|This is what Jacqui Lambie's Facebook page looked like before she joined PUP (image: @AutumnalMonk)|
Last week we saw the bizarre expulsion from PUP of Lambie's Chief of Staff Rob Messenger, for allegedly making misleading statements about PUP senators. The only such statement identified was several weeks old, and was actually Messenger relaying something Lambie said she had heard Palmer say about Dio Wang. In the bizarre world of media PUPcorn, it seems that Messenger was actually expelled to blame him for comments much more recently made by Lambie.
How might it all end?
Lambie may no longer be in PUP very soon, but there are reasons why this situation of her being only tokenly a PUP Senator has dragged on as long as it has. Last week I noted on Twitter that Lambie is still in the party because she wants the martyr points that come with being sacked, while Palmer would prefer that she resigned. An additional issue (see three sections down) is the possibility that Palmer will sue her. This dynamic is discussed in greater length by Paula Matthewson. However, even by PUP standards, keeping a Senator who you call a liar and accuse of undermining you in your party would become farcical if it went on for too long, so more likely than not, something will break and the party will have to throw her out pretty soon if she hasn't already quit.
If face-saving is really that big an issue in bringing all this to its natural conclusion then there is a third path: Lambie could be deemed to have triggered various PUP rules that allow her to be deemed to have ceased to be a member of the party, even if she hasn't resigned from it. This can happen in the PUP constitution if Lambie, for instance:
* actively assists a candidate running against PUP in an election (there's one next weekend if she wants to try her luck) or
* becomes a member of another party deemed to be opposed to PUP's objectives
Whatever way it all ends, there are a number of themes I'd like to deal with here:
The source of the problem: lax screening
A party is responsible for thoroughly screening the candidates it offers to the people. All parties have their problems in this area and now and then have to disendorse a candidate, but Palmer United seem more happy-go-lucky about preselections and more trouble-prone than any other party I can recall, including even the Victorian Liberals. In the case of Lambie, claims that her Facebook page contained strident anti-Islamic material were on the public record on Twitter, and even if the page was scrubbed of such material before she applied for preselection (rather than after) it would likely have been retrievable by cache. See the Did Lambie Have Form From The Start? section of a previous article for more on this. Additionally, that Lambie disagreed with PUP asylum seeker policy was known well before her endorsement was confirmed.
Either the party had no idea what they were getting themselves into with this candidate, in which case they hadn't done their homework, or else they knew full well. In any case, the party's present problems with this Senator are self-inflicted and similar problems will keep happening on a routine basis until the party gets serious about pre-screening. Until it does, it's my view that voters should not vote for PUP, nor parties preference them above the line (Victorian Greens, I'm looking at you), because you never know what sort of candidate you're getting and whether they will actually stay in the party if elected. The latest farce in which PUP tried to remove an ineligible candidate from the top of a Victorian Legislative Council ticket, shows that the party maintains a lax approach to preselection screening and hasn't learned.
It is a very long time til the next election so there is no particular hurry for Lambie to resolve the present situation. However, given that she will not be preselected by PUP again as things stand and given that PUP will probably be a dead duck by the time Lambie's slate comes up for re-election anyway, it's extremely likely Lambie will be going to the next election as something other than a PUP candidate.
Options available to Lambie include becoming an Independent, joining an existing well-known party, joining an existing fledgling party and starting a new party. Of the existing well-known parties, two that have been discussed are Rise Up Australia and Pauline Hanson's One Nation. While Lambie has unfortunately displayed close philosophical similarities with both these parties, neither would be a good fit for her. Rise Up Australia members have been trying to recruit Lambie via Facebook but RUA is a religious-fundamentalist party in which her lusts for rich well-hung men who don't have anything to say wouldn't go down very well.
PHON meanwhile is an even deader duck than PUP is likely to become, and by joining it Lambie would be painting herself as nothing but a junior acolyte of Pauline Hanson, who these days is just a serial celebrity candidate with very little support. (Media sources that reported Hanson's recent "return" to the party and "comeback" have hopelessly short memories given that Hanson ran as the endorsed NSW lead One Nation Senate candidate last September).
