Jacqui Lambie: when the ordinary is extraordinary

Since her election as a Federal PUP Senator for Tasmania last September, Jacqui Lambie has not so much polarised opinion as hit it with a hammer, pumped it full of lead, trussed it up in a sack and hoicked it unceremoniously into the Derwent.


Lambie’s interactions with the media have been uncensored, unscripted, and unapologetic. There have been car crash interviews, such as this one with Sarah Ferguson on the 7:30 Report, in which she floats a thought bubble banking tax idea and defends her description of the Abbott Government as “uncaring psychopaths”. There have been quotes that might compel your average cleanskin political staffer to self-harm, such as her colourful comments on radio about her preference for men with a “good package between their legs”, and her tin-foil hat warnings of a future Chinese invasion. The latter intervention prompted the Courier Mail to christen the Senator “Lambo”, and based on her trail of destruction through the Australian political landscape in just 12 months, momentum may soon gather for her to win a red-blooded cameo role in The Expendables IV.

Lambie, the Deputy Leader of the Palmer United Party in the Senate, gave her maiden parliamentary speech in the Senate a fortnight ago. God, she contends, performed a miracle to somehow put her in this place. Her heartfelt feelings about the systemic disadvantage suffered by Tasmanians were plain for all to see:

Every Tasmanian senator clearly understands the unbearable level of social and economic misery that the extra cost of shipping goods, vehicles, machinery, food, fuel and people 420 kilometres over the ocean has caused Tasmanians—rather than driving 420 kilometres on a national highway. But what I cannot understand is why every Tasmanian senator, especially those who have been in power or are in power now, has chosen to do nothing. In fact, even worse than doing nothing, every Tasmanian senator has turned a blind eye to this outrageous, stinking, filthy injustice.

The solution is clear: if the powers that control the treasury bench do not want an army of Jacqui Lambies in this place, speaking uncomfortable truths and challenging them in the future—then fix the Bass Strait Transport cost crisis.

As we all know, there is little chance that “an army” of Jacqui Lambies will be elected to Australia’s Parliament. The brutal truth of it is that despite the media sneers, the cringing, and yes, the occasional stupidity Lambie has brought to the table since her election, she is one of the most ordinary Australians currently holding elected public office in the nation’s capital. She is a real person: an actual, bonafide everyday Aussie, representing the likely hundreds of thousands or millions of men and women that share some or much of her world-view. The shock to the system that we all get when we see the Senator speaking colloquially on television, making it up as bit as she goes along, or dropping an embarrassing clanger is actually the shock of seeing an average Australian with average communication skills democratically represent us. This is where we are in Australia in 2014: looking down our noses, tut-tutting with contempt when our electoral system has the temerity to deliver us a member of parliament who is actually representative of Australian society at large rather than of quasi-democratic managerialville.

It is hard to reflect about the Jacqui Lambie phenomenon so far – if we can call it that – without reflecting on the experience of another remarkably ordinary Australian parliamentarian, a certain fish and chip shop owner from Ipswich in Queensland. History is recorded by the victors in the manner they choose, and the simplistic version of the Pauline Hanson fable is that a nasty, stupid, racist woman from Queensland was put back in her box where she belonged by a coalition of the broader Australian community and by voters. Racism was rejected. One Nation was defeated. The chattering media and political classes cheered as one.

Hanson’s racism may have fostered the most public enmity, but in reality, of course, it was never just about the racism – here was another instance where fairly well-off, fairly well-educated people living in metropolitan areas caught a glimpse of an average woman representing thousands of fairly average Australians in Canberra and didn’t like what they saw. The cultural cringe kicked in, big time. Good sense may have triumphed when Pauline Hanson lost her seat, but scant attention was paid to what else was crushed in that process: racism in Australia didn’t just disappear when Australian voters “shot” the messenger. The legitimate economic concerns and fears of people living in the outer suburbs of our cities and regional areas didn’t just disappear in a puff of righteous smoke. What did disappear was a little bit more of the dwindling faith that many Australians have in our political process and the genuineness of the people who represent them in our nation’s parliaments. These outsiders see a lot of people with crisp suits and good haircuts who can rattle on pretty well, but they don’t see many of their own in Canberra.

