Jacqui Lambie reminds us that democracy isn’t supposed to be neat

IN praise of crossbenchers.


In the Senate on Wednesday night –in that maroon chamber of federal Parliament where elected representativesare supposed to represent their states, but where party politics rules -there was a wonderful dose of reality on full display.

It was messy, there were tears,outrageand put-downs, but it actually sounded and felt like democracy. The outrage was real. It wasn’t the confected rage of major party politicians scoring the kind of scripted political pointsthat drivesane people to distractionand disconnection.

Tasmanian Senator Jacqui Lambie spoke –and cried –about what it’s like to be a member of that much-derided group in society, single mothers.

And other senators were forced to listen.

Lambie injected some real-time, real-life messagesinto debate about the Turnbull government’s proposed $1.3 billion welfare cuts which, until she rose to speak at about 9.30pm, had been fairly standard political fare.

Labor’s attacks went something like this, and I’m quoting directly from the debate: “This bill fits neatly into the Liberal agenda. It is about making the poor poorer and the rich richer –textbook Liberal ideology. They all know it. It is in their DNA. It is the founding principle of Liberal philosophy. It is arrogant. It is out of touch.”

Then it was the Liberals’ turn andagain, this is a direct quote: “Well, colleagues, what a cynical and petulant display we have seen from the Australian Labor Party tonight. They have mustered filibustering, talking it out, trying to keep us here as late as possible so they can demonstrate to their unions that they have at least put up a fight.…to go down kicking and screaming in true Labor Party style.”

Lambie started her speech at 9.27pm. She outlined her understanding of what the government wasproposing –a three-year indexation freeze on most working age allowances and the single parent payment, and a two-year indexation freeze on family tax benefits.

She threw in the kinds of figures that other MPs had already quoted –the family tax benefit freeze will impact almost 600,000 families on the maximum rate, where household income is less than $52,000.

She produced examples of the kinds of freezes and cuts the government isn’t proposing, such as a financial transactions tax on Australia’s highest high-frequency share traders.

“In the four years it will take to raise almost $2 billion from families who need it most, a modest financial transactions tax on Australia’s highest high-frequency share traders could raise four times that amount,” she said.

The speeches went on through the night and into the early hours. There were more political attacks, more references from Labor back to the Abbott government’s shocker 2014 budget; more attacks by Coalition MPs on previous Labor government budget blow-ups, and then Jacqui Lambie spoke again.

“I want you to know that’s what it’s like to be at the bottom of the crap pile through no fault of our own, for many of us. For you to take that money off people, you have no idea how bloody tough it is,” she said.

“Every little cent counts to those people. What you are doing is shameful, and if you really realised the damage that you are continually doing tothat part of society, you would stop doing it.”

Lambie was a single mother for seven years, raising two children.

If you look at the history of the Australian government since Federation, it wouldn’t take long to work out that as a group, single mothers have been under-represented at a political level. One day I might just do a search to work out how under-represented, but my guess is that you’d have some fingers over if you counted single mother MPs using two hands.

By and large our laws have been made by men from middle-class backgrounds or higher, who might have come from disadvantaged backgrounds, but whose lived experience has not included being left with children to raise.

Their lived experience is not like Jacqui Lambie’s and other women whohave struggled to survive with children on their own, where criticisms of single mothers and the way their children are perceivedfailto acknowledge the reality of the situation –that they’re still there, trying.

In the Senate on Wednesday Lambie spoke for single-parentfamilies, and all disadvantaged families. It wasn’t polite, but it was real. She took potshots alright.

Finance Minister Mathias Cormann tried to argue that because it was an indexation freeze “no family will actually receiveless as a result of the changes that are before us today”.

His careful comment that families would receive the same level of payment, provoked an angry response from Lambie.

“You are taking money off them. I don’t give a stuff which way you look at it. Freeze is taking money off them. That is going on. That is the truth. Please don’t spin it,” she said.

Her speech wasn’t so much an attack on what was proposed but a cry on behalf of the people who would bear the consequences –and there’s a big difference.

Senate crossbenchers are a derided group, described as unruly, unrepresentative, uncoordinated andunpredictable. The election of so many in 2016 was seen as one of Malcolm Turnbull’s gravest strategic failures.

I don’t think amajority of Australians agree. We need more speeches like Jacqui Lambie’s –raw,passionate and possibly embarrassing for some of those who were there, but a voice for many, nevertheless.