Born to be an agitator
She was a rebellious teen who signed up for the Army on a whim and later found herself an invalid in the grip of booze and painkillers. But, as Jacqui Lambie writes in her autobiography, Rebel With A Cause, within 10 years she’d got herself together and w
IWAS always a bit of a rebellious kid. Mum was starting to get a bit, well, argy-bargy with me. She was not happy with my attitude. Worse, I was starting to hang around some people who were not the best influence. Mum was giving me ultimatums: “Get out of that group, pull your head in and start studying or, at the very least, show up at school.”
I was studying Year 12 while working weekends at a local nightclub, City Limits. I had started off at another establishment, the “Eli” or Elimatta, but moved on after I threw a glass of beer over the bar manager. “You’re sacked,” he yelled at me. My reply was quite specific, too. I had my qualifications so I walked straight into a new job.
Life took a huge turn for the better when a couple of my girlfriends and I sussed out Centrelink. These were girlfriends who had left school at the end of Year 9 and mixed with bikies and were now looking for work. There, in the car park, was a big green army bus.
I looked at my girlfriends and they looked at me. I said, “What do you think? The army could be cool.”
We made a group decision (well, I made a group decision): we would all sign up and become GI Janes. We made a solemn pact on the spot.
Now, let me tell you something: when I make a pact, I’m in it for the long haul. I could feel within seconds that I was starting to lose some traction with my girlfriends. I switched straight into action mode and gave them a gentle nudge toward the door of the recruiting bus, but I could sense they were already having second thoughts. I maintained a positive attitude. My mind was fixed.
I thought our pact actually extended to the point of “one in, all in”. The problem was that it all happened so quickly. I had signed up before I knew it.
The recruiting sergeant was really good; it took a matter of minutes.
Smiling proudly at my girlfriends, like the cat that just got the cream, all they had to do was follow suit. Much to my astonishment, they politely handed back their clipboards to the sergeant without having signed a damn thing.
What had happened to the pact between the bloody sisterhood? To save my own arse, I took a deep breath and politely asked the sergeant if I could have my signed piece of paper back. Surely, this would not be too much to ask for. I was hit for a six when he simply said, “You’ll be right. It will be good for you.”
It was one of only a few times I have been speechless in my life. I was locked in. But it would become a blessing in disguise.
I broke the news to my family about my enlistment fairly bluntly. I had not had time to think about it, I just went home and said, “That’s it, I’m joining the army.”
I don’t think my parents took it seriously to start with. To them, being in the army would involve a great amount of discipline and they didn’t think that I could hack that. Within six weeks, I underwent physical, psychological and aptitude testing, so Mum realised I was actually serious.
I don’t know how I bluffed my way through the tests, but I made it happen successfully. Dad reckons I must have told them some otherworldly bullshit that he had taught me to help me get through life. He seemed pretty chuffed with himself for my sake, anyway!
I had to lose weight and it took me about 10 weeks to lose 10 kilos.
Once I passed the weighin, it was off to the Army Recruit Training Centre in Kapooka, New South Wales, for me.
I really had no idea what I was signing up for. My enrolment in the army did seem to make Mum and Dad extremely happy. Were they happy because I was joining up, or because I was going to be off their hands? Either way, it seemed to be regarded as a win-win for everybody, including me.
I had signed my life away for at least four long years. I was still young, so I didn’t care, and it was a chance to get out of Tasmania. To be brutally honest, I just couldn’t hack the thought of waiting another 10 months to be old enough to apply for the Tasmanian Police. I was in the right place at the right time for the Australian Army, so I ran with it and ran hard.
Back then, becoming “GI Jac” sounded better to me than becoming “Constable Jac”.
In October 1989, I travelled to Hobart for an induction that took place over one day. I had test after test, then I was put up in a backpackers’ joint for the night and flown out of Tasmania the next day.
I was so disconnected from reality and had so little idea about what was coming that I had packed enough clothes to wear a new outfit every day for a month. I had all the bells and whistles – and a very heavy bag.
I arrived at Wagga Wagga Airport in New South Wales. A bus was waiting with the engine off and slowly filling with young women from around the country.
On the bus to Kapooka, it was so surreal. No one was saying anything and I felt a sense of alarm, not only for me but for the others, too.
Once we got to the base gate, I thought, Oh my God, what have I done?
No matter how much study you do, unless you’ve been in the Army Reserve for a while, you just can’t have any idea what you are actually in for.
The army’s approach was, and is, to get them signed up and deal with the recruits later.
For a female, joining the army is the best career move I know. Whatever the army does, it just can’t raise female recruitment above 10 per cent of the total, so as a woman you will get accepted if you meet
SWhat did I have to lose by trying? I dared to dream I could get into federal Parliament and change laws ... suddenly I was gunning for it
the minimum requirements, hence why they took me. ome people might be excused for asking how the hell did Jacqui Lambie become a politician, or even why she wanted to become one. For the political diehards out there, here is the answer: the idea first came to me while watching Parliamentary Question Time on the ABC, which I would come across every now and again while channel-surfing.
At that time, in 2006, I was off my head on medication in a lot of ways and a lot of the time (or even all the time, every day). I got lost between fantasy and reality. In between getting married to someone rich, loving and famous (or even without the famous bit), I started thinking in a real way about politics to do something about the treatment of injured veterans. There I was, a single mum in Devonport with a buggered back and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) on my tail, watching Question Time and praying to God that one day I’d get elected. Good grief! It was one way to get through the day. My imagination could run wild and free and I let it do just that.
What did I have to lose by trying? I dared to dream I could get into federal Parliament and change laws regarding military compensation and rehabilitation. I had no idea about politics, but suddenly I was gunning for it.
