Lambie's Gamble: Glory Or Obscurity

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Jacqui Lambie is going out on her own.

In one of the worst-kept secrets in Australian politics, the first-term Senator from Tasmania has resigned from the Palmer United Party. She will sit as an independent for the remainder of her term.

The implications for the balance of power, and therefore for the Abbott government’s legislative agenda, are significant.

The numbers in the current Senate are not kind to the Coalition. With only 33 Senators, the Coalition needs at least six extra votes in the upper house to pass any legislation. Each and every bill is therefore a difficult negotiation between the government and a very motley crew of crossbenchers.

This scenario would pose a stiff challenge for the wiliest of governments. For the Abbott government, which struggles to come to terms with anything short of meek acquiescence, the requirement for six crossbench votes for each and every bill has proved something of an insoluble puzzle.

As a result, key legislation languishes. Last week, the crossbenchers combined with Labor and the Greens to vote down the government’s controversial financial advice reforms, known as FOFA. Although overshadowed by the explosion of public anger over funding cuts to the ABC and SBS, it was in itself a significant defeat.

The FOFA story is long and complicated. FOFA was originally a Labor reform package that imposed modest new regulations on financial planners – in particular, requiring them to keep asking their clients if they wanted to retain their financial advisors’ services. The big banks opposed this, because it threatened their lucrative trailing commissions and advice fees. The incoming Abbott government sided with the banks, rolling back Labor’s reforms. Now the Senate has struck down that roll-back, in a humiliating defeat for Finance Minister Mathias Cormann.

FOFA is hardly alone. Plenty of other bills are in trouble. The government’s higher education reforms are due to be voted on this week. They look headed for defeat. The $7 GP co-payment, which has already cost the government so much negative publicity, hasn’t even been introduced to the Parliament.

Now that Lambie has defected, the government’s task has become yet more complicated.

On the face of it, Lambie’s independence should give Coalition Senate leader Eric Abetz an opportunity to build a new faction. But it also takes away one vote from the Palmer bloc – which has been instrumental in helping the government pass bills like the abolition of the carbon tax. There are more jigsaw pieces, but the puzzle remains.  

Lambie’s first test as an independent is whether she can force concessions from the government over her own burning issue: a pay rise for the servicemen and women of the Australian Defence Force.

The background to the dispute is the surprisingly modest pay rise of 1.5 per cent offered by the government to the serving personnel of the ADF. That’s well below inflation, meaning their wages will decline in real terms. Labor and the minor parties have been attacking the offer for weeks. Lambie, a former military policewoman, has threatened to vote against all future government legislation unless the Abbott government revisits the pay offer.

Now that Lambie has left the Palmer bloc, the Coalition may well have a chance to cut a deal. Indeed, it’s a mark of the government’s mismanagement that it has let the pay deal fester this long.

The Abbott government has committed to a big increase in defence spending, and defence experts say the money is there for a better deal. While the government is on a mission to rein in the salaries of public servants across the board, the optics of squeezing soldiers, sailors and air personnel at the same time they are being asked to fight in Iraq are hardly in the government’s favour.

The Lambie defection comes at an interesting point for the Abbott government. Behind in the polls, the government has been badly wrong-footed by the intensity of the public backlash against the cuts to the ABC and SBS. Abbott and his cabinet badly need some wins.

As a result, given the government’s many and various problems, Lambie might be in a better negotiating position than many realise. Perhaps this is why Lambie is seeking a meeting with Prime Minister Tony Abbott over the pay deal. So far, we're told, her request has been rebuffed. Should it happen, it will be an intriguing encounter.

How will Lambie fare as an independent? The Tasmanian has taken a decision that offers both opportunities and perils.

Now that she’s an independent, Lambie has the opportunity to carve out her own niche. She is now free of the direction of Clive Palmer; she can chart her own course.

Given her media profile is already considerable, this should help Lambie to pose as a plucky populist standing up for the interests of Tasmanians – particularly regional Tasmanians, whose unemployment levels and human development metrics are well below those of their mainland cousins.

Much like Queensland, Tasmania has a long history of right wing populism, with maverick figures like Brian Harradine and Michael Hodgman looming large in the political history of the island state. Lambie’s humble origins and plain-spoken style are cut from the same cloth. If she sticks to a platform of putting Tasmania at the top of her agenda, she could have a long and successful Senate career.

However, Lambie’s move also brings with it significant risks.

Lambie is clearly a woman of conviction, but conviction is not always sufficient. Her political career is neither long, nor particularly distinguished. She flirted with both Labor and Liberal before joining forces with Palmer. It’s not a record that suggests she plays well with others. Her penchant for controversial public statements could also prove a double-edged sword.

Independent senators must cope with a huge workload if they are to meaningfully engage with the volume of legislation that governments propose. They also endure considerable scrutiny, particularly if their vote becomes crucial to a particular bill. Experienced operators like Nick Xenophon thrive in the spotlight. Others have wilted, however. By the end of his single term in the Senate, Family First’s Steve Fielding was a widespread figure of ridicule. John Madigan is headed for the same fate. 

Perhaps the biggest threat to independents is obscurity. Crossbenchers can’t achieve anything without building a caucus in the chamber to cut deals and pass legislation. To secure funding and support for their favourite hobby horses, independents need to build alliances and ultimately negotiate with the government of the day. If they can’t, they can end up languishing in the back rows of the chamber, unable to influence the political agenda.

Will this be Lambie’s fate? We’re about to find out.

Ben Eltham

Ben Eltham is New Matilda's National Affairs Correspondent.

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