How good is it to be Jacqui Lambie right now? A great deal, it would seem, and the Tasmanian independent senator certainly knows it.
After being elected on Clive Palmer’s ticket in 2013 and then booted from the parliament over dual-citizenship problems, Senator Lambie was re-elected in her own right last May and returned to the Senate this week.
The crossbench on which Ms Lambie sits is smaller than previously, but her importance on it has grown considerably. Of the six crossbench senators, the Morrison Government needs four to pass any legislation that is opposed by the Greens and Labor. But from almost any way you look at it, Senator Lambie’s vote will need to be among those four.
To start with, the Government can pretty much assume the support of Cory Bernardi, the former Liberal senator who heads the soon-to-be-defunct Australian Conservatives. Then there are the two minor party voting blocs, with two senators belonging to Centre Alliance and another two to Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
This arrangement provides the Government with a neat way of getting its legislation through the senate. It can team with Senator Bernardi and One Nation on more totemic ‘conservative’ matters like border protection, but it also has the option of aligning with Senator Bernardi and the Centre Alliance on more ‘centrist’ issues, such as tax cuts.
However in each case this is only three out of four votes, leaving senator Lambie as the fourth vote and holding the pivotal balance of power.
The do-over senator was not shy this week about brandishing her new power, broadcasting an ultimatum of sorts on Twitter that essentially spelt out the price for her support of the Government’s income tax cut package – including the cuts for higher income earners in four years’ time.
While she didn’t get exactly what she asked for – cancellation by the federal government of the Tasmanian government’s social housing debt – Senator Lambie did secure an ‘agreement’ for more money on social housing in Tasmania.
Explaining her decision before the vote, Senator Lambie said she wasn’t prepared to be the one who prevented the tax cuts being passed. “I’m not saying everything about this bill is perfect and I’m not saying that it’s going to fix every problem people are experiencing.
“I’m just saying that if you ask me to choose between helping someone and helping nobody then I know what I’m going to choose every single time, just as sure as day follows night.”
A cynic might suggest the good senator was overly trusting to take the Government at its word on this. Then again, the Government would be crazy to renege on a deal with the woman who holds such power over the future of its legislative agenda.
Senator Lambie has only been back a few days but already there are parallels being drawn between her and the wily independent Tasmanian senator, Brian Harradine, who was in the senate for thirty years but also held or shared the balance of power from 1994 to 1999.
Senator Harradine extracted all manner of deals from the government of the day, some of which served the public good, such as much needed communication funding for Tasmania, but who also imposed his staunch religious views through restrictions on the abortion drug RU486 and cuts to foreign aid funding for family planning advice that might encourage abortion.
Senator Lambie’s demands will no doubt be less philosophically driven than those of Senator Harradine, but they will involve the issues that she believes in passionately, such as the treatment of returned service personnel, rehabilitation for people with substance abuse issues, and the plight of Tasmania’s poor and homeless citizens.
Meanwhile, the demands of that other opinionated and influential female senator, Pauline Hanson, will have less impact on the Government, just as long as Jacqui Lambie can continue to find common goals with Cory Bernardi and the two Centre Alliance senators.
Having Senator Hanson and her colleague Malcolm Roberts quarantined to the sidelines will be a good thing for Australia.
While Labor and Greens supporters might not enjoy the Government doing deals to pass legislation with the other four senators, the rest of Australia can be reasonably confident that we’re in good hands with Jacqui Lambie and this new awesome foursome.