Outside the conference room — you go through the Tram Bar, which has an old Launceston tram in it, and past Snappers, the “bistro” — the day’s papers are all laid out in a fan. Crisp, smooth. Someone may have ironed them. Lovely old Launceston. None of this tablet nonsense.

The Australian screams bloody murder about Brexit, the SMH is aghast at the failure of the major parties to address the deficit, The Examiner is concerned about tree lopping on Mays Rd.

Lovely Launceston, stately old city, Melbourne’s parent, the rows of Victorian parapets and curlicue, the long verandas, a city intact, entire of itself, at peace. Open the door, and in the room, at the end of a long table, Jacqui Lambie is screaming like a harridan to the appreciative guffaws, laughter and gasps of a roomful of women.

“OK, the question was, what would I do about the federal/state funding split in health, and I’d say the first thing I’d do is take it out of the hands of politicians ’cause they always screw it up!”

Laughter, applause.

The other panelists — a Greens Senator, a state Labor member, an ex-Health bureaucrat — look to the ceiling or find a place on the wall that’s suddenly very interesting to stare at. “Now look, you girls know what the real story is; you don’t need lectures. You know we need 18 new beds at Toadstool House Hospital*, the disgraceful situation at Marshmallow Palace clinic. We just need to let you people get on with it, I reckon.”

Here we were, in the Tamar Valley, at the conference of delegates for the Tasmanian branch of the Nursing Federation, which had convened a panel on health policy from all the parties. The Libs hadn’t turned up — Andrew Nikolic was squiring Turnbull around that day — and they hadn’t sent anyone either. For obvious reasons.

The star turn was Lambie, of course, and as she will most likely be returned to the Senate, it seemed to me important to gauge how she was faring three years down the track. Also, I mean, it’s nurses, man. They like to paaaa-aaarty. And it’s a conference. What happens in Launceston stays in Launceston — mainly because the telegraph hasn’t been hooked up yet.

Nurses are fun-loving folk, and only a very few of them murder large numbers of patients with morphine overdoses, and that seems to be mainly male nurses. Anyway, these days, they offer the possibility that you can take the Viagra-Coke-vodka trifecta and be with someone who knows CPR when your heart gives way.

As it turned out, I ordered a club sandwich and watched a repeat of NCIS before falling asleep with the hotel channel on. By the way, Launceston is a hidden gem of fine dining, its river catches a must. Wise, really. I’m not sure what listening to Lambie would be like on less than eight hours’ sleep.

But, yes, Lambie matters. She was going to run, even before she became part of Clive Palmer’s flying circus, and she got 6.6% of the vote then. Without Palmer’s money, but with a halved quota and a ton of recognition, it would be amazing if she were not returned to the red benches. She may even get another of her Jacqui Lambie Team — I know, I know, my god — up, and if so, she may hold the balance of the balance of power. So it’s worth finding out where she is at.

[Jacqui Lambie, going it alone]

Lambie leans into the mic again. “Matter of fact, I think health spending should be uncapped.”

Jesus Christ. I’m a techno-communist, and even I don’t think that. But it’s part of Lambie’s pitch. In recent months and going back further, she has junked a lot of the anti-Muslim stuff and moved rapidly towards a left-populist position, emphasising services, spending and the need to keep Tassie going as a state of apple core carvers, three animation studios and an opium crop with a six-foot cyclone fence around it.

Lambie was always economically populist, but she twinned that with the usual tabloid obsessions about sharia law. Now she has decoupled them, and focused on the economic. Wise move. Tassie ain’t Queensland. And Lambie’s pitch is that she is all about the Apple Isle.

To give her her due, in that respect, Lambie has vastly improved since the first year of the Senate. To give her her due there, too, she wasn’t the craziest person in the place — she wasn’t even the craziest Tasmanian. Step, uh, forward, uh, Gauleiter Abetz and, uh, play some of that, uh, Negro, uh, music for us. But she went off like a milk bar firework, and without much to show for a while.

Now, she’s focused and has the local figures at her fingertips. The audience fires questions. Lambie knows local stats, priorities. “Well I reckon down where you are it’s about time they fully funded the rosters so those beds can be used, and that’s what I’m talking about, there’s no common sense because we have unused beds because we’re not staffing properly for budget reasons! It makes me so angry!”

That sort of stuff makes the others angry too — Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson, health campaigner Steve Martin — but they don’t have Lambie’s flamethrower style, her unforced idea that things are simple if only the pointy-heads get out of the way. Lambie has a perpetually embattled hard done-by look, that of a small unremarkable woman, repeatedly passed over, and having to be twice as loud and angry to make her presence known at all.

[Is this your new PUP balance-of-power Senate warrior?]

The delegates are with her there — they have to deal with doctors, after all. But they’re not going all the way with her. These are union delegates, people thinking about the politics and economics of workplaces, not simply the raw tasks. They are under no illusion that anything is straightforward.

The more Lambie plays the populist mantra — which is, paradoxically, but inevitably, anti-democratic, the notion that everything should be run by people who are both commonsensical and experts — the more strained her politics gets. The third time she said that the best thing to do was get rid of politicians, the laughter was mild and polite.

When she said, angrily — that is to say, when she said — that nursing students “shouldn’t have to have their head in textbooks, they should learn from experience. You girls know that!”, she was greeted with utter silence and winces from around the room. It was an appeal to an outdated image, the nurse as instinctive carer — not the care professional surrounded by machines and regimes, increasingly deploying knowledge and expertise of their own.

She is not alone in that — everyone in the major parties is, to some degree, speaking to a country that doesn’t exist anymore. But Lambie has prospered by making it part of her act, her wounded schtick, a performance all the more compelling for being unfeigned. She is a woman who has been battered, used and abused, she has suffered the fate of many working-class people in a post-industrial Australia, which is to have their lives thrown in the shitter.

And her success was a victory, however cockeyed, against the political caste. It was got by deploying this angry, demanding air of ressentiment, and she has maintained that even though she now has a six-figure salary, a staff at her disposal and a role in shaping the future of the nation. She better find a new approach quick, or she will become a standby self-parody in the new Senate. Anger is an energy, but it’s not always, or often, an answer.

[Rundle: how Lambie could bring down our cosy, undemocratic oligarchy]

That strikes home when she says that health spending should be “uncapped”, which prompts an exhalation of exasperation at the back of the room. That’s exactly the sort of cliche public health system advocates want to avoid. Building a viable public health system means improving the decision-making processes about what gets spent where, how, on whom, to minimise death. Lambie’s glib answer demonstrated that, after two years in the job, she still hasn’t learnt the basic facts of the federal/state funding/delivery split on health. Her populist cry has become a way of vamping the music till the tune comes round again. It didn’t fool the delegates here, and it won’t work for another three years.

Truth is, if there is another hung Senate, the crossbenchers will become political professionals in no time flat. They come in breathing fire, and they end up negotiating the fourth decimal place on a block grant for the Devonport mime ensemble in pursuit of a grand deal. For Lambie read half a dozen other types putting their hands up. God knows they have a place — they are much needed — but nowhere is parochial anymore, there is no simple-souled heartland that you can come to Canberra and represent unmediated. Go hit the books, or go home and stay there. No one can get away with that anymore, least of all in lovely old Launceston whose world-class coffee roasters are housed in an old tram shed, meticulously restored, and capable of hosting group bookings up to 45 persons.

I don’t know how I know that.

*Ace reporter Rundle got only the vaguest idea of the real facilities Lambie was talking about, so has had to make do

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW