A scar runs down Jacqui Lambie’s forehead from the night she deliberately walked in front of a car. Botox makes it less noticeable. Otherwise, the federal senator is not in the business of hiding her battle wounds. What you see on November 22, 2021, is a 50-year-old woman in hot pink taking the Senate floor. What you get is politics as a street fight.
Lambie’s comfort with her own feral streak only shows up the bland inertia of her poll-driven colleagues, how unsure they seem of how to fight. They sit around her in the chamber and peer, as if from behind lace curtains, as she lines up Pauline Hanson for a bitch slap.
All month, Senator Hanson’s been broadcasting claims that multitudes are dying from COVID vaccines. When a Sky News journalist shot this down live on air, Hanson apologised and claimed she’d check her facts. “But the next day,” Lambie now spits, “the very next day, she went back to saying the same crap anyway, like that’s acceptable behaviour in this country!” Hanson is hustling, and, with every mistruth, donations from “freedom fighters” stream into her far-right party’s coffers. And so, before the Senate is One Nation’s vaccine discrimination bill, protesting vaccine mandates, which, Lambie contests, is nothing more than “a fundraising exercise … a grab for cash”.
Hanson, being beamed into parliament remotely, appears enlarged on a screen overhead. This politician, to whom Lambie was commonly compared early in her career, maintains a Delphic smile, as Lambie stares down the television camera lens at the Australian public, her eyes moist with tears.
“I have constituents with autoimmune conditions who run businesses. If they’re forced to serve unvaccinated customers, they’ll have to choose between risking their lives or shutting down their businesses … Nobody has the right to make someone else’s life less safe. That’s not what freedom means!”
Her pain at this predicament switches in a split second to rage. “Being held accountable for your own actions isn’t called discrimination. It’s called being – you wouldn’t believe it,” she pauses, about to deliver one of her unscripted bon mots, “a goddamn bloody adult!”
By that afternoon, the line has launched a thousand TikToks, but Lambie’s social media accounts are also alight with comments such as:
She looks possessed and evil…like Satan’s toilet brush.
The S H I T that comes out of this [pig emoji] mouth
No wonder the ADF farked you over! What a Kunt you have become. Of course you support the jab aren’t your kids junkies after all?
Lambie was on the right side until her Swiss bank account got topped up… Should be arrested for treason
Soon her phone starts ringing. Ringing. Ringing. What the fuck is going on here? she thinks. An hour of it. No caller ID. No messages, except for one bloke, “iced off his fucking tits”. It turns out that One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts has used social media to leak her mobile number. The Australian Federal Police swiftly give her a new phone, number and all, leaving Lambie less rattled by the security threat than by the administrative headache. She’ll have to manually re-enter thousands of phone numbers, and as phones are now used for most internet security verification, she can’t sign into apps, from her bank’s to Medicare.
The AFP ask Lambie – an ex-military police officer – if she were to do a risk assessment on herself, what it would look like.
“It would be a fucking shocker,” she admits.
Ever since she appeared on daytime television criticising anti-vaccination demonstrators for taking over Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, then littering it with beer cans and piss, she’s lost donors and volunteers, with her staff growing alarmed at the high number of “I’m going to chop you up and put you in a bag” threats she is receiving.
A month earlier, she’d been campaigning in Tasmania when an anti-vaxxer three times her size called her “the C word”. Lambie was incensed, “and I never think, when I get that irate at someone, that maybe they might take a swing at me”. Onlookers saw the man readying to assault her. Then she spoke in a low-toned growl she’d learnt in the army, and the man blanched, backing down. “At least he had the guts to abuse me to my face,” she acknowledges. “Unlike these keyboard fucking warriors. They’re a piece of shit. That’s all I’ve got to say about those people. And they’re both left and right. Keyboard warriors, my arse.”
After providing her with a new phone, the AFP ask Lambie to provide them with all her future flight details. In major cities, where right-wing extremists are more organised, the police don’t want her to eat in restaurants and advise she should be escorted to and from meetings. Facing this, some politicians might have retreated. Drawn breath. Waited for the trolls and vigilantes to find another target. Not Lambie.
One of the things she hates about Australia’s “shitty, fucking leadership” is that any opinion is acceptable. (Within a few days of her dressing down Hanson, the Liberal senator David Van will feel emboldened to make dog noises while Lambie has the floor.) In this unfettered environment, she believes, “It’s only a matter of time before one of us is shot at or stabbed at in the street. Trying to play both sides of the political fence causes division.” As she sees it, no one is satisfied, which only breeds resentment. “Sometimes you just have to be hardcore about stuff, and say, ‘No, this is what’s happening and this is how we’re doing it. Get on board or fuck off!’ But you cannot sit in the middle. You end up with people going at each other.”
And so, the day after her assault on One Nation, she is back on the floor, being hardcore again, and attacking the prime minister for his lack of action on a federal anti-corruption commission. “The Australian people are looking at you,” she growls in that low tone. “They’re sick of your lies. They’re sick of you not delivering. You do not deliver!” It’s not just gravel in her voice, it’s the whole quarry. The quarry plus the blasting equipment. “You’re finished in the next election. You’re gone, I can tell you!” she shouts, unleashing a face-twisting, spittle-in-air kind of fury that is mesmerising to watch. Not many female parliamentarians allow themselves this dark freedom. But part of the shock comes from a politician appearing to actually believe in something. As she stares down the Liberal senators, each yelled word sounds like a curse on both them and Scott Morrison. “He’s incompetent! He’s not a leader, and I’m enjoying watching him fall apart!”
As it happens, Lambie was reluctant to be vaccinated. The first time I met her, in late July last year, she’d just had her second Pfizer jab and seemed half-regretful. Initially, she’d believed her own immune system would defeat COVID, however, after the emergence of the Delta strain, “reality started to check in”. She realised that, unvaccinated, her movements would be curtailed, and she didn’t want to infect anyone else. Now, though, she was holed up in her room at Hobart’s Argyle Motor Lodge, fatigued and heavy-headed.