Will the Jacqui Lambie story borrow chapters from Pauline Hanson and Julia Gillard’s stories, as another controversial woman in public life chewed up and spat out somewhat misogynistically by our political system? We will have to wait and see, but there may yet be a few twists in the tale: in the last couple of days, the Senator has publicly backed a rough diamond of an idea: the introduction of some dedicated Indigenous seats in Parliament. If there is anything that our struggling First Australians need, it is some gaming of our electoral system to help ensure that their voices can be heard in the nation’s capital, across the nation’s airwaves and in all our lounge rooms. Lambie’s authenticity could win support for such decent, left-field ideas from people who wouldn’t give it a second’s serious consideration if it spilled from the mouth of someone sitting on the Government or Opposition front benches.

We don’t all have to agree with her, we don’t all have to like her, and we certainly shouldn’t trust anybody politically wedded to Clive Palmer, as she is. But perhaps we should all “check our privilege” and reflect just a wee bit on the disenfranchised Australians Jacqui Lambie speaks on behalf of more truly than most other parliamentarians, before we trip over each other’s feet rushing to condemn her.

Abbott on the first people: just muddling through

Tony Abbott’s address to the Sydney Institute last Friday went little remarked or reported, but offered the nation a glimpse of the Coalition’s planned approach in government to the Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. This strange little wishy-washy excerpt from the speech perhaps sums things up best:

In any event, “Canberra knows best” will not be an incoming Coalition government’s approach. Change will much more often be offered than demanded. People need alternatives to sticking with a profoundly unsatisfactory status quo but, most of all, they need to be taken seriously.

Indeed, there is very little evidence from the transcript that Canberra would even bother seeking to know best on indigenous affairs if the Coalition were to start warming the government benches come September. With fairness to Abbott, the speech certainly reads quite thoughtfully, with the Opposition Leader reflecting on his experiences during the Howard years, his relationships with Neville Bonner and Noel Pearson, and his personal experiences in Aurukun. But the conclusion at the end of all of this reflection seems to be that he doesn’t really know what he can do. So what he would do, it seems, is muddle along.

The Opposition Leader offers himself up in the speech as a self-anointed “Prime Minister for Aboriginal Affairs” – as if this doesn’t befuddle the lines of responsibility between himself and the Shadow Minister, Nigel Scullion. Sound and noise, signifying little. He resurrects his political lodestar’s gambit of recognising Australia’s indigenous people in the Constitution, arguing that Aboriginal people “need to know that they never will be regarded as just a historical footnote to modern Australia”; even though the only weighty policy idea he offers to them here is to enshrine them in a line or two in Australia’s most antiquated document. He doffs his lid to both Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd, as if hoping that just a bit of the national emotion two of his former opponents have conjured from within them on indigenous issues might rub off on him. He mentions four times his desire to “work with the states and territories”, perhaps in the wan hope that if he does this enough, they might cough up some ideas on how his government should seek to solve some of the problems facing Aboriginal people in 21st century Australia.

When Abbott describes the plight of Australia’s first people as “the most intractable difficulty our country has ever faced”, one does get the sense that he grasps the extent of the problem. The problem is that when he uses the word “intractable”; you feel he really means it. You feel that he thinks this is a problem that can’t be solved, and that an Abbott Government’s approach to indigenous affairs would be less about change than about political damage limitation.

