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Jacqui Lambie’s imperial ambitions take a tumble.

She tried to turn her idiosyncratic brand into a sort-of party. But, as with so many of those arrangements before, it’s quickly falling apart.

Lambie and Tyrrell enjoy a JLN board meeting

 Just when you think Tasmanian politics can’t get any sillier, it does.

In the past few weeks, the wreckage has been piling up even more quickly than usual, with Jacqui Lambie’s ill-fated attempt to turn herself into a party now overtaking even the ineptitude of the two major parties.

But the cluelessness has been going on for a long time, so let’s go back a bit. The blunders of others, before anyone had heard of Jacqui Lambie, led us to where she, and we, are now.

By the 1990s the Tasmanian Greens were a nuisance to the major parties, which found they couldn’t form government without them. So, in 1998, Labor and the Liberals combined to cut the size of the House of Assembly from 35 seats to 25. The idea was that the Greens tended to win the last or second-last seat in each of the five multi-member electorates, to eliminating those ought also to eliminate the Greens.

Who needs democracy anyway?

It didn’t work very well. The Greens were reduced from four members to one at the 1998 election. The leader, Christine Milne, lost her seat. But the triumph for the majors soon faded: at the next election the Greens boosted their numbers back to four and, in the Hobart seat of Denison, outpolled the Liberals.

The Greens no longer relied on the last couple of seats and in some electorates topped the polls. In 2010, with five seats out of 25, they again held the balance of power. But this time it was the Greens’ turn to stumble.

The lure of ministries was too attractive to resist, so they attached themselves to a failing Labor Party in the final, ruinous term of its 16 years in power and gained two ministries and a parliamentary secretaryship. But when the last Labor Premier, Lara Giddings, brought down a ruinous slash-and-burn budget in 2011, they clung on to their ministries rather than sprinting for the emergency exit.

In 2014, Labor was bundled out and so were the Greens. They sank from five seats to two, where they remained for the next ten years.

“England,” said Disraeli, “does not love coalitions.” Nor does Tasmania.

Shrinking the parliament did not entrench the major parties in the way they had planned but it had one serious side-effect: too many ministries and not enough ministers.

With almost no backbench at all, the Liberal governments – despite having majorities in the House – had such an urgent need to fill ministries that talent, suitability and intelligence were no longer a consideration. Each minister held four or five portfolios; burnout surged and resignations abounded. Within fairly short order the government lost two Premiers and a series of ministers.

Spending more time with the family can’t be as bad as this, can it?

So in 2022 Jeremy Rockliff, the government’s third Premier in as many years, decided to expand the House again to 35 members, adding two new members to each of the five electorates.

With the quota for each seat down from 16.7% to 12.5%, Jacqui Lambie saw an opportunity.

Lambie was first elected to the Australian Senate in 2013 as a member of Clive Palmer’s short-lived Palmer United Party. It lasted for 14 months before she resigned from the party and sat as an independent before being re-elected in 2016 as the sole member of the Jacqui Lambie Network.

Independents often find that in multi-member systems like the Senate and the House of Assembly, having more than one candidate on the ballot can be useful, harvesting votes from other parties and funnelling the preferences to the “leader”. It can, and does, backfire.

In 2017, along with Barnaby Joyce and others, she fell afoul of Section 44 of the constitution, which banned federal MPs from having dual citizenship. Eight senators and seven MHRs stepped down or resigned; Lambie’s place in the Senate was taken by the right-wing mayor of Devonport, Steve Martin, number two on her how-to-vote card. Lambie, finally cleared, expected him to stand down for her; he refused and she spent the next 18 months on the sidelines before winning re-election in 2019.

But the experience with Martin did not deter Lambie from her quasi-party ambitions and in the 2022 election her staffer, Tammie Tyrrell, joined the Senate as the second Lambie. Then, as the new 35-member state House loomed, it was time to expand the brand still further, so the Jacqui Lambie Network nominated twelve candidates – three in each of the four non-Hobart electorates.

“I hope,” she confessed to reporters, “that I’ve picked the right people.”

Jacqui didn’t really know them and the electorate had never heard of them. But three were elected to the expanded state parliament – not on their own merits, which were unknown, but purely because voters thought they would be getting Lambie lookalikes.

While all this was unfolding, the Network was having problems. In her desire to expand her brand, Lambie had appointed a board to supervise and support her quasi-party. But the board didn’t like what Senator Tammy Tyrrell was saying and doing, so they moved against her. And so she resigned.