Lambie hadn’t eaten anything and wondered if food would help. She braced herself and, with shoulders hunched, walked pugilistically down the motel’s external staircase in heeled sandals and tight jeans. She was followed by Cameron Amos, her senior adviser, and her office manager, Tammy Tyrrell. Lambie took the wheel of a yellow SUV – her party’s chosen colour – emblazoned with an image of her smiling.
A few minutes later, the trio sat in a local cafe – an unlikely looking group to be planning a coup.
Recent polling numbers, however, suggested that after the demotion of veteran Liberal senator Eric Abetz on his party’s Senate ticket for Tasmania, a candidate run by the Jacqui Lambie Network would be in line to take his seat by a margin of 625 votes. Lambie, who believes passionately that “normal people”, as she puts it – people who haven’t finagled their way through the two-party system, and indeed, who, like Lambie herself, may not have even finished high school – can make good politicians if given a chance.
Amos, 33, agrees wholeheartedly. Tall, with glasses, he has a donnish tilt to his shoulders as if a brain full of political philosophy and strategy is weighing him down. He’s been advising Lambie since 2017 – a period he refers to as Jacqui Mark II, post her “wrecking ball” phase – and believes if the Lambie Network could create a blueprint to get true independents into the political system it would leave no better legacy.
The party’s chosen candidate is therefore someone who has worked in north-western Tasmania’s paddocks and factories while raising two children. Someone who laughed at the very suggestion she might run, calling the idea “batshit crazy”. It’s Tammy Tyrrell, an unpretentious, astute woman with a warm manner, who’s been Lambie’s right hand for the past seven years.
And here’s the thing: if, as seems likely, the next election produces another hung parliament, the Jacqui Lambie Network could hold two crucial votes, and therefore the balance of power. Potentially, they would never have to negotiate with One Nation again.
The main impediment to this achievement is the party’s lack of money.
Lambie abhors the corporate capture of modern politics. Occasionally, when the discipline of staying financially independent feels too hard, she thinks Oh, well, I’m going to get up the duff, and take all those big political donations. “Then my conscience goes, ‘Don’t be an idiot. You’re not doing it.’ Then they own you, and they’re not owning me.” A rage can surge through the senator, like something peptic, and it comes in waves. She’ll be relaxed – at ease, in military terms – and then suddenly she stiffens and her shoulders hunch more and a new grievance charges through her. “I just despise political donations. You’re supposed to earn your way in life, not buy your way in life. And, once again – not the Australian way.”
She and Tyrrell have been travelling through the state on the cheap, staying in local caravan parks, although in truth the senator prefers this anyway. After her own years living in poverty, she is frugal, and in the parks she can wander around and talk to people, taking the temperature of what her constituents are thinking. Likewise, in Hobart she stays in the 1970s-era, three-star motel, alongside the tradies. They’ll knock on her door at 10.30pm to get a selfie. Often she’s in her pyjamas, but she’s used to unlikely political enthusiasts. The other day, an old lady stopped her at the traffic lights and handed over 20 dollars. Donations tend to arrive in dribs and drabs. Later, I’ll speak to Lambie on Zoom while she’s writing personalised messages and signing posters depicting herself as Princess Leia and Clive Palmer as Jabba the Hutt. This fundraising exercise was set to net $2000, she told me, sounding like she needed to convince herself this wasn’t hopeless.
Sitting in the cafe, Lambie had a pain at the centre of her forehead and looked as if she’d tasted something bitter. She wanted to lie down.
Out on the street, Hobart was quiet. The COVID traffic-light system had shut out tourists from states deemed red zones, and local businesses were obviously suffering. As a cold, grey winter closed in, the place felt more cut off than usual.
Tyrrell reminded Lambie she could cancel the evening’s scheduled event, a dinner for Vietnam vets at a local RSL club, but the senator didn’t want to let them down.
Then the call came. Lambie had recently been in southern Queensland, visiting a sick relative. One high-school student with COVID had just been detected in the area, immediately making it a “Commonwealth hot spot” or “red zone”. The senator would need to quarantine until she recorded a negative COVID test, and was then due to fly back to Canberra. Dinner would be in the motel room.
Lambie felt bad that I’d travelled to Tasmania for no interview. She asked if I could return later in the year, and, revealing her softer side, added, “It won’t cost you anything ’cos you might as well just stay with me for a couple of nights. We’ve got this three-bedroom house. You just have to put up with Dad. Oh, and we’ve got this dog…”
Lambie lives on the north-western coast of Tasmania in a brown-brick house perched above the Bass Highway. She now barely notices the traffic noise. Over the road, there’s a small township, with sea views beyond. She bought the place a year ago and since then she and her 70-year-old father, Tom, have “smashed it”. Every corner of the house could be in a Bunnings home improvement catalogue. Outside there are new decks, planting beds and saplings with their tags on. Inside, there’s a kind of Balinese aesthetic, airy, with dark stained timbers and lots of plants in pots and hanging baskets.
It’s mid December, a week before Christmas. Mainlanders have only just been permitted back in Tasmania and Lambie’s staff, including Tammy Tyrrell and those usually based in Canberra, stand around the kitchen eating leftovers from an end-of-year party. Luna, a large Bull Arab rescue dog belonging to Lambie’s son, Dylan, wanders around in a bubblegum-pink collar, hoping for a pat.
The year has been complicated, with Lambie needing to undergo several quarantines in 2021 as she travelled back and forth to parliament, but her team are celebrating numbers that suggest she is personally polling higher in some areas of Tasmania than the Greens have ever managed, despite the Jacqui Lambie Network being an organisation of eight employees.
