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

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.