Yesterday, Lambie posted a Facebook link to a fledgling political party called the Australian Defence Veterans Party, without any useful comment. The significance of this move - whether it's a sounding, a provocation, or a statement of intent - is unclear at present, but it resulted in Palmer calling Lambie a liar and suggesting (without providing any evidence) that she had been plotting to join a different party all along. The ADVP appears to have attempted to form shortly after the 2013 federal election, if not before (I have found references to it from late October 2013). Writing this August, a poster on the OzPolitics forum referred to ADVP at the time as a "still born" party "that seems to have died in a flaming wreck of personality clashes and is trying to resurrect itself." It would be thoroughly resurrected (and indeed exempt from membership number requirements for registration) if it had an instant Senator.
I can see a lot of potential for complications if a very controversial Senator is parachuted into an already existing party (even if its main platform is one she strongly agrees with). Things might be easier for all concerned if Lambie is an Independent or starts a completely new "party". On the latter front, it has long surprised me that attempts to form a Bloc Québécois-style Tasmania-centred party dedicated to exploiting Tasmania's disproportionate share of Senate power have never before gone anywhere. I don't credit Lambie with the skill and restraint to run such a party without it turning into a One Nation style legal shambles, so I think Independence would be safer.
The prospect of a court case
One of the reasons Lambie may be keen to provoke Palmer into sacking her from the party is the prospect that if she leaves voluntarily, PUP may take legal action to attempt to reclaim her seat. This follows news of similar legal action being attempted by the DLP against John Madigan. Legal experts have been reported as giving the Madigan case a "low probability of success", which is code for the case being absolute bulldust but no-one wishing to pre-empt the High Court.
I am very confident that the High Court will not find in the DLP's favour, assuming that the case is even heard at all, and would also not find in PUP's favour concerning Lambie. Section 15 of the Australian constitution clearly and explicitly concerns the filling of a casual vacancy created when a Senator resigns from the Senate. If a Senator resigns or is expelled from their party but continues to sit in the Senate, there is no vacancy. Quite aside from S15 clearly not saying what the DLP wants it to say, the consequences of the DLP's claim being upheld would include that a party can preselect a Senate candidate who might be popular, drive them to resign from the party or expel them from it, and immediately replace that Senator with someone who had never faced election.
Nonetheless Lambie has only been drawing a Senator salary for less than half a year and might struggle to assemble the resources to defend such a case effectively.
Does Palmer have the power to sack Lambie?
Last week Clive Palmer claimed he could not throw Lambie out of the party, saying "I haven't got the power to sack anyone from anything." As far as I can tell, this claim is incorrect. The PUP constitution (Section D26) empowers the majority of the Foundation members of PUP to declare that a member of PUP has ceased to be a member. The Foundation members are Clive Palmer, his wife Anna Palmer, his son Michael Palmer, and his nephews Clive Mesink, Blair Brewster and Martin Brewster. These six are also the Interim Executive Committee of PUP as stated in section W2.
Section W1 states that the Interim Executive Committee currently exercises all powers of the Executive and all other bodies set out in the PUP Constitution. Section W3 states that the Chairman (Clive Palmer) is "fully authorised to exercise all powers" of the Interim Executive Committee. My view is that Palmer can kick Lambie out of the party whenever he likes, the only alternative being that he might need the support of three of the listed five family members.
Would Lambie have won on her own?
In recent days Lambie has claimed that she regrets running with PUP and wishes she had run as an independent. She can make that wish a reality any time she likes by resigning from the Senate since without PUP she would almost certainly not have got anywhere near winning. As it was, PUP polled 6.58% of the primary vote in Tasmania but Lambie was elected very narrowly, escaping exclusion at one point by 1276 votes, or 0.38% of Tasmania's Senate primary vote.
Although Lambie said she had been campaigning for ten months, it seems doubtful she had been doing so effectively or prominently. Yes, she had a Facebook page, but her campaign as an independent candidate for the Senate was otherwise so obscure that I have been able to find not one single Google reference relating to it during that time, while the only Twitter references were those by @AutumnalMonk calling her out on Islamophobic material on her page.
As an indie, Lambie would only have been able to buy a ticket to the preference-dealing game if she had been able to register a group ticket in time. Even had she done this, Lambie would have faced several disadvantages compared to PUP. She would not have been able to benefit from PUP's deal with the Greens, she would not have benefited from PUP's rare ability as a party to attract below-the-line preferences from left and right, and I doubt she would have been able to afford Glenn Druery's fees to try to get a better preference flow. Any belief that Lambie was close to winning and was just pushed over the line by PUP support is just delusional. On her own, she wouldn't have got a thousand votes.
