First published in The Age on April 19, 2014
The underdog bites back
The election of Palmer United Party’s Jacqui Lambie to the Senate surprised many. But a 10-year battle with Veterans’ Affairs shows the former soldier is no pushover.
The new senator from Tasmania says she won’t be available for an interview tomorrow because her father will be pleading guilty to assaulting a police officer. Jacqui Lambie offers this information with a slight roll of the eyes, as though this is the last thing she needs right now, but what can you do? Tom Lambie’s oldest child will be there to support him.
The next morning, she arrives at Devonport Magistrates Court in full make-up, wearing an animal-print top and pearl drop earrings, hoping the local media won’t show up. Her father is lean, white-haired and nervous. As far as assaulting a police officer goes, it’s a small-fry case. On December 27 last year, Tom’s wife called police complaining her drunken husband was yelling and swearing and carrying on.
When the police arrived, Tom was furious and pushed a constable out the back door. The court hears a sketch of Tom’s life – decades working as a truck driver, a frozen-shoulder injury, unemployed for the past three years, depressed and in pain. The marriage – his third – was now over, and he was living in a caravan park trying to start again. It’s an everyday Struggle-Street story, and the magistrate shows compassion. No conviction, and a 12-month good-behaviour bond. It’s all over in 20 minutes. Jacqui Lambie smiles and hugs her father. “It’s a wake-up call to my family to pull their heads in,” she says. She’s a senator now, or will be in July when the new Senate sits – her first real job since she was medically discharged from the army 14 years ago. She looks stressed and I offer that the magistrate seemed sympathetic. “She should be,” says Lambie, “she’s had my son up before her about a dozen times.” She rolls her eyes again and laughs.
The Senate that ns elected last year was full of surprises and Jacqui Lambie, 43, ex-army corporal, single mother of two, broad n accent, was one. There’s a new political class heading for Canberra. A handful of outsiders with burning grievances and little or no political experience are about to wield real power in the upper house.
After the Palmer United Party (PUP) picked up another Senate spot in this month’s Western n Senate re-run, the Abbott government has no choice but to negotiate with the unpredictable mining magnate Clive Palmer and his senators to pass legislation that Labor and the Greens oppose. Of the eight crossbenchers in the Senate come July, four will be PUP members or aligned with the party. One of them is Jacqui Lambie, as unlikely a politician as you’ll ever meet. A friend since her army days, Jacqui Craig, had a simple reaction when Lambie was elected: “Holy dooley.”
PUP’s Queensland parliamentary leader, Alex Douglas, wrote in a leaked email that Lambie came from “Boganland … from a world we see daily and quietly hope will disappear”. Unfortunately, he wrote, “The world is full of them demanding their right, in an odd way, to be heard.”
Lambie says she’s an underdog, not a bogan. “I don’t think that because I’ve got a different background to the majority of them that makes me any less political,” she says. And then there’s her other motive – revenge. Lambie has battled with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs for more than a decade over compensation for a back injury she suffered in 1997. As a senator, she’ll be a victim of bureaucracy no more.
We meet at her modern rented home in Burnie, a port city of 20,000 in Tasmania’s north-west, which has been feeling the pain of restructuring and downsizing and worrying about where new jobs might come from. When Lambie has popped up on television in recent months, she has come across as furious and hard-faced almost to the point of comedy. She bloody well wants more money for Tasmania, and she bloody well wants to clean up Veterans’ Affairs, okay?
Her eldest son Brentyn, 23, bounds in on the way to football practice. “Out of the whole family, I’m the only one that’s got brains,” he says, and Lambie laughs as loud as anyone. Her second son, Dylan, 20, works as a slaughterman at a local abattoir and says if he had to describe his mother, he’d say she was stubborn.
Lambie received 6.6 per cent of the vote in the Tasmanian Senate election, and most of it came from the north and north-west, culturally and politically a world away from cosmopolitan Hobart. Lambie’s parents separated when she was 13, and her teenage years were spent in a public housing estate in Devonport, a 30-minute drive from Burnie. After year 11, she took a year off because she was drifting and wagging school. At 18, she applied to join the army, more for a lark than anything. What neither she nor the army knew was that she was a few weeks pregnant, a result of a fling with a boy who was “in the wrong crowd”. She says the army tried to kick her out, but she hung in.