The senator herself is tired. She’s been up since 4.30am preparing for morning television.
In Devonport, the day before, a grim fairytale had come to life. Children were playing in an inflatable jumping castle at a primary school’s year-end celebration when a strong gust of wind lifted it 10 metres into the air before it plunged back to the ground. Five of the children were killed in the accident and a family was preparing to turn off the life support of a sixth. Lambie had agreed to do some television interviews, as the local senator, during which she’d teared up. Afterwards, she’d taken a staffer’s unmarked car and laid flowers at the shrine emerging outside the school. Bouquets and toys were everywhere, along with cards and messages, which Lambie read. She grew up behind the school in one of the small square houses on Morris Avenue, the commission estate from where most of the students had come.
In the kitchen, Lambie’s staff discuss the tragedy as her father wanders in and hangs a painting of some vases he’s just picked up from the local Vinnies. It looks good next to a display of real vases, also from various thrift stores. The Lambies are committed op-shoppers, and Tom, a cheerful, moustached man, his arms covered in the tattoos he had inked in the late ’60s for one pound each, takes me on a tour of the house, pointing out the other paintings and knickknacks his daughter has collected over the years.
The house’s one luxury is an indoor pool, which the previous owner installed after receiving compensation from her husband’s death in a mine collapse. Lambie wanted to be able to swim to relieve her bad back. When she bought the place, she moved her father out of his unit in the caravan park and renovated the garage for him. Tom shows me this too. It’s comfortable and spacious, and there are pictures of the daughter he adores all over the walls.
Tom was a teenager, and so was his wife, Sue, when in 1971 Jacquiline Louise Lambie was born. Tom drove trucks and Sue worked in factories, and Jacqui and her younger brother grew up in nearby Ulverstone in a large, close-knit family – Sue is one of 20 siblings, who identify as Indigenous. When Lambie was a teenager, her parents separated and she moved with her mother, the disciplinarian of the pair, to Morris Avenue. Soon there were other divorces in the community and her mother’s friends – “women with no qualifications” who decided they weren’t “putting up with the abuse” – moved into identical houses on the estate. There were kids all around, and Lambie, who loved sport and horses, would sometimes be allowed to keep an aunt’s horse in the backyard and lead the neighbourhood kids on rides, enjoying “a real free, easy life”.
At 5.45pm, Tom holds back Luna as Lambie leaves the house, along with Tyrrell, to attend a community Christmas party. The yellow SUV now has the two women’s smiling faces on both sides. Lambie takes the wheel. She was a driver in the army, inspired by her father’s line of work. She can handle a Unimog, a bus, a motorcycle, an ambulance, a Mack truck or a tank. Now, however, she reverses over one of Tom’s immaculate planting beds and turns her head to check he hasn’t noticed, before raising dirt as she accelerates away.
Along the Bass Highway, there’s sea on one side, mountains on the other, and roadkill on the bitumen in between. This is the heartland of Tasmania’s industrial north.
We pass the chip factory, where 150,000 tonnes of frozen French fries are annually manufactured, or, as Lambie puts it, “our potato farmers are ripped off” by a foreign multinational. Her mother worked here for years canning and freezing vegetables.
We pass the site of the former Tioxide factory that produced titanium dioxide for paint pigment. The British-owned company, ICI, pumped ferro-sulphates into the sea, turning the nearby beaches a rust colour. To this day, it’s too polluted for anyone to swim.
We arrive in Burnie, where the Lambie family always wound up the window of their car. The pulp and paper mill that made the town stink is now closed and, a sign of the times, its Deco buildings are being converted to a whisky distillery and brewery. On the hills, though, logs are still stacked up, waiting to be chipped at the local timber processing plant. And the foreshore is monopolised by the machinery loading this woodchip, bound for Asia. Mounds of yellow, desiccated trees are piled so high they look like giant sand dunes.
Lambie’s electoral office is on Burnie’s main street, and tonight, further along, the road is closed off for the party. The Burnie brass band is playing “Ding Dong! Merrily on High”, while a long table has been set up decorated in red and green. Food trucks are parked nearby, and in a cordoned off area small children wind in slow circles upon “Zoo Riders”, plush ride-on animal scooters.
Lambie enters the fray, wearing a headband of Christmas baubles and a black vest embroidered in yellow: TYRRELL FOR SENATE.
A woman in her fifties with a doughnut stall, quits icing and bagging her wares to rush over.
“She’s rubbing shoulders with the well-to-dos, and the rich and mighty,” she says of Lambie. “There’s not many senators that don’t own three or four houses. It’s a different world. They’re not walking amongst us. Whereas Jacqui does.” Lambie is visible at many local events, she tells me. “She’s speaking on behalf of a lot of people – not just women, but she’s speaking for all the down-and-outs.”
Leaning in, the woman is the first of many to ask to have her picture taken with Lambie.
“I’m so proud of you, Jacqui,” she says. “You’re a woman in parliament and you’ve gone back in and fought hard … It’s very, very hard to be a woman in that environment. I wouldn’t want to be.”
“I don’t, sort of, worry about it,” Lambie answers. She’s straight into chat-mode, her favourite, as though the two of them are old girlfriends. “I think ’cos I did 10 years’ army – it’s just another institution and that’s all it is.”
The Australian Defence Force is central to Lambie’s creation story. By the time she was 14, she’d discovered boys with cars and the horseriding dropped off. Soon she was in trouble with the police for underage drinking. School wasn’t a priority, and in her late teens she was outside Centrelink with some friends who’d already dropped out when she saw the army’s green recruiting bus. The friends made a pact to all enlist, but as Lambie signed her papers, the others backed out. She asked the sergeant to return her registration. He refused: “You’ll be right. It’ll be good for you.”
