP in a showdown of party wills, her political martyrdom would only increase her already substantial momentum, with a long career as a Tasmanian maverick independent, like Brian Harradine, potentially on the cards.

But that will be possible only if Lambie reins in her rhetoric and observes a few fundamentals. The first is to avoid breaching the most ingrained of Australian values. While she is still clearly popular, her status as a people’s champion does not grant free licence to outrage conservative tenets.

Lambie must also broaden her appeal. To be identified only as the soldier’s friend might be morally uplifting but it’s also pragmatically limiting should she hope to sew together coalitions of national support.

Finally, Lambie must deliver for her state. Harradine lasted so long because he was expert in levering goodies for Tasmania from federal governments. Lambie’s failure to do likewise from subsequent budget negotiations, despite perennial protestations, will again paint the populist as just another mouthpiece.

Good intentions alone might pave the way to heaven and hell, but they do nothing for re-election prospects.

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