Lambie loved the army, and her face still lights up when she speaks of it. It offered structure, camaraderie, discipline, hard work, and ready-made support for a teenage single mum. Hers was a modest 11-year career, moving from the transport corps, where she drove trucks and serviced vehicles, to ambulance driving in Brisbane before she joined the military police, investigating minor matters on army bases. Along the way, she met fellow soldier John Milverton, the father of Dylan.
Joining the military police was a “wake-up call”, she says, an on-the-ground feminist awakening. “[I thought] I’m going to have to lift the bar by about 100 per cent or they’re going to annihilate me … I had a corporal who was an absolute arsehole, and even though we were all corporals, he just treated the females like a piece of crap. We all had drinks one day and I took a swing at him. That got me charged. I wouldn’t say it was worth it, because all I did was break my little finger. I lost a stripe for it.”
Politics wasn’t something Lambie thought much about. She thinks she voted Liberal mostly, but can’t really remember. “I couldn’t even tell you what one party done from the other back then. I just know that Defence told you this party’s going to give us this, this party’s going to give us that, give your votes to that party, because that’s how it used to work.”
That was life until July 1997, when she participated in a weekend skills course in Victoria. She was in the bush for 48 hours, carrying a 40-kilogram pack on a 40-kilometre march. For 12 hours on a Saturday night, she and another soldier carried a weighted ammunition box full of rocks. There was an obstacle course, a three-kilometre walk to a bayonet range, another long walk to a rifle range. It was a tough course, but not out of the ordinary for the army. On Monday, she awoke with excruciating back and neck pain and could “hardly move”.
What followed was intensive physiotherapy, a back brace, cortisone injections into the upper back, painkillers, part-time work, slight improvements and setbacks. She was posted to Darwin in 1998 and in February the next year, the army paid for a breast reduction. “They thought it might take pressure off my back. It certainly helped, but it didn’t fix it.”
Towards the end of 1999, she was about to be deployed to East Timor as a searcher – if female detainees are searched, it has to be done by a woman. “I thought ‘bewdy’, 10 years and I’m finally going to get overseas and fight for the country.
“Twenty-four hours before we were about to leave they went round and said, ‘Put your arms up so we can put your flak jackets on; make sure your gear’s all ready.’ When they put the flak jacket on me, I knew I was on my last legs. I just collapsed on the floor. I couldn’t get back up. Then I was gone.”
A few months later, in March 2000, Lambie was medically discharged from the army. Her relationship with Milverton had already broken down. “The first year was a nightmare because I couldn’t comprehend how I’d been so fit and [had] started to build some momentum in my career and it was gone. I had to deal with the 101 questions, blaming myself, blaming Defence, trying to keep a running sheet of everything that was said and done between Veterans’ Affairs and me, dates, times, trying to fight them. Within three months they said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with you.’ “
Lambie’s claim for compensation for what is known as T7 facet joint pain was initially rejected, then accepted, and Lambie was on a military disability pension and could claim for treatment. In 2001, she applied for compensation for depression caused by back pain, which was rejected. In August of that year, Veteran Affairs hired a private investigation firm to peer into her house to test her claim that she was in near constant and crippling pain.
The 14-page report of five hours of tapes is uncomfortable reading. Lambie was filmed making tea, folding clothes, cooking dinner, playing with her children, washing dishes. “Her mobility has, at all times during the surveillance periods, presented with no obvious or apparent abnormality,” the report stated. “Indeed Ms Lambie could reasonably be described as being industrious.” Some of the wording seemed gratuitous: “What was evident … was the absence of any mirthful or happy facial expression by Ms Lambie for the majority of the time … however we have obtained some background information to suggest that Ms Lambie may be, by nature, an unsmiling and/or dour looking individual.” On the basis of the report, the department cancelled the disability pension and payments for medical treatment, concluding she was a malingerer.
“I hated their guts,” Lambie says. “I couldn’t believe after giving your country 10 years in the armed forces that you’re treated like a bucket of shit.”