When Lambie left school and commenced recruit training, she was three weeks pregnant, which she discovered only after her March Out ceremony four months later. The army, unused to female recruits and baffled by the situation, reluctantly allowed Lambie to stay. Her first child, Brentyn, was born in 1990. She began a relationship with another soldier, who treated Brentyn as his own, and together they had a second child, Dylan, born in 1994. Meanwhile, she worked as hard as she could to climb the ranks, in an almost all-male environment. “They nearly killed me, those men, they nearly had me for breakfast … I had to make myself learn how to handle those men, and have no fear of them.” At one point, she lost a stripe for punching a colleague whom she found obnoxious. Her sergeant major gave her advice she’s subsequently always followed: “Once you work out a man’s weakness, it will give you a softer target to hit, and you will come out on the front foot.”
Now she sizes up each adversary before a strike. For instance, Lambie certainly has an uncanny sense of the prime minister’s weaknesses. Morrison may market himself as the ordinary bloke next door, but, compared to Lambie, any neighbour would appear to have airs. As Morrison performs his version of authenticity, she sees a man struggling. “It’s like a psychiatrist once said to me – basically, a psychopath can only hide it from themselves for about two years before they unravel. I’m not saying he’s a psychopath, but most people that try to pretend can only spin the yarns for so long.”
Morrison could drop into hair salons in every marginal seat to wash ladies’ locks and still not resolve a deeper problem: his apparent difficulty with women. Women, that is, who aren’t his wife. “I’ve spoken to Jenny,” he’ll say, and as so few had heard this demure woman talk until recently, he sounded like a child claiming a chat with an imaginary friend. Jacqui is the anti-Jenny. Her mouth runs like a dumpster fire she refuses to put out because, unlike the seemingly directionless prime minister, she lives with a burning sense of urgency. If one had to pick which of the pair was the evangelical, it’s Lambie you might imagine has brimstone on her breath.
She is most righteous when talking about her own community. The teen friends who did not sign up to the army, women now, are still close to Lambie. “Half of them just do not live good lives,” she has told me. “They’ve done it really, really tough.” As has Lambie herself.
In a 2017 speech protesting the freezing of the indexation of family tax payments, Lambie described her life at the “bottom of the crap pile”. After being medically discharged from the army, she spent years sometimes unable to afford bread and milk, let alone shoes for her children. She drove an unregistered car and, at one stage, used an esky because her fridge had broken, leaving it under the house so the ice lasted longer. When she details her past, she can sense the senators around her listening closely, “but I don’t think it sets in for too long, because they don’t have that emotional attachment to it”. Their friends, she says, their family aren’t living this way. Fond as she is of many of her colleagues, she says they’ve often “got no vested interest”.
Plenty of Burnie’s residents know about the crap pile, however. There’s a sense the community is already well acquainted with tragedy.
A woman wearing a Christmas T-shirt approaches Lambie. Her face is mangled. She appears to have lost an eye in an accident or assault.
“Parents probably bought their Christmas presents and everything,” the woman says of the jumping-castle children.
“It’s so sad,” Lambie agrees. “I keep thinking of the presents they should have been unwrapping in a week’s time.”
“Maybe more yet,” the woman continues, of the death toll. “I suppose you put some flowers there, did you?” She means the school’s shrine. “They probably get a lot there now.”
The mood is solemn, even as teenagers from a local youth circus walk around on stilts and juggle and throw hoops into the air. Everyone here is somehow connected to everyone else. Tyrrell, watching on, knows exactly who is performing, and who their respective parents are. She grew up and still lives in the next town. Her children went to the schools she went to, and her partner does nightshift in the local aged-care facility looking after everyone’s elderly relatives. The circus kids’ parents – many of whom are linked to the Devonport school – had reservations about letting their children come out in bright colours, appearing to be celebrating. They didn’t want to disrespect the grieving families. “But it’s continuity,” Tyrrell says. “It’s letting them express themselves and communicate to each other and support each other. And it shows life goes on.”
Life is going on with the town’s bagpipers playing “Loch Lomond” – “Ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road” – while a small group practise Scottish dancing and children line up to meet a white-bearded man in a Santa suit.
Sometimes Lambie speaks of Australia like it’s a lover who has let her down. She is trying to convince her paramour to be better, smarter, more attentive, to fight harder to make things as they once were. In parliament, this intimacy, the sense we’ve caught her in the midst of a domestic argument, is affecting. The senator’s experience participating in reality-television programs taught her a great deal about stagecraft. At school, she’d excelled in speech and drama, and she learnt quickly from the TV directors and camera operators she befriended: their relentless process of retakes showed her the best way to address the camera and make an emotional connection. On the Senate floor, there are tears and there are screams, a regenerating loop of vulnerability and bombast as is also seen on, say, Keeping Up with the Kardashians. It’s no wonder Kim Kardashian is Lambie’s favourite star because “everyone thought she was trashy but she had the last laugh”.
Lambie is not overly interested in the female independents lining up in the next election. People often want to group Lambie and the independent minister Zali Steggall together, but Steggall is an Olympic medal–winning barrister. Her life has been about as different from Lambie’s as you can get in this country. Steggall’s concerns – the environment, gender issues – are post-materialist. It’s not that Lambie doesn’t think that climate change or women’s rights are important, it’s just that they can seem lofty issues to people simply trying to keep a roof over their heads. While she sympathises with the MeToo movement, it’s not a high-order priority personally. To any men seeking to harass her, she warns: “You will not try that shit on me – I’ll come at you with a baseball bat.”
In this way she’s in sync with a mainstream political culture that prefers tangible outcomes to ideas. After the divisive stances she took early in her career, she now sticks to big-tent, utilitarian politics: What will work for this community?
More jobs would be one thing.
