And so it was this week, when she rose in the Senate to oppose the Morrison government’s university reforms.
“Those government members have no idea what it’s like to be the first one in your family to make it to uni or to find yourself moving in social circles in this place. They have no idea what it’s like to make your way around people who talk with an accent that’s different to yours and who use words that your parents wouldn’t understand,” she said.
Her politics is infused with her life experience. She regularly draws on her roots as a single mother who grew up in a housing commission estate, dropped out of high school to join the army, survived debilitating bouts of mental illness and addiction and knows the humiliation of subsisting on welfare.
“It is not a choice for many of us to be on welfare. It is shameful and it is embarrassing and it is bloody tough. But we do it not because we want to but because circumstances put us there,” she said in a tearful speech to the Senate in 2017 opposing welfare cuts.
She entered the Senate in 2014 as one of the rag-tag members of the Palmer United Party, and quickly made national headlines railing against Islamic law and calling for a ban on the burqa. She cut ties with Clive Palmer months later to become an independent, and was re-elected in 2016 as the face of her own party, the Jacqui Lambie Network.
After she was forced to resign from the Senate in 2017, one of the casualties of the dual-citizenship scandal, she re-entered Parliament in 2019 a more nuanced, strategic political player.
Lambie decided to oppose two key pieces of government legislation last week.
Firstly, she revealed she would not support the Job Ready Graduates bill – the Morrison government’s signature university funding reforms.
The reforms will hike fees for humanities degrees by 113 per cent and by 28 per cent for law and economics degrees, while slashing fees for science, maths and teaching.
In a lengthy statement posted to Twitter, Lambie said the bill deserved to fail because it “makes university life harder for poor kids and poor parents”: “I’ll be damned if I’m going to be the vote that tells the country that poor people don’t get dream jobs.”
Two days later, she announced she would not support a bill to give the government the power to seize mobile phones from people in immigration detention.
Explaining her position on social media, she said she “wasn’t comfortable” with confiscating phones from people “who aren’t doing anything wrong with them”.
“Most of the people in immigration detention came to Australia legally,” she tweeted.
“Most of them are using their phones to text friends. They’re using it to watch videos about cats or whatever. They’re not using it to organise bloody riots.”
She based her decision in part on the outcome of an opinion poll she set up through her personal website. She said more than 100,000 people voted in the poll, of whom 96 per cent opposed the bill. She has hinted at using this format to guide her decision-making in the future, saying “election day shouldn’t be the only time that voters get a direct say over the decisions that are made in Parliament every sitting week”.
Why is it important?
Her decision to reject the mobile phone bill was politically disastrous for the government. Labor, the Greens, independent Rex Patrick and the Centre Alliance had already stated their opposition, so when Lambie joined them she killed the bill in its tracks.
Her vote was less critical on the university reforms, but her decision forced the government into a tight negotiating position with Centre Alliance senator Stirling Griff, who was left wielding the make-or-break vote. The reforms ultimately passed the Senate this week, after the Centre Alliance extracted more funding for student places at South Australia’s three public universities.
What happens next?
The government will continue to appeal to Lambie for her support on contentious legislation when its agenda is opposed by Labor and the progressive crossbenchers.
She has proved crucial to the government’s agenda in the past. In December 2019, her vote secured the repeal of the medical evacuation (medevac) law, restoring the power of federal ministers to reject the transfer of asylum seekers to Australia for medical treatment. She has never disclosed the reasons for her decision, saying “national security concerns” prevented her from discussing them publicly.
She revived this line again last week, as she explained her reasons for opposing the mobile phone seizure bill.
“[I]f there’s ever a time I need to step up and pass an unpopular bill to protect our country, I won’t think twice. I don’t care if Twitter hates it. If it’s necessary to keep us safe, it’s happening,” she tweeted.
Lisa Visentin is a federal political reporter at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, covering education and communications.