While the DVA was looking for an admin job for me, I picked up the courage to go around offices in the town on my own. I approached all kinds of businesses; I couldn’t just set my eye on political offices, as there weren’t many of those in Devonport.
Well, no one was interested in an ex-army bird who had been on compo for years. My life was in a haze.
In 2007, I was caught for driving while over the limit, and had my driver’s licence suspended for thirteen months. I blew 0.16. I guess I was doing that on a foundation of painkillers and other drugs, and must have thought I was invincible. It was another embarrassing detour in my life.
Ihad plucked up the courage to go and see Tasmanian Labor Senator Nick Sherry about making an application to access my ComSuper. He listened to my story and my dream, and he was able to get me the help I needed – I received my superannuation. Thank you, Nick.
Nick had a keen interest in superannuation, but he was away a lot. In a very short space of time, I was able to strike up a friendship with Mike, an old friend of Nick’s who was also his office manager. Mike had long been part of the Labor movement, and we managed to hit it off. He became a mentor.
One day, Mike said to me, “You know what? I’ve had family in the military. I want you to get a job, so I’m going to fly down the chief of staff. I’d love you to do your rehabilitation and return-to-work here.”
Following an interview, Nick Sherry’s office gave me work experience, which provided the opportunity of gainful employment in the future. So, you know who’s to blame!
My role was not going to cost the federal Parliament, as the military rehabilitation program Return to Work (RTW) was paying for my time. I checked emails, organised the
mail in and out, answered the phone, read the papers and cut out anything relating to Nick to send to Canberra that day.
It kept me busy and I saw how a political office worked and ticked.
It is a pity that more businesses won’t look at taking on Return to Work (RTW) ex-soldiers as they are there to work and the scheme gives benefits both ways. Better still, it doesn’t cost businesses anything as wages are paid for by the Commonwealth. The public service could also establish a quota of RTW personnel, but that hasn’t happened and I am sure it won’t, even though this should have occurred a long time ago.
My work-experience, and my budding career as an office girl, came to an end when my Return To Work program finished. I felt sad and I felt like shit. My back was not handling it. The pain was nine out of 10 most days and seven out of 10 after relief. The reality hit me that perhaps this was as good as it was going to get. I was beginning to see my future as not amounting to much at all, if anything.
I could not find a job. I asked the DVA if I could do more study after Nick’s office. DVA said “No”. Every way I turned, the outcome was the same: negative and rejected. Emptiness and numbness consumed me once again. The 12 months leading up to the fateful night in August 2009 (when I attempted suicide) was the absolute worst.
Life revolved around watching TV – I went from bed to couch to bottle to bed to couch to bottle to bed, and so it repeated. Red wine was my favourite mate. My true mate. Yeah, some mate it is. It never argued (it never agreed, either) but at least for a short period of time it made me feel half human.
I would start with a glass of wine at 5 or 5.30pm while I made dinner for the kids. At least I was still focused on healthy meals from one day to the next. My God, did I become creative in the kitchen! I’d make a good appetiser to brighten up the crap life I was leading.
I’d been dealing with serious depression and random panic attacks for the last two years. Most of the time I was inside the house and did not suffer. But going to any place where there were lots of people, like a supermarket, it took off.
Medically I was standing still like some figure in Madam Tussaud’s wax museum. The only way I was showing I was alive was by popping pills that saw me stuck in time. I had no pain management specialist. I was drowning in my own selfpity and a complete failure. No matter how hard I tried or screamed or cried, it just wasn’t enough. I needed more or I needed out.
Fast forward a few years to election day: September 7, 2013. I’d never had a plan to be a politician – no plan at all, to be honest – but here I was, my pain and my mind under control, a candidate for the Tasmanian Senate. I voted in Burnie at the Council Chambers early, about 10.00am. Then we drove around polling booths, me and my housemate Scotty. We went home for a few hours then went out and took down the corflutes. Then we waited it out.
I was watching ABC and the election guru, Antony Green, mentioned me in the Tasmanian senate count at one point. I felt immensely relieved, not because someone had just given me a title, but I could see that it was possible for me to go through what I had and win a Senate seat. It was pretty quiet, though, no campaign team or party.
Not many people thought I could do it. The encouragement was always there, though Mum and Dad were especially concerned for my welfare if I didn’t get in. I was worried too – what job would I go for if I didn’t get elected? I had no qualifications, ironic given how I had rehabilitated myself with a political campaign. My gut feeling was the DVA would give me hell if I went back to them. They had already made it clear they didn’t think I was smart enough to go back to study, so I was stuck either way.
Then Palmer United Party came out of the count with 5.6 per cent of the national vote. This gave the party – my party – one seat in the House of Reps, Clive Palmer’s seat in Fairfax, and three senators – including me. I was going to Canberra. Edited extract from Rebel With A
Cause by Jacqui Lambie, published by Allen and Unwin, due out February 21 Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts should contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Help Line on 1800 55 1800
LIFE LINES: (clockwise from top left, this page) Jacqui Lambie with her dad and little brother Bobby; at a Debutante Ball in Katherine, NT; (main) with a bright outlook; and (circled) at Kapooka. Pictures: (main) Ed Jones Photography
REFLECTIONS: (clockwise from left, this page) Jacqui Lambie in her office with artist Tania McMurtry’s Archibald Prize entry; in early high school, with brother Bobby; as a proud mum, with her son Brentyn; at a rally supporting a call for a Royal Commission into the Department of Veterans’ Affairs; with palmer United Party colleagues Glen Lazarus, Clive Palmer, Dio Wang and Ricky Muir; in the Senate resigning after she was to be a dual citizen; and delivering her maiden speech. Pictures; Kym Smith, Gary Ramage,g, AAP AP