For five years, Lambie fought Veterans’ Affairs, paying for her own treatment where she could, and being accepted as eligible for a Centrelink disability pension. Greg Isolani, a partner at KCI Lawyers and Lambie’s lawyer since 2001, says he’s never seen anything quite like Lambie’s case. “I’ve been litigating since 1991, in Commonwealth compensation since 1992, and in military compensation as a specialist area since 1995. This was one of the worst cases of using Commonwealth resources to really stamp out anyone’s right to an entitlement, to thwart and make it as technically difficult, costly and prohibitive for any individual to have to go through.”
The case ended up in the Administrative Appeals Tribunal in 2006. When the video evidence was shown, Lambie burst into tears. Her lawyer objected to it on privacy and other grounds. The tribunal was about to rule whether it was admissible, but at the last minute the department capitulated. After relying on the surveillance for five years as proof that Lambie had no disabling back condition and was entitled to nothing, it backed down, abandoning its use of the video. It now accepted that Lambie suffered thoracic or middle back pain and was entitled to be compensated, and accepted it should assist with a rehabilitation program to help her return to work. It would later accept liability for her depression and alcohol abuse.
Five doctors gave evidence – Isolani says the department insisted they saw the video evidence before doing so, even though it would drop its own reliance on the tapes. Of the two medical witnesses for the department, one concluded Lambie was a malingerer, another that she had an “illness belief” propped up by inappropriate medial treatment. These opinions were dismissed by the tribunal’s then deputy president Christopher Wright, a former Tasmanian Supreme Court judge.
Three doctors gave counterevidence that she was suffering debilitating pain, which had improved following extensive treatment including transfusions of pain medication, chiropractic treatment and psychological counselling. Not all of Lambie’s claims against the department were accepted. The tribunal found that the alternative treatment of cupping, as well as a gym membership, were not claimable. But it was a slap to the department overall. The sting was in Wright’s conclusion that “it is likely that even greater improvement would have been achieved a long time ago if her medical treatments, which were initially funded by the respondent, had not been terminated in 2001”.
It was a win, but it wasn’t over. Life was starting to get better for Lambie in 2008 when then Labor senator for Tasmania Nick Sherry offered her work in his office for several months as part of a rehabilitation program. But around this time, Lambie’s trusted doctor died and the botox injections that were giving her relief became difficult to get from the mainland. She was drinking heavily, depressed, and taking a cocktail of pain medication and sleeping pills. “I just walked around; I was just a walking empty shell. It was the end of me.”
On August 14, 2009, Lambie walked in front of a car in Devonport. She lost two front teeth, her face was cut and her leg was badly bruised. She believes it was what psychologists call a spontaneous suicide attempt arising out of her depression and alcohol abuse – conditions already accepted by Veterans’ Affair. But the department questioned whether it really was a suicide attempt, and wasn’t satisfied that it had anything to do with her employment with the army years before.
The details are sketchy: Lambie was at a friend’s house that night and drank a bottle of wine, then another glass. She had an argument with another friend on the phone and was “fairly angry”. Her friends took her car keys to prevent her from driving and she walked out of the driveway, into the path of a car.
There is conflicting medical evidence as to whether this was a suicide attempt or an accident due to the overconsumption of alcohol. Isolani acknowledges there are reasonable arguments on both sides, but says it needs to be seen in context. “You can take a fairly narrow and unsophisticated view, certainly at first blush,” he says. “Yes, [she’s] out drinking Friday night with friends, she’s a bit pissed, fair enough, steps out into a car. Simple story, we’ve all heard it.
“But the context was one where she’d been talking to her psychologist about her issues, that she had suicidal ideations in the past, that she had been at her lowest ebb coming up to this point and she’d been struggling with alcohol. She’s saying, ‘My life’s shit, I want to die.'”
After the car accident, Lambie was admitted to a Hobart health clinic for treatment for depression and substance abuse, and would spend more than 20 weeks there over the next 18 months. She says that in 2011, she “went cold turkey” off the plethora of painkillers. To add to the saga, she came down with chronic fatigue syndrome – her claim for that was denied.
Life gradually improved with a regimen of exercise, health-food supplements, massage and counselling. Now, she says, her pain remains but is under control, with the help of botox injections in her back several times a year and cortisone shots every six months. Six months ago, she came off the disability pension.