“Make Australia Make Again” is a slogan she uses to campaign for a return to onshore manufacturing. For instance, the timber piled up nearby could be turned into trusses and wood cellulose, which are currently being imported. The pandemic has shown us we’re a continent of people unable to even produce a medical-grade face mask. Lambie argues that it’s a matter of national security for critical manufacturing to be localised. Places such as Burnie could potentially enjoy higher employment while keeping the Australian community better protected. She sees the government’s lack of action on this issue as yet another sign of no one planning for the future.
The hills hugging the town look darker in the fading light. There’s a chill in the air and seagulls are flying low, circling the tables. But as the bagpipes play, the senator is glad this patch of Tasmania is 20 years behind the rest of the country. Perhaps there’s still a chance to shield it from the worst of life on the mainland.
The next morning, Lambie is up early in the SUV again. Luna tries to follow her and Lambie has to get out of the car and drag her back to Tom. Lambie’s also left her father with a handwritten list of jobs. For instance, she wants the row of red ceramic pots with yuccas growing out of them to all be stained a uniform black. This house and its gardens are an OCD labour of love between the pair. It’s important to Tom that he’s building something for his daughter to protect her, and it’s important to Lambie that the two of them realise the potential of the property to pass on and safeguard her sons.
Now the senator starts driving east, this time through the Tasmania of tourist brochures. There are tiny Victorian cottages set behind rose-entwined paddock fences, and Lambie knows who will let her hammer in a campaign sign on their land. Passing, say, a row of shops, she also knows which businesses are doing well, which cafe treats their staff fairly, which shopkeeper’s wife is unwell. (Her office has helped organise the woman’s medical care.) But they’re on a patchwork of more powerful competing interests. The greenhouses and machinery of large-scale industrialised farming abuts forestry holdings, and there’s the building sector, with new housing estates rising up seemingly each week. She’s concerned about the quality of the building, but also about homelessness, the way many people still can’t afford accommodation in the midst of this boom.
As she drives, she turns and catches passengers in the next vehicle shouting at her with faces pulled in wrenched expressions. “They actually look quite amusing when they’re abusing you from the car,” she notes wryly, unable to hear a word.
More passers-by simply wave. Other drivers draw level, trying to get selfies with her, even as they overtake. Often, she says, someone tails her flashing their lights, until finally she pulls over and poses for a photo with them. Her staff ask her not to do this, but she says it feels safer to do it than to not.
If Tyrrell is elected to the Senate, it will take some pressure off.
“I’d really like to meet someone, to be honest,” Lambie admits. “I’ve been by myself for 20 years now.”
In 1997, three years after Dylan’s birth, she amicably split from her sons’ father. At that point, she’d been coping with a back injury for as many years. Soon after her son’s arrival, she’d exercised hard to lose the baby weight, worried she’d be overlooked for promotion. It is likely she damaged her spine in the process. She’d learnt, however, that the Defence Force was not a place to show weakness and she kept it to herself.
In mid 1997, Lambie entered a military skills competition, during which she walked 20 kilometres a day with little sleep while “carrying more than I weighed at the time”. Her back injury worsened but again she didn’t stop training, concerned it could lead to demotion. She got by with painkillers. Then, at the end of 1999, while being kitted for a dream job – an ADF peacekeeping mission in Timor-Leste – she collapsed. “Somehow, from the time the flak jacket hit my shoulders to the second my arse hit the floor, my military career was over. I couldn’t move, and I was in agonising pain.” She was given a medical discharge in early 2000.
Lambie’s memoir, Rebel with a Cause, describing what came next, is a combination of light, self-deprecating chat and a WikiLeaks dump. If the Australian Army helped make her the person she is, so did – in her telling – its evil twin, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Pages of unredacted documents detail her legal fight with the department and disclose information so raw and private most people would do anything to prevent it being aired.
For years, the DVA, which was meant to provide vocational rehabilitation and assistance, appointed specialists who argued Lambie was a malingerer. She was followed by a private investigator and videoed carrying groceries and hanging washing, tasks for which she dosed herself with painkillers. Her mental health deteriorated. She had been working since she was 10 years old, waiting tables at the local Rotary Club, and now she was on the dole, with chronic pain, depression, anxiety and soon a painkiller and alcohol addiction. Years passed with long stretches of the day spent on the couch, in and out of fantasies fed by whatever was on television. Lambie watched Keeping Up with the Kardashians, Desperate Housewives, Days of Our Lives, and dreamt of marrying a rich husband. Then “off my head on medication”, she tuned into parliamentary Question Time, and began imagining herself as a politician, taking on Veterans’ Affairs.
Her psychiatrist found she had a “poor ability to sustain concentration” and was indecisive and mistrustful. Her “episodic problematic use of alcohol has caused harm to self and has placed the safety of other people at risk”. She had “distortions of thinking” and “overvalued persecutory ideas”, and her “defensive anger alienates other people and causes social difficulties”.
Given a series of statements from which to describe her state of mind, Lambie selected:
I am sad all of the time
I feel my failure is hopeless and will only get worse
I feel I am a total failure as a person
I get very little pleasure from the things I used to enjoy
I have thoughts of killing myself but would not carry them out
I cry more than I used to
I have lost interest in sex completely
One night in August 2009, Lambie, having written goodbye letters to her sons, went outside and threw herself in the path of a passing car.
She tells me that after she finally got out of hospital, she tried to apologise to the driver, but he wouldn’t speak to her. She instead wrote him a letter, which the police passed on, apologising for what she’d done, saying she believed it was selfish. The suicide attempt had, however, forced the DVA’s hand, and finally, in 2010, Lambie went to The Hobart Clinic, a private psychiatric facility, where she lived for 22 weeks of the next two years. The clinic restored her mental health and found a pain management specialist who still treats her back injury with regular injections to the spine.
