Politics

Why Jacqui Lambie Doesn’t Deserve To Be Glorified

Being "working-class" isn't an excuse to demonise Muslims and migrants.

Tasmanian senator Jacqui Lambie has resigned from parliament today after becoming the latest politician to run afoul of Section 44. Lambie inherited British citizenship through her Scottish-born father, which means she’s ineligible to serve in the Senate. She’s now the fifth politician to be booted from parliament due to citizenship issues.

The reaction to Lambie’s departure has been markedly different to most of the other dual citizen MPs. Senators as diverse as Pauline Hanson, Penny Wong and Nick McKim lined up to hug her goodbye. Speeches were made, eulogies written.

Lambie is being remembered because she was a rare kind of politician: someone who didn’t emerge from the political class and seemed like a regular person. And while this is something that deserves to be acknowledged, too much of the commentary around her departure uses that as an excuse to ignore her regressive policies targeting refugees and the Muslim community.

Taking The Good With The Bad?

Lambie was a mixed bag when it came to her position on political issues. She advocated on behalf of welfare recipients and took on Pauline Hanson for backing the government’s attacks on the most vulnerable. She also fought against plans to cut funding to universities.

But her position on social issues and immigration in particular left a lot to be desired. Like Hanson, she supports a ban on the burqa. Like Hanson, she has expressed support for Donald Trump’s Muslim ban and called for a version of it to be implemented in Australia. She has also called for refugees entering Australia to be electronically tagged, and linked refugees to terrorism, without any evidence.

Her views on Muslims and immigration don’t erase the stance she took on welfare cuts, for example. But it’s been strange to see the outpouring of support for Lambie that either ignores her Trump-esque policies, or even worse, makes excuses for them.

The “Working-Class vs. Muslims” Myth

The weirdest Lambie take was served up by 9Honey, who published a list titled “5 reasons we’ll miss Jacqui Lambie”. It’s a strange way to write about someone initially elected off the coattails of a billionaire mining baron, who went on to demonise marginalised communities, in my opinion. The article called Lambie “Australia’s most relatable pollie” and completely skipped over her controversial political positions.

I get that there’s elements of Lambie’s style and personality that are relatable, but she was an extremely influential crossbench politician. Her political record shouldn’t be swept under the carpet and ignored.

The Australian‘s eulogy for Lambie praised her as a “working class act” and compared her positively to the private school educated likes of Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Bill Shorten. Bizarrely it goes on to say “only the Australian system could turn up a Jacqui Lambie, and that makes our system the greatest in the world”.

I mean, it’s unlikely another country’s political system would elect a Tasmanian, but there’s nothing particularly unique about our form of democracy that encourages working class individuals from outside the political set to get elected. The fact that there’s so few people from a background like Lambie’s in parliament suggests the opposite is true.

The article makes a brief reference to Lambie’s views on refugee too. “You don’t have to agree with every word, and some of Lambie’s ideas — electronic tagging of refugees, for example — were a bit mad,” it reads. “But when she speaks, it’s raw, and it’s heartfelt, and at least you know she believes it. With the rest of them, you can never quite be sure.”

An article in The Sydney Morning Herald made a similar point:

“Lambie’s views on Islam and refugees made her unpalatable to many. I suspect those views are widely held by many working-class Australians so, in that sense, they are representative. It wasn’t always pretty, but Lambie had what politicians are always trying to fake: authenticity.”

“Her crusade against the burqa and sharia law (which she appeared to misunderstand) was flat-out Islamophobic,” it went on. “Her call to follow the Trump example and ban Muslim immigrants was ugly. But when it came to sticking up for the disadvantaged, Lambie was compelling, because she had lived hard, and she didn’t present this hard-living in a palatable, pretty Cinderella-story way.”

There are a few, glaring problems with this perspective. Firstly, why are Lambie’s positions on immigration and the Muslim community contrasted directly against her approach to the “disadvantaged”? Why does standing up for working class welfare recipients give you a free pass when it comes to demonising another disadvantaged section of the community?

Working-class Australians and migrants aren’t two seperate species.

The implication is that Lambie’s views on the “disadvantaged” are so meritorious that it doesn’t really matter what she said on other issues, or how much harm she caused to other communities. Sure, these articles eulogising her made brief references to her more regressive policies, but they were glowing profiles expressing dismay that Lambie was on her way out.

The Lambie post-mortems have highlighted another problem with the way politics is discussed in this country too. When journalists and commentators are discussing the policies of people like Lambie and Hanson, there’s a tendency to crudely pit “working class” Australians against other groups like immigrants, refugees and Muslims. It’s certainly what right-wing politicians want, but it doesn’t stack up.

Working-class Australians and migrants aren’t two seperate species. In fact, numerous studies have demonstrated that migrants and Muslims are more likely to occupy blue collar jobs and earn less than non-migrants. They’re also more likely to be unemployed.

When you understand that a large component of Australia’s working-class consists of migrants and Muslims, you realise how absurd this kind of analysis is. How can Lambie be “bad” on immigration policy and an Islamophobe while being “good” on issues affecting the disadvantaged and working-class if Muslims and migrants are part of the working-class?

Is Being “Authentic” An Excuse For Cooked Policies?

The other weird insinuation in these pieces is the suggestion that because Lambie genuinely held her views that somehow makes her less worth of condemnation than other politicians. Do we have to to respect Pauline Hanson because she’s genuinely anti-migrant and anti-Muslim? Of course not. Just because a belief is genuine doesn’t mean we have to heap praise on someone for holding it.

In some regards, the fact the Lambie apparently genuinely thinks refugees should be electronically tagged is worse than the callous political calculus of the major parties. It implies that she genuinely sees them as sub-human, as opposed to an electoral punching bag. Obviously both propositions are far from ideal, but the focus on “authenticity”  seems like a desperate attempt to provide cover for someone promulgating deeply offensive views.

I think what is ultimately driving the confusion around Lambie and how we’re supposed to feel about her is the fact that there are so few politicians from her kind of background. Across all of our parties, politicians tend to come from the upper echelons of Australian society. They’re university educated white collar professionals with a lot of experience in the political machine.

Lambie was the antithesis of that in her background and in her abrasive, direct style. And we found it refreshing. But her background shouldn’t be used to excuse her strategy of demonising migrants and Muslims. Many migrants and refugees have had similar experiences to Lambie. Her inability to show empathy towards them can’t be ignored just because she stood up against the government’s cuts to welfare.

If commentators and the public are looking for politicians to laud, there are enough examples floating around of people who stand up for the disadvantaged and for migrants. Some of them even happen to be migrants from working-class backgrounds!

Osman Faruqi is Junkee’s News and Politics Editor. He tweets @oz_f.