Tyrrell will remain in the senate as an independent, not due for re-election until 2028. Lambie faces the electors of Tasmania next year, with her brand now battered by people she thought were going to help. And the Tyrrell debacle was swiftly followed by a derailment at state level.  

Jeremy Rockliff called an early election after two conservative Liberals defected to the crossbench and demanded transparency on the appallingly one-sided deal with the Australian Football League requiring the government to build a new stadium the state doesn’t need with money it doesn’t have. Rockliff, understandably, tried to keep the deal secret.

There were other occasional mini-stoushes but no likelihood of the government falling or being unable to pursue its legislative agenda. But that wasn’t enough for the Premier.

He went to the election with (counting the two mostly-loyal semi-defectors) 14 seats, or 52% of the 25-seat parliament. After the election he has 14 seats in a 35-seat house. That’s 40%.

Labor did even worse, with only ten: 29%. The crossbench (with 11) is now bigger than one of the major parties (Labor has 10) so Rockliff is having to cobble together some sort of coalition to allow him to form government.

It is insufficient to say an early election was a bad call. It’s a breathtaking case of political self-harm. It doesn’t even help the workload for ministers: the Health Minister is also the Attorney-General, Minister for Justice, Minister for Veterans Affairs and, curiously, Minister for Mental Health and Wellbeing.

Of the whole large crossbench, the three Lambies were the prime choice to shore up the shaky government: the others were all lefties.

The Lambies were in an extraordinarily strong position. They held the balance of power, the capability to make or break the government, to get almost any reform through the parliament. They didn’t need to just roll over.

But they did. Within four days from the official declaration of results –  and in return for almost nothing – they signed up to be, in all practical effect, a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Liberal Party.

They agreed to give 24 hours notice if they have any intention of voting against any government measure.

“The Lambie Network MPs have essentially agreed to a deal to be more loyal to the Liberal Party than even the Liberal Party’s own MPs – who are not bound to inform their party in advance if they intend to vote against it,” the Mercury’s David Killick (pictured) wrote.

They got the promise of an office each in Parliament House. But they were entitled to that anyway.

They were not offered ministries. The government agreed to close the scandal-plagued Ashley Youth Detention Centre – but that’s already long-standing government policy.

They will get a briefing on the budget. So will the media, business organisations, unions and non-government organisations.

They secured reviews on the role of the Integrity Commission, Right to Information and political donations. The Law Reform Institute has already conducted quite thorough reviews of all these.

They hadn’t even looked at the crucial – and very well-publicised – report of a commission of inquiry into the Tasmanian Government's responses to child sexual abuse in institutional settings.

“It was apparent from their press conference this week,” wrote David Killick, “the Jacqui Lambie Network candidates were somewhat under-prepared for the task ahead.”

People who supported the Lambies on polling day are likely to have expected something different: something more like the fiercely independent Jacqui Lambie herself. The voters could not have foreseen this.

“I have voted for the JLN party since its inception and was excited about them entering state politics,” said a letter-writer to the Mercury. “Shame on you, Jacqui Lambie, you have certainly hoodwinked me.”

If history is a guide, the three JLN MPs have now ruined the reputation of their quasi-party, inflicted serious reputational damage on Lambie herself, and ended any chance they might have had of being returned at the next election.

That may not be far off. A pre-election poll found only 27% of respondents thought the government deserved to be returned. Only Labor’s directionless ineptitude saved them. It would be surprising to see this parliament last for longer than 18 months, and perhaps not that long.

Meanwhile, Rockliff still hasn’t got a governing majority. He now has 14 members of his own and three in the Lambie Liberal sub-branch, making 17. He needs 18 for a bare majority, and a speaker will have to come from somewhere.

At the time of writing, the most likely final support could be from a long-time Labor figure, David O’Byrne, a former member of the ALP Left faction (and, briefly, party leader) who was brutally defenestrated by the Right and, finally, denied preselection in this election. He stood successfully as an independent.

O’Byrne owes nothing to anyone, particularly to the factional opponents who ended his 30-year Labor career and now run the parliamentary party.

But he is a smart, demanding character who does not need his tummy tickled by Jeremy Rockliff. Any support for the government – from him or any of the other crossbenchers – will be very highly conditional and probably short-term.

This story has just begun.

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