On the night before Invasion Day, all through the house…

And so, with a touch of the uncanny that aligns wonderfully well with the Rudd Government’s rhetoric on indigenous issues over the last twelve months, Mick Dodson has been named Australian of the Year this afternoon. Personally I think Dodson is an excellent choice, but there is little doubt that he is also going to do a bit of pot-stirring and cause a bit of trouble for the government. On the eve of the most ocker day of the year, a day when the anglo-nationalists among us can wave their banners freely in the streets and pretend they’re our best mates, the incoming Australian of the Year has wasted little time telling us that Australia Day is unaustralian:

Immediately following the official ceremony, Prof Dodson called for a “national conversation” about changing the date of Australia Day, which commemorates the landing of the first fleet on Australian shores in 1788.

“We have to have a date that’s more inclusive than January 26, which is the date that’s chosen as the landing of the first fleet at Sydney Cove,” Prof Dodson told reporters.

“Many of our people call it invasion day.”

Clearly Dodson’s tenure as Australian of the Year will afford him and indigenous Australia a number of golden opportunities to move reconciliation forward and push the indigenous agenda into the public limelight. Unfortunately, controversial comments like these will necessarily incite right-wing hacks and all their dimwitted minions across Australia to react quickly to condemn Dodson and his “black armband” view of history. We are in danger of restarting a number of lowbrow, misinformed conversations on Aboriginal Australia that we could well do without; conversations that should have been buried alongside the White Australia Policy decades ago, yet strangely still linger.

I am certainly not opposed in principle to the possibility of moving Australia’s Day to another day; perhaps one that celebrates our Federation as a nation. Why shouldn’t we rediscover and celebrate the modern history of our nation that has been gathering dust in the attic of public life for several decades now? The nation was officially proclaimed on New Year’s Day in 1901; so why not nominate the 2nd of January a public holiday and our truly national day, one that all Australians can celebrate? Alternatively, we could celebrate the day that the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act 1900 received royal assent, on 9th July 1900.

It is a shame that this is such a symbolic issue that is almost guaranteed to polarise Australians across the nation. Those with a skerrick of empathy and a yearning for a united Australia would understand where folks like Dodson are coming from. The rest, and I fear that the majority fall into this category, will no doubt view Dodson’s incursion onto our day of fervent nationalism as some kind of loopy black-fella joke.

ELSEWHERE: More from Mark over at the Larvatus Prodeo.

The initial politics of the “non-war” war cabinet

The so-called “war cabinet” or “joint policy commission” on indigenous affairs formally announced by Kevin Rudd in his wonderful address to parliament on Tuesday poses some interesting challenges for the government, moving forwards. Our modern democratic system of government is predicated on the existence of a somewhat antagonistic duopoly, consisting of the holders of government and the remainder of parliament. Effectively inviting the Leader of the Opposition to the policy-making table raises some interesting questions about how policy will be formulated. How will responsibility (and potentially, blame) be divided between the participants? Will indigenous policy henceforth be based on a consensus of what the major parties think, or will Rudd as Prime Minister still hold a firm whip hand and dictate the policy approach? If the latter is true and the commission is not going to be consensus-based, what does Doctor Nelson gain from being a part of the process?

It’s these sorts of questions that Shadow Indigenous Affairs Minister Tony Abbott is asking about the proposed commission, as reported in today’s Age:

“If this committee really is a genuine attempt at partnership … if it’s going to be a genuine bipartisan committee co-chaired by the Prime Minister and (Opposition Leader) Brendan Nelson, then it has to be a body where the Opposition have real authority and real power,” Mr Abbott told The Age.

“Real authority” and “real power” seems to be quite strongly-phrased – almost as if Abbott wants the Coalition to have equal input to the commission as the government will have. I am not sure this is quite what Rudd had in mind, considering, after all, who is really in government and who is not. This proposal from the Opposition Leader also seems to be trying to take the war cabinet a step too far:

Dr Nelson, who first heard about the proposal during the speech and subsequently backed it, wrote to him [Rudd] yesterday seeking more details and asking that former indigenous affairs minister Mal Brough be considered to join the commission.