As Lambie emerged from the grip of depression and addiction, the idea of becoming a politician and “fixing” Veterans’ Affairs remained in her mind. At a market she met a psychic who gave her lines to recite morning and night in front of the mirror: “You are beautiful. I love you. You’re doing great work. You are going to become a senator.” Lambie laughs at herself easily and guffaws as she tells this story, but reports she steadfastly said the lines for 12 months, during which time she sold her Devonport house and moved to Burnie, using the meagre equity to kickstart an election campaign. When her funds ran out, she met Clive Palmer. By 2014, she’d entered parliament as a senator for the fledging Palmer United Party. (It’s therefore possible to be gobsmacked by the absurdity of her ascension, while wishing for an appointment with this clairvoyant yourself.)
At the start of her political career, Lambie careened around, barely coping. Not having worked for 12 years, she found her back made it difficult to get used to long hours – let alone her brain. Lambie was only a year or so out of the psych ward. Sometimes, on an excursion from The Hobart Clinic, she’d given herself a budget of 10 dollars and bought a new outfit from the local op shops. These were the clothes she was now wearing into federal parliament and soon she was mocked in the media for her appearance. Meanwhile, her senior adviser, Rob Messenger, himself a failed Palmer United Party candidate, felt passionately about legislating a ban against sharia law and wrote speeches for her quoting Cicero. “I’d been so braindead for so long,” she says. “I didn’t understand what the bloody hell I was talking about.”
What followed was a kind of #AusPol Days of Our Lives. By the end of 2014, Lambie found herself allergic to Clive Palmer’s micromanaging and quit his party. The next year, she formed the Jacqui Lambie Network and successfully contested the 2016 election. But she was growing increasingly uncomfortable with Messenger’s far-right policies. He assumed that by modelling Pauline Hanson, she would always score an easy 6–7 per cent of the vote.
Lambie had started forging parliamentary relationships of which her adviser didn’t approve. “Nick Xenophon, he sort of took me under his wing. I had Penny Wong always helping me out.” And Christine Milne of the Greens sat next to her in the Senate. “You could see that motherly teaching in her,” Lambie recalls. “Don’t worry,” Milne would say, “I’ll help you… it’s okay.”
In 2017, she fired Messenger, who filed an unfair dismissal case that is still before the courts. (He claims Lambie swore, drank excessively and took staff shopping for sex toys. In court, these staff have counterclaimed that Messenger bullied them, demanding they spy on Lambie.)
The senator, now following her own instincts, felt herself beginning to improve, but later in 2017 came her own “bitch slap”. In the midst of a parliament-wide scandal involving a little-known technicality, Lambie discovered she had an allegiance to a foreign power. Her father Tom, who’d immigrated from Scotland as a 19-month-old, had never renounced his citizenship, making Lambie a dual citizen.
She was forced to resign, and the mayor of Devonport, Steve Martin, who was second on her party’s ticket, was appointed in her place. After she’d cleared the citizenship problem, Martin then refused to stand aside to let her return and later switched to the Nationals.
To fund her 2019 re-election campaign, and to maintain her exposure, she took to the reality television circuit. It was a genre she understood from her “lost years” on the couch. And Lambie had found her own acts of radical self-exposure in the Senate had only increased her popularity. Most famously, in 2015, while calling for increased drug rehabilitation funding, she’d shared her experience of Dylan’s addiction.
Just after his 18th birthday, her son was thrown against a wall outside a nightclub, cracking his skull and causing an intracerebral haemorrhage. The neurosurgeon told his mother that Dylan would be lucky to survive, and if he did it was doubtful he’d even hold a knife and fork. Nevertheless, he walked out of hospital 12 weeks later, desperate to step back into his old life. With a brain injury, this was complicated. Dylan had left school at the end of Year 9, he’d dabbled in drugs and had trouble with the police. Before long he began using the highly addictive methamphetamine ice. “I am not talking to my son anymore,” Lambie told the Senate. “I’m now talking to a drug. And I can tell you, I’m not the only parent out there – there’s thousands of us.”
Today Lambie calculates that, of the people who approach her, one in five asks how Dylan is doing. Presumably other politicians have family members with drug problems, but the topic remains taboo. She, however, learnt an important lesson: humiliation can be fashioned into a badge of honour. Also, “If you want the public to talk to you, you have to come out warts and all, because it’s the only way they’re going to trust.”
Her reality TV warts-and-alls didn’t always make edifying viewing. Channel 9’s Sunday Night filmed her speed dating and at a sex-toy party next to a table of vibrators. (“If I get a taste for those marital toys then I won’t need a man in my life.”) In I’m a Celebrity… Get Me Out of Here! she sits in a jungle telling former AFL footballer Dermott Brereton, who’s in furious agreement, that Tony Abbott stopping refugee boats was the best thing he’d ever done. Then SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From showed her being driven around by soldiers in Syria, one moment arguing with a refugee advocate about immigration, the next being shot at by Daesh.
Lambie regards the latter trip as one of the highlights of her political career. “Going over there and seeing that firsthand, and actually smelling, touching it, was a reality check for me.” In one episode, she meets a 10-year-old boy who’d lost both legs in a landmine explosion. You can see her certainty wavering, her growing acknowledgement of the layers of complexity around the ethics of immigration.
Lambie won back her seat in 2019 and began giving Morrison headaches. She voted against random drug-testing on welfare recipients, suggesting parliamentarians should instead be tested. That year her vote meant the government could repeal the medical evacuation law, again preventing sick refugees from receiving medical treatment in Australia. However, the Greens senator Nick McKim worked with her on drafting the terms of the much touted “secret deal” that secured her support. She is legally obliged not to discuss the terms, although she keeps an eye on the numbers of refugees in offshore detention, and is angry they haven’t fallen further. “I just believe if you’re not a security risk, then locking you up, which was pretty much my life for 10 years… I will not do that to another human being.” In 2020, voting against the government’s legislation raising university fees, she said: “I refuse to be the vote that tells poor kids out there, ‘Dream a little cheaper.’”
All the while, the atmosphere in Parliament House reminded her of something she had despised in the army. It wasn’t so much the boys’ club feel – that was bad, but she could handle it. “Don’t come in here and throw your chest out at me,” she growled, casting me as a male cabinet minister, “because I swear to God, you’ll end up on your arse.” What she hated more than anything was the whiff of privilege coming off the MPs, the assumptions they made about her based, she felt, more on her social caste than her gender. It was déjà vu: in the army, private-school boys with no life experience were separated from the diggers and installed in the Royal Military College, entry to which, the college’s website declares, “is dependent on an applicant’s background”. At the college, Lambie claims, “we spot ’em for four years, kiss their arse, and bring ’em out”. The politicians and their advisers she worked with in parliament too often also seemed plucked from the officer class, as if their character and abilities could be taken for granted.
Once, she tried to brighten her parliamentary office with a new rug from Kmart. A Liberal cabinet minister came in and imperiously kicked it, sneering, “What’s this thing?” She told him to fuck off.
Her office now had a staff member working full time helping Australian veterans to connect with various services – ex-army Tasmanians would tell their friends in other states to call Lambie when they hit a bureaucratic dead end. Her staff was also trained to deal with veterans who were suicidal, and most of them had. The guys kicking the Kmart rug loved putting wreaths on war memorials, Lambie observed, but she wondered if they could care less about the people sent off to fight.
Her back pain was a constant reminder of how she’d been treated in the army. And that niggling question kept returning: what if the leaders of the country – like the army’s top brass – weren’t concerned about those at the bottom of the hierarchy? What if the kids from commission housing being picked up by the army’s recruiting bus, outside places like the Devonport Centrelink, were just regarded as cannon fodder? All the while, the suicide of veterans continued. One a week.
Lambie pulls into a parking spot in the riverside town of Deloraine then reconsiders. She cannot afford many billboards and as her car serves as an advertising hoarding its every position must be strategic. She swings it around and parks in a more visible location.
Deloraine’s main street is lined with historic buildings, and as she passes the real-estate agency, she points at the grid of house photos in the window. Each one is a leafy dream. “Sold, sold, sold, sold. You mainlanders need to fuck off,” she says, half-jokingly. Then she walks into Mumma Buzz Cafe ‘N’ Takeaway, heading straight to the back verandah.
Pat Turner sits waiting for her.
Turner is 80 years old, although her red hair has only just turned grey. A perfect straw hat with a fabric flower rests next to her on a chair, but the ladylike touch belies something steelier. She has the wry, unflappable manner of someone who taught primary school for 50 years, and when the subject of the jumping castle comes up, Turner recalls that once, on a school camp, she pulled a child from a fire, rolling with them to extinguish the flames.
Lambie orders a lime spider. Turner nurses an empty coffee cup and doesn’t want another. Over her shoulder, there is a view of a valley. The Meander River, as pretty as the name suggests, is winding through greenery. It’s a strange backdrop for rage but as Turner and Lambie sit opposite each other there is a low hum of fury. Then they talk in a kind of patois, filled with military acronyms.
Turner opens her wallet and shows me a photo from long ago of five towheaded children.
She came into Lambie’s orbit after the smallest, blondest kid in the photo, her son Ian, who became an elite commando, killed himself in 2017. Turner and her husband, himself an ex-soldier who didn’t feel he could handle meeting in public, have been engaged in years-long legal proceedings before the NSW Coroner, examining what role, if any, Defence and Veterans’ Affairs played in assisting their son after he was medically discharged. In the last few days, they’ve received the devastating news that the inquest will be adjourned once again, this time until August. The Turners are gagged from speaking about details of the case.
When Lambie was re-elected in 2019 she made lobbying for a royal commission into the department a key priority. She and her staff have worked tirelessly to unify a diverse group of veterans’ rights organisations and make their case legally stronger, while lobbying different lynchpin politicians.
In February 2020, Scott Morrison announced a National Commissioner for Defence and Veteran Suicide Prevention to lead an inquiry. This, Lambie pointed out, would be the 17th investigation is 17 years. It had limited terms of reference and the commissioner, herself recently retired from the ADF, was close friends with the defence minister.
Lambie’s campaign to bring about a royal commission went into high gear. In-house, her staffers produced a series of advertisements showing women holding photographs of bright-faced, young men in uniform – their sons lost to suicide. Another more gruelling clip, which circulated widely on social media, gives a glimpse of the problem’s scale. David Finney’s mother is shown as her son’s coffin is lowered into the ground. After years of service, David had called the Department of Veterans’ Affairs to say he wasn’t coping. He killed himself shortly after being told there’d be a six-month wait to see a psychiatrist. There’s the young widow of Nathan Roberts, who explains that their three-year-old son believes his father is on the Moon, because when Nathan put him to bed, he’d say, “I love you to the Moon and back.” There are also the parents of Jesse Bird, who committed suicide in full military uniform surrounded by his medals, and the DVA letter claiming he wasn’t entitled to assistance.
As more allegations emerge of war crimes in Afghanistan – allegations Lambie believes need to be thoroughly investigated – she feels there is a systemic failure of leadership, and veterans are also being treated in ways that are morally bankrupt.
Many details of Ian Turner’s case can be found online. On one tour of Afghanistan, his friend was killed alongside him and Ian carried the man’s corpse 6 kilometres to safety. On another tour, a second friend had his leg severed by a landmine. Ian had nothing but a rock to staunch the bleeding. The man survived, but Ian started drinking heavily to switch off. After five tours, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and alcoholism. The Defence Force nevertheless sent him back to Afghanistan for two more tours. When he was discharged, he was given minimal assistance from Veterans’ Affairs, and Defence obstructed his attempts at further study. His suicide note read: “Nobody can help me. I am too far gone. Please just let me go. I have suffered enough.”
