- Jacqui Lambie likely to buck Turnbull’s July 2 Senate purge
- Composition of Senate the great unknown in coming election
After taking her seat in the Australian Senate nearly two years ago, independent lawmaker Jacqui Lambie used her first months to warn of a Chinese communist invasion and praise President Vladimir Putin for his “no-nonsense attitude.”
The former soldier’s comments lit a media blowtorch. But Lambie’s winsome candor has proved such a hit with voters in her home state of Tasmania that she appears likely to overcome Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s attempt to clear out such independent lawmakers and reset parliament in the July 2 election.
“There’s been times when I’ve wished I had a better command of the English vocabulary, but the main thing in my favor now is people here know I’ve worked my butt off for them,” said Lambie, 45, in an interview in the island state last week. “Voters are sick of being taken for granted by the major parties. They want more people like me, who may not have a university degree but have held a job in the real world.”
While most opinion surveys suggest the election will be close, Turnbull’s conservative coalition remains the favorite to win. Less certain is whether he’ll end up with a Senate majority, or at least a Senate he can work with.
Turnbull’s predecessor Tony Abbott described Australia’s upper house as "feral," as the mishmash of independents and minor parties blocked legislation, including A$13 billion ($9.5 billion) worth of budget savings. If Turnbull doesn’t gain more control in next month’s ballot, his government’s pledge to cut the company tax rate and strip tax concessions from the wealthiest Australians saving for their retirement will be at risk.
“Senators like Lambie are building brand recognition in their own states by basing their campaigns on localized populist policies because they can see there’s a vacuum left by the bigger parties,” said Andrew Hughes, a researcher in political marketing at the Australian National University in Canberra. “This is a very tight election where every vote can matter, so Turnbull’s hope that he’ll be able to clean obstructionists from the Senate may be forlorn.”
The first minor party to challenge Australia’s entrenched two-party system found its voice in 1980 with the slogan "keep the bastards honest". The party faded but the sentiment stuck. Today, the 76-member Senate has 10 parties, including five ‘micro-parties’ with only one senator each, and three independents. Six seats short of an upper house majority, Turnbull’s Liberal-National coalition has been repeatedly frustrated by the rejection of key legislation and the blocking of fiscal savings.
Earlier this year, Turnbull changed voting rules to make it harder for independents to get elected, and then took the unusual step of putting every lawmaker in the upper house up for re-election next month. Usually, only half the Senate seats from each state are contested.
“The make-up of the Senate is the great unknown in this coming election," says constitutional lawyer George Williams, who is a professor of law at the University of New South Wales and also a former candidate for the opposition Labor Party. “There’s a high likelihood that neither of the major parties will end up with a clear majority in the upper house.”
The rise of micro-parties in Australia is best exemplified by Nick Xenophon, a 57-year-old former lawyer from the state of South Australia, who entered the Senate in 2008. He’s since built a national profile by accusing the major parties of ignoring the decline of manufacturing in the state to the detriment of employment and growth.
Now voters in other states will be able to choose candidates representing the Nick Xenophon Team. According to Australian Broadcasting Corp. political analyst Antony Green, it has a strong chance of winning up to four Senate seats and several seats in the lower house.
Xenophon’s policies for this election include placing tougher restrictions on selling agricultural land to overseas interests, cracking down on gaming companies, and a system to tackle climate change that punishes high carbon-emission industries and favors renewable energy sources such as geothermal and solar.
“Smaller states like South Australia and Tasmania have been languishing when it comes to growth,” Xenophon said last week in an interview in Adelaide. “There’s a feeling that they’ve missed out on this rush toward economic globalization.”
From her base in Tasmania, which has battled entrenched socio-economic problems as traditional industries such as logging and mining have fallen away, Lambie is also seeking to build a national brand. The Jacqui Lambie Network will field Senate candidates in four states along the eastern seaboard.
Lambie began her term in the Senate representing the Palmer United Party -- the political outfit bankrolled by mining magnate Clive Palmer that won three upper house seats in 2013. She split to become an independent in November 2014 as she “couldn’t sleep at night” due to the party’s support of policies she claims were against Tasmania’s disadvantaged.
Along with her sometimes unfiltered statements, such as labeling Abbott a “political psychopath,” Lambie has gained prominence by campaigning for better welfare benefits for military veterans and for more drug rehabilitation facilities, after revealing her son was addicted to methamphetamine.
“Even though I’ve only been around a short time I’m hoping my brand is now big enough that I get one or two candidates from my own party to join me in the Senate,” Lambie said. “People have seen that allowing the major parties to call all the shots means they get left behind, so that gives me a chance.”