In January last year, a settlement was worked out with the department. It did not acknowledge Lambie’s injuries were a result of a suicide attempt, but it did pay dental expenses and for laser treatment for the scarring to her forehead.
Lambie had decided years before that, “if I ever got back on my feet” she would try to get into politics to fight on behalf of veterans. She joined the ALP for a short time while she worked for Nick Sherry, then was a member of the Liberal Party in 2011 for just a few months, when she stood unsuccessfully for preselection for the Tasmanian seat of Braddon – she says the Liberals are a “boys’ club”, and she joined to “infiltrate” them to see what she could learn about politics.
She sold her house in 2012 to help fund her run as an independent. Then she rang the fledgling Palmer United Party and posted material to them on veterans’ issues, hoping Clive Palmer would help fund her independent campaign. In a series of phone calls, Palmer convinced her she couldn’t succeed on her own and that she should join his new party. She agreed because she needed the money. “I didn’t want to give my independence up. I found that really difficult.”
If PUP is full of disaffected independents thrown together for convenience and cash, it’s hard to see how it might work out in Canberra. Brian Costar, professor of political science at Swinburne University of Technology, says, “It’s going to be chaotic. How can you predict this lot? They start off with chief Palmer, but what if the Indians defect?”
Lambie isn’t strong on policy details and her interests are particular – sometimes she’s in sync with Palmer, and sometimes she’s not. As a condition for joining PUP, she insisted she bring her Veterans’ Affairs “baggage” with her and be the spokesperson for Tasmania. Palmer agreed. Already, the party is saying it will refuse to vote down the mining tax unless the government reverses its plan to scrap the income support bonus for war veterans’ children and orphans.
There are long-standing veteran grievances, especially around indexation for military pensions. The government has agreed to index them in line with aged pensions for 57,000 military superannuants aged 55 and over. While this would mean a boost for these veterans, Lambie and many veterans’ groups say it’s not enough. PUP wants up to $640 million over four years, including back pay for past underpayment.
“Some will ask: ‘how much will this cost?'” Lambie told a conference of the Peacekeeper and Peacemaker Veterans’ Association in Hobart just after the election. “Well, I don’t care how much it costs. We as a party don’t care how much it costs because we simply believe a sailor, an airman or a soldier is priceless.”
It’s an approach that permeates PUP – populist policies with scant details about how they might be funded. Its election promises included $80 billion more for health, $20 billion for education, a cut in the personal income tax rate of 15 per cent across the board. It will probably support the government in abolishing the carbon tax, but it’s not quite saying yet. In the recent Tasmanian and WA elections, it was criticised for hiding its candidates and for minimal or inconsistent policies. Lambie’s main pledge for Tasmania is to fight to boost federal funding to the state by $5 billion – by taking it from the foreign-aid budget.
Press Lambie on all of this, and she talks about how “the whole thing is to make ns smarter and pump up industry”. Push her more and her greatest loyalty is to the strugglers she’s grown up with and knows well. People like her. Politicians are out of touch with her world, oblivious to disadvantage, bandying about terms like the “end of the age of entitlement” without knowing what it’s like to do without.
“I think all these people running around with extra money … we can probably put their taxes up, yep? We’re supposed to be the lucky country so, love thy neighbour, and when the underdogs are doing it this tough then somebody needs to pay more. That’s the n way.”
One wonders what Palmer would think about the affluent paying more taxes, given he’s pledged a reduction in personal income tax for all. “If I don’t agree with something, I’ll stand up. We haven’t had much to disagree on so far, but … I mean, Clive’s a billionaire, I’m the underdog – it’s like chalk and cheese.”
Lambie isn’t the least bit fazed about going to Canberra. She’s not a book learner, she says, but she loves talking to people and finding out what the problems are, and she doesn’t mind asking questions if she doesn’t know something. Her chief of staff will be Rob Messenger, a former LNP member in the Queensland Parliament who, in a familiar story, quit the party to become an independent before joining PUP. He says Lambie’s staff will be “a team of misfits, whistle-blowers and people who have been done over”.
Lambie says she’s “just going to go in there and suss it out the first three months, and do a lot of networking, because that’s probably one of my biggest skills.
“So it’s like any job, you’ve got to sort of sit back for three or four months and then, all right, okay, I’ve figured that out. Now I’m coming in.” ?