Finally, in April 2021, Morrison relented and called a Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
Lambie had won. After all the years of drug-addled, daytime television–infused dreams of vengeance, then more years playing the game in parliament, she’d finally prevailed. She expected to feel euphoric, but instead she learnt what Wellington meant when, from Waterloo, he wrote “nothing except a battle lost can be half so melancholy as a battle won”. The win, for Lambie too, had come at the cost of “so many gallant friends”.
Sitting in the cafe, she asks Turner if she would consider giving evidence at the royal commission on the damage that prolonged fighting with the department has on veterans’ families. Lambie intends to tell her own story. She hoped it was not naive to imagine it could be cathartic, and previously she’s told me she’d like her son Dylan to testify about what it was like growing up with a veteran mother being denied assistance.
Her elder son, Brentyn, was a teenager during her dark years and, being talented at a range of sports, he was able to escape the house and find his bearings elsewhere. It’s not that he wasn’t affected by his mother’s issues, but Dylan copped it worse. “He really was a carer at seven years of age”, making sure the house was tidy and that his mother was presentable before she left it. “That’s not fair on our kids. Especially when they don’t need to go through that. That’s what pisses me off, more than anything. The department did not need to put my family, those two boys of mine, through that. Just like they don’t have to with other kids.”
Turner considers Lambie’s suggestion, then turns to me. She’s reluctant to say much due to the gag order, but she wants it to be known that without Lambie’s assistance and support she and her husband would have lost everything to their legal fight, including their house. Lambie has also always been available to their surviving son, another former elite commando, who has at times appeared to be on the same dangerous trajectory as his late brother. He and Lambie speak every few weeks. She has a circle of other veterans who have her number, and she talks with many of them regularly.
Lambie and Turner stand from the table. They embrace and walk back to the main street.
Driving home, Lambie takes a narrow back road, sometimes twisting alongside a river. It is the road on which she rode her horse as a teenager in the years before she joined the army, before the trouble that was to come.
She is still working through why her recovery had to take so long. Why she lost more than a decade. It’s not just about what it cost her family, but the limit she feels it has imposed on what she can achieve with her remaining time.
At her front door, Luna waits to greet her with a goofy expression.
The dog follows her around as she checks in with Tom – Jimmy Barnes’ “Working Class Man” blasting from his radio – inspecting the jobs he’s done. She sees the progress but can’t help seeing what else they could fix. A firepit would look good near the deck and perhaps in her ensuite she should add “his and hers” basins.
Nearly finished for the day, Tom settles into shorts and thongs, and nurses his stubby holder and beer as he hoses down the already perfect-looking decking. Lambie also puts on her shorts and a white singlet. Wearing wraparound sunglasses inside, she offers to lend me a pair of shorts too.
Later, when I go to my room, Lambie’s turned down the bedsheets as it’s done at a hotel. She’s rolled the guest towels and arranged a row of toiletries she has collected on her travels. There’s nothing calculated in her invitation to stay – not because she isn’t shrewd, but because it seems Jacqui Lambie can’t be stuffed being anything other than herself: generous and droll, like her father, who’s always ready with a bad joke (“Doctor, doctor, I have terrible wind…”).
Lambie calls Pat Turner to check she made it home safely, then opens a bottle of red wine and starts making a salad, while Tom barbecues steak.
Luna, watching all this, is rewarded with some of the meat and a slice of pavlova left over from the office party.
When Lambie took over the dog’s care from Dylan, the animal was skin and bones, skittish and hard to handle. But through all her home quarantining, Lambie’s worked with and trained her, and now Luna follows the senator everywhere, nosing into her even as she applies her makeup, as if wanting to doll up too, then enjoying each dab of blusher her mistress bestows. Lambie might like to complain about Luna, calling her “the thing”, yet, when she thinks no one is watching, her face is buried in the dog’s face, cooing as if to a baby.
Dylan still has his struggles and clearly they still weigh on his mother. I ask if she finds the cliché to be true, that a parent is only as happy as their least happy child.
“But I am happy,” she stresses. She claims that over the years her son’s issues have become less painful to her, or rather, she’s learnt to accommodate this pain. At the beginning of this period, she was treated like a walking national embarrassment; now she’s practically mobbed by fans wherever she goes. It’s been an extraordinary and hard-won transformation, one undertaken in the heat of the public glare. Now she has to try to ride this wave and not despair over what she can’t change.
Still, after dinner she has grown sombre.
The scene on the flat-screen TV, always on in the living room, has morphed from the cricket into Escape to the Chateau, a reality-television Christmas special following an English couple who’ve bought a grand French mansion. It shows them decorating their 45-room home, and preparing a sumptuous feast, but Lambie, watching from the kitchen, is in no mood for the reality they’re peddling. It makes her think about all the people who are homeless during Christmas.
In her presence, the TV couple seem utterly confected and twee. The senator’s reality show – the one she invites Australians to witness – is far more complex and fraught and real. There’s nothing manufactured about Lambie: her tenderness, her indignation, her reckless openness are all on display as she veers between obsession and chaos. Rolling herself a cigarette, she can’t find a lighter and, ducking her head down, uses the toaster. Then she heads out onto the deck to smoke.
On television, the châtelaine is pouring brandy eggnog into her set of vintage-crystal custard glasses, when I hear a splash. Lambie has decided to go for a swim, and, trying to encourage Luna to learn too, she’s thrown the dog into the pool.
Luna escapes and bolts through the living room and out into the garden. She runs along the immaculate deck. Over the planting beds with their neatly spaced saplings, across the recently mown lawn. Lambie follows, holding a towel, but Luna won’t go near her. The senator then drags out a hairdryer attached to an extension cord. She sits on a new picnic bench, and, as the night comes down, waits for the dog to forgive her.
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