Lambie and personal vote
Yesterday PUP sent out the following email (image from Bevan Shields' Twitter feed):
PUP frequently dabble in pseudo-psephology and this email is no exception. The fact is that a vote for a party in the 1 box is in effect a 1 vote for the number one candidate, just as a vote for the candidate below the line is. Thus nearly all the votes for PUP were credited to Jacqui Lambie.
It is true that most PUP voters voted above the line, as with any other party, but that does not prove they would have voted for the party no matter who its candidate was. Senate results cannot be so easily used to detect the personal vote of the lead Senate candidate. For instance Green lead candidates persistently get high percentages of their votes as below-the-lines compared to ALP or Liberal lead candidates, but this doesn't mean those Greens candidates have high personal support bases.
On the other hand, if we consider the proportion of Nick Xenophon Group voters who vote 1 for their party below the line (9.5%), that massively underestimates the share of NXG votes that the group gets when Xenophon is running and because he is running. The NXG's vote in the South Australian upper house election without him on the ticket was barely half their vote in the Senate election with him.
Also, just because a voter votes below the line does not mean they are voting personally for the lead candidate. A voter could do it because they supported the party whoever it endorsed, but wanted to order their own preferences differently to how the party had done so. This is especially likely with Tasmanian PUP supporters, who are very likely to prefer major parties to the Greens.
Trying to determine what share of a party's Senate vote is down to the party and what to its lead candidate is actually a very difficult and messy problem. Generally PUP polled more weakly in the Senate than the House of Reps (4.91% compared to 5.49%) because there were more parties running in the Senate in any given electorate. In Tasmania it was the other way around (6.58% compared to 6.06%) but there wasn't much in it, and a big part of the difference was in Denison, where the PUP Reps vote was deflated by competition from Andrew Wilkie. In other electorates, PUP did better in the Senate than the Reps by 0.70 points in Bass, 0.79 in Lyons and 0.54 in Braddon, but worse by 1.19 points in Franklin, where they had a fairly high-profile Reps candidate, Marti Zucco.
If there was any personal vote effect for Lambie it can't have been all that large, but it's irrelevant now anyway. Lambie's profile has grown overwhelmingly since her election and trying to use anything to do with the last election to answer the question of the impact of losing Lambie on the state PUP vote is pointless.
What chance Lambie as a free agent?
Quite a few observers believe that, for all her gaffes and stupid comments, Lambie has connected with a demographic out there in Tasmania that might be called "battlers"; roughly, the same people who vote for UKIP in the UK. Some believe she will be widely seen as a "straight shooter" and hence an antidote to politics as usual. There's also the view that she will be a new Harradine and will be able to get re-elected by being seen to stand up for Tasmania and use her share of the balance of power effectively (something that won't happen while she is more interested in obstructing the Government over defence force pay than dealing for state outcomes.)
I think that none of this is automatically true and we need to see polling data, preferably taken once Lambie's political identity is clearer. It might be that Lambie has significant support or it might be that pretty much everyone, other than anti-Islamic voters and some voters interested in her chosen defence issues, regards her as a lunatic. We need well designed Senate-specific polling to have much of an idea on that.
In any case at this stage we don't know for sure what electoral system the next Senate election will be held under and what sort of vote Lambie might need to win. If it is the sort of system foreshadowed in the first JSCEM interim report (semi-optional preferential with group ticket preferencing banned) then she'd likely need at least 10%, but if it's the current system it might not be that much.
But I do think that while Lambie's career thus far has been almost a total mess, if it is really five years til her seat comes up, then that's a very long time to learn and reinvent herself. As Georgie Burgess and Pat Caruana suggest, more Harradine, less Hanson.
There may well be a final resolution to this saga by early next week. Or failing that there could be yet more media PUPcorn. Joy!
Sunday early morning update: The Australian (and many other Murdoch papers whose links weren't working when I wrote) has reported that Lambie has stated in no uncertain terms that she'll be going independent. The Australian reports that a formal announcement is now just awaiting legal advice.
Monday Update: Jacqui Lambie has now spoken in the Senate to state that she has left Palmer United and will sit as an independent. She is the second crossbench Senator to quit their party recently, after ex-DLP Senator John Madigan also did so.