History will record that Mal Brough was a somewhat divisive figure during his time as Minister for Indigenous Affairs, and lost his seat at the election after his controversial control of the portfolio commenced. I therefore think it is a bit unreasonable for Nelson to request that Brough, so recently disendorsed by his electorate, be invited to once again play a strong role in indigenous affairs at the highest levels of government. If Brough was still in parliament, I think it would be a fair cop for Nelson to request Rudd that Brough be involved, but inviting him to participate so soon after effectively being fired by the people he represents is, to use a Ruddian term of phrase, something of a bridge too far.

If the Opposition wants someone of its ideological streak on board for the commission, I think somebody like Noel Pearson would be a better bet – although perhaps controversial in other ways.

History, belatedly made

Over an extremely dodgy live video stream provided by the ABC, I watched as the incoming Rudd Labor Government did what the previous government did not have the political stomach to do for over a decade, offering a formal apology to indigenous Australians, and in particular to the stolen generation. Although it is hard to get a full appreciation for the flow and delivery of the speeches owing to the poor quality of the footage at my end, I thought both Rudd and Nelson spoke admirably and did their best to capture the emotion and importance of the occasion with their words. It is not often that parliament is transformed into the stage for an outpouring of national pride and celebration, but certain scenes from the floor of the House of Representatives today managed to do just that. Through its actions so far, and particularly with this grandiose first step in parliament, the Rudd Labor Government has done almost a flawless job of commending itself to the people as a uniting and re-energising force for democracy in Australia.

And the Opposition? Brendan Nelson’s speech was on the whole quite graceful and delivered with true emotion, although there were a few moments where his focus seemed to fade towards a hapless justification of the Howard Government’s inexcusable delaying of today’s events, and the Coalition’s patrician view on compensation (shared with just a tad more compassion at present by the government). Reports are already in that certain parliamentary members of the Coalition boycotted the morning’s events, and that many people watching Nelson’s speech in live sites and in Canberra turned their backs at certain points in the speech. With respect to the former, I do not believe that history will judge those members kindly, and on this fairly auspicious day for the nation, I’m not mentioning their names here. With respect to the latter, I do think that Nelson probably deserved a better show from those watching than he got, but he and the political parties he represents do have a lot to answer for after a decade of neglect of this issue. Pictures, as they often do, tell the tale quite eloquently. The already published images of the Coalition members standing to applaud Rudd’s speech in parliament are a bit awkward; you can tell that some of them are out of their comfort zone, and being dragged along with something that they don’t wholeheartedly believe in. Given that some of them have spent the last decade of their political lives asserting their disbelief in the need for an apology, it’s probably not all that surprising.

Regardless of the history, which is indeed history, today is a day for healing old wounds and casting a die for a new future for Australia, both indigenous and non-indigenous. The major parties have an opportunity now to drive a bipartisan national agenda of investment in Australia’s indigenous communities, with the aim of raising education, health and mortality rates to respectable levels, from the obscene position they are now currently in. The stakes are high in a political sense, just as they are in a human sense. For the Rudd Labor Government, achieving real and lasting results in this area would arguably set it apart in political history as perhaps the greatest the country has yet seen. For the Opposition, there is an opportunity to reinvent itself with respect to so-called “soft” political issues such as reconciliation, and the restore trust and respect for its members amongst the indigenous community that has somewhat been lost over the course of the last decade.

One can not help wondering idly what John Howard made of the jubilant scenes in parliament today. Why did he so doggedly and so determinedly choose and then mercilessly maintain the course on reconciliation that he did, rather than embrace the issue with the humanity that Rudd’s words embodied this morning? I can’t recall the former Prime Minister ever being applauded in quite the same way during his decade in office as Rudd did today, but there is honestly nothing that Rudd did today that Howard could not (and should not) have done ten years ago.

In the same way that the former Prime Minister never, ever said sorry, I am not sure I will ever, ever, understand his mindset towards this issue.