Lambie's gaffe was about class, not sex

Amid a deluge of double-entendres, the Lambie controversy is really a debate about ‘what kind of person’ is fit to represent Australians in a democratic parliament.

There have been a lot of dick jokes in the national media in the past week after Palmer United Party senator Jacqui Lambie said on Hobart’s Heart 107.3FM that her perfect man “must have heaps of cash and they have got to have a package between their legs...”

Oh the fun journalists had with that quote – the double entendres are endless. 

Any journalist facing stiff competition will be tempted to dip their oar in, but by pulling in the same direction they are only making a rod for their own backs ... (That’s enough: Editor).

Seriously, though, the opprobrium levelled at Senator Lambie mostly revolved around whether or not she was being ‘sexist’ – hence obscuring some other key issues.

That is not to say that sexism in public life is not a serious matter. When Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan said in May 2007, for instance, that Opposition Industrial Relations spokeswoman Julia Gillard was “deliberately barren”, the nation was shocked. 

His remark offended on many levels, but there is an irony to the effect such statements have. Heffernan’s rather 19th-century opinion galvanised the community and provoked a long-running discussion about a woman’s right to have a career and kids, or just a career, or kids and no career and so on. 

As Gillard said at the time: “I don't think Australian women need Bill Heffernan or anybody else to give them advice on how to live their lives. We’re pretty good at making our own choices.”

In the case of Lambie’s “package” comment, however, a lot of the opprobrium had nothing to do with ‘sexism’ at all – it was to do with taste, decency and an implicit notion of what type of person is worthy of representing the Australian people in the parliament. 

And it is the last of these that is most troubling. What, in a democracy, is the right type?

As with the ridicule levelled at the Motoring Party’s Ricky Muir after the 2013 election, the attacks on Lambie belie a deep-seated belief that the ‘political class’ just don’t behave that way – a fundamentally undemocratic opinion if ever there was one (see: Who let real people into parliament? September 10, 2013).

Take, for instance, this comment from a Fairfax columnist: “Lambie's comments were textbook crude: along with the well-hung remarks, she also joked about how a whipper snipper would be needed to tackle her bikini line.

“The idea of any other female MP talking about hair removal in an interview -- albeit on a commercial radio station where things tend to be more informal -- is ridiculous. Once again, the PUP senators are demonstrating that they are not beholden to the normal rules that politicians play by.”

The “normal rules”? Truth is that the normal rules of politics exclude the Lambies, the Muirs and a great swathe of the Australian population who have not learned the rules of belonging to the political classes.

Ordinary people, when suddenly transplanted to Canberra, make ordinary mistakes – and Lambie apparently now regards her comments as such, having issued a statement of apology. 

In this instance, apologising is the mistake. If Lambie has one thing going for her, it’s that at present she is an unreformed, authentic outsider – part of the reason she and the other Palmer United Party newbies have appealed to voters that the major parties thought they’d never lose. 

As one TV presenter put it: “This woman’s not a career politician -- maybe we should cut her some slack.”

Moreover, there are most definitely orders of magnitude involved in crossing the boundaries of ‘good taste’. 

Heffernan’s remark, above, will have caused real offense to women everywhere, even if career-politician Gillard had the fortitude to ride out such remarks. 

However, Heffernan committed a much worse act in 2002 when he attacked High Court judge Michael Kirby with the accusation of using a Comcar in Sydney to pick up and drop off a young male prostitute – a claim later found to be utterly without foundation. 

Those remarks were not just offensive, but created a damaging rift among the judges of the High Court and was interpreted by some as a conscious attack on the court itself – an attempt to displace a ‘Labor judge’ to tip the court’s full bench in favour of Coalition objectives. 

The principle at stake is democracy. 

Lambie can exercise her crude humour; Muir can throw roo-poo at his mates; and if Bill Heffernan has deeply held, old fashioned beliefs about women, getting them out in the open gives the community a chance to debate them and vote accordingly. 

The Kirby case was quite different. While it was offensive and homophobic, Heffernan had a democratic right to air such views more generally. 

However, depending on one’s interpretation of events, if Heffernan was attacking our highest court, a major institution of our democracy itself was being damaged. 

Both the left and right harbour elements who dislike the least-bad form of government – democracy (and arguably our form of representative democracy is one of the least bad of all). On the right, we call if fascism. On the left, paternalism or authoritarianism. 

However when a democratically elected MP or Senator says something distasteful, it’s important to know when democracy is being served, or undermined. 

Tasmanians – Lambie’s voters – will decide what level of ‘decency’ is appropriate. 

Given the trouble some of the more genteel politician inflict on Australia from time to time, they may decide that crude humour is a small price to pay to get something different.