“The Edgewater! Had many goooooood times here!” At my motel, Gina Timms, a big woman, short black hair and broad of face, in the Lambie livery of black and yellow, jumps out of a big car, with a big picture of Gina Timms on the side. Black hair, broad of face, it’s an eternal regress…
‘I thought we’d go to Sprayton and Eastville’ places I’ve never heard of, ‘burbs and satellites of Devonport, centre of the eastern edge of Braddon, the sprawling seat that Gina and four other Jacqui Lambie Networkers are contesting. It’s raw, grey, 9am, a Tuesday morning in North Tasmania.
Later, Jacqui Lambie, speaking to Brian Carlton on radio show Tasmania Talks, will tell the state that she’d back Michael Hodgman and the Liberals if it came to the toss. Tells him from Sydney, where she’s doing her book tour. By that afternoon, JLN will be a busted flush. But not yet.
“We have to go see this woman because of her cat problems. Then Sprayton for the grease trap lady.
“The grease trap lady”
“The grease trap lady”
“Will you do some doorknocking?”
“Yep in East Davenport”
Gina had wrapped up her campaign on the weekend, in line with Jacqui’s general directive. But she said she’d go out and do another couple of hours with me.
Bit ersatz but what can you do? I’d had a go with a couple of JLNers closer to Hobart, but really, they were so shy there was nothing to write about. They had bushie jobs, clearly chosen for the long solitude and silences.
One looked at the doorknob of a door he was about to cold-knock, with the purest expression of terror I have ever seen in my life. But not Gina. She’s up for it. She’s a singer.
Country singer as it turns out. And not bad, even if the material’s a little hokey. She’s done tours, had albums out, played Tamworth. When we hit an East Devonport milkbar, for a National pie and a farmers brand lime milk, the lady there goes way back with her:”we used to have those great Saturday nights at the Edgewater!” (The Edgewater’s an old faux Spanish hacienda with a vast, orange carpeted restaurant/bar, and a stage at the front. I can absolutely imagine those were wild nights.)
North Tasmanian brand. Its the use by date that says true local.
Glorious north Tasmania, where the 70s survive. Milk bars not 7-Elevens, perms and mullets, the black square in the hand is a fag packet, the pubs are wood-paneled, the Maritime Union of Australia is militant, the big ships come in and out the harbour over the shoulder of the person you’re talking to. The suburbs of East Devonport we’ve pulled up in has no fence-to-fence McMansions; it’s bare lawn, treeless yards and boxy yellow brick houses. Some are public housing, others are just — housing. Some of it is relatively recent, a modesty of expectations – or anyway of outcome – written down in brick and cement. We try the door of the woman Gina has come to see, no answer, curious – ‘her car’s there’, a battered, boxy oxford blue Toyota – go back to Gina’s Defender.
‘Shall we do some doorknocking now?’ I said
We start out, go back to grab some leaflets. It’s the usual reluctance to start, it gets everyone except deranged narcissists, the deep resistance to bothering someone and recommending yourself to them as their ruler.
First guy, John, is tuning an off-road bike, wiry, muscly, but not gym-muscly. Gina’s smooth, assured as the noise dies away.
“I’m Gina Timms, I’m running for the Jacquie Lambie Network, I’m a born and bred Tasmanian, just talking to people about the election on Saturday round here…”
“Yeah I’m actually from up Savage River way….”
“Oh Savage River, I played a few gigs at the Savage River Hotel. I’m a singer, country” Gina beams.
Still going well.
Gina continues. “Some of my stuff is on Youtube, in my songwriting and singing I try and talk about local things…”
John’s tuning out like his bike, a bit. This is not the pitch; this is the fantasy post-Grammy interview you run in your head, late at night.
John saves her.
“Well you know the industry I’m in I’m all for mining the Tarkine!”
It’s a joke but a first offer. Gina jumps.
“Well, yeah, I reckon we need to sort that out. We’ve given up all but three of the tracks, there’s a 20 year plan in place…”
(The Tarkine has become a political issue, because there’s till some logging in 17 coops there, and trails for four-wheel drives, laid down with temporary road mats, at ridiculous expense. In Hobart, two days earlier, close to two thousand people had come out for a protest against such, led by the Bob Brown Foundation).
“There’s an element ruins it for everyone” John says. “You don’t need a four-wheel drive.”
There’s an awkward silence.
“Um, what are the issues that most affect you?” I pipe up.
John launches forth.
“The doctors I can’t get into a damn doctor. Can’t get an appointment for myself, can’t get one for my kids. Rang up the GP yesterday, there was nothing…cant even get to see a GP. I have to go to Hobart…”
“Yes” says Gina. “It’s a disgrace. I’ve had a lot of dealings, I’m in chronic pain myself (spinal, plus cancer, four recurrences, Dad had COPD – forget the music; Gina’s life is a country and western album.”
“We want to bring in Aspen Medical, they’re a consultancy, they’ll be able to tell us…”
John’s face has clouded slightly. So has mine. A consultancy?
“I guess” I say, “Gina, the Lambie Network, if you were in parliament, could demand a better deal on health – might even have the balance of power”.
Great. Now I’m campaigning for the Jacqui Lambie Network.
Bit more chat, a leaflet and the bike roars to life as we walk away. Couple more houses, cautious people at the door. Gina gets on the personal pitch, the Lambie-lite, the battler, normal person like you, and then onto the singing again, and can’t get off it. ‘Yknow people ask em what do you bring to the table. I’ll be bringing my integrity. The struggles of my life go into my music…’.
“Also a new deal on health, and only then would you support a major party…” I cannot stop myself from adding.
Six houses, four contacts. It is four days to the election and no-one from the Lambie network appears to have visited this street, this suburb previously, in the entire campaign.
Gina Timms, were she to make it into parliament, would be an asset. Quick on the uptake, attentive, she is forthright, and righteously angry, but affirming, and open to the world, and utterly without the sense of rancour and perpetual hurt that Lambie herself projects. Even as we doorknocked on restoring the health system, Lambie was on radio, from an iPhone in Sydney, backing the party that would leave it in perpetual managed decline.
Yes, she’d be a great MLA; the mob she got tangled up, with their cracked politics, the eternal regress of celebrity-era populism – would seem to me to have ensured she never will be.
If I’m proved wrong, and hell, nobody knows anything in politics, well it says one thing: old-school campaigning is pretty much dead.
And we have still got to get to the grease trap lady….
Still on the doorstep, Gina reminds herself. The issues. It’s health and education. “I’ve got a special needs boy” says a woman in a housecoat, hair in a bun, from behind a half-closed door. Behind her, a framed Rousseau poster, the lion sniffing at the sleeping girl, a four-volume illustrated encyclopedia set on corridor shelves. We go round and about on education, school zoning, the lack of teaching assistants. Gina knows it backwards and forwards.
Then, a silence.
“Gina, wouldn’t the Jacqui Lambie Network be demanding a better deal for northern Tasmania?” I say.
“Yes, we want the full $750 million promised to the Mersey Hospital to go into the Mersey hospital…..” and she’s away.
“So what’s the chronic pain?” I say back in the Pajero, as six houses and four contacts later – one street in a working-class area of Devonport that apparently, no-one from the JLN has doorknocked in the entirety of the campaign – we head to Sprayton to see the grease-trap lady. In the inner-city, that would be some public servant with an after hours BDSM burlesque career, ie a Greens voter. Here I suspect not.
“I had a car accident when I was eighteen, someone ploughed into me, 1979. Spinal trauma. I’ve got a spinal cord stimulator implant, that’s changed my life, made it possible to do this”.
Outer Devonport roars by. Sheds of seafood companies with duotone pictures on scallops above the door, truck shelters, diesel tanks, snack bars in concrete boxes. On the horizon, fat greyish clouds are slowly building in a cobalt-blue sky.
“They said I’d never be able to have kids…..I said I would….I have two beautiful boys, six weeks in the hospital for each, on the pethidine.”
“Least I knew how to get around the medical system when I had the cancer…”
“Four recurrences. Fibromyosarcoma. That was when Dad was struggling with the COPD.”
“He was a master mariner, switched to tugs when we started going to school. The tugs were full of diesel fumes. So…”
Further out, among friends and neighbours, there’s retrenchment, anxiety, depression, anti-depressants, reaction to anti-depressants, rolling out like the river through all lives.
Gina is a Make-A-Wish foundation ambassador, the 2007 Tasmanian Mother of the Year – “I was nominated by my son, one of the ones they said I’d never have” – happily married for a second time, after a bad, violent first marriage.
Gina began singing at age nine, at the Edgewater, belting out ‘Let Me Be There’ in front of the Saturday night boogie band, to shoreleave sailors, who passed the hat around for her. Perhaps she did not suspect her life would become as an album in the genre she was working in. Lord, country and western album? Gina Timms’s life is one of those country and western forty-volume mailorder CD collections that are advertised late night on Nine Gem.
It was when she started to speak of a close relative with cardiac necrosis, from metal fatigue in a hip replacement gone wrong, that God help me, forgive me, the twitch of a hysterical smile began to form in my mouth, and I had to turn away.
Country and Western collection, yes, haha. But these are the diseases and conditions of industrial life, and of a social class, put out for surplus, in the shattered ruin of Tasmania’s health and social care system. Decades ago, industrial injury was lost limbs and sudden death, treatable or not. It still is, but now the chemical load, the cultural load, the shifting of the world has added the slow killers, cancer, lung disease, depression. They strain even the best health systems. They utterly defeat Tasmania’s.
At the Sprayton general store, grease trap lady turns out to be not a BDSM performance art worker (not canvassing with the Greens, after all), but the store owner. Taswater – it’s Tas everything here, the mere prefix breeds fear in the bowels of its subjects – has set new standards for trap cleaning in food businesses.
It will cost an extra $10k for pro cleaning, which store owner Angela doesn’t have. Gina navigates her through the calls she’s made, letters she’s written on her behalf – Australian country careers being what they are, she is part-time in IT at the council – and then:
“What are the other issues you’d be thinking about on Thursday?”
Angela, grateful, talks.
“In my singing…I’m a country singer…”
Angela, irritated, fidgets.
Back in the Pajero, on the way to East Devonport shops:
“We’re getting the word out, helping people…”
“Sure but how long have you spent on that issue? I mean, your not an MLA yet…”
“People here have been ignored. Like last week we went out with Jacqui to King Island, it’s got 800 voters-“
“Three of us.”
“No, we stayed overnight.’
“Was that the best strategy…it’s a big electorate…”
“People need to know we’re there, no-one’s visited these people, listened to them.”
There it is really. Where this sort of populist politics is at. The personal and the collective are so intertwined, the narratives of struggle now individual, psychological, triumphs over loss, futility, self-annihilation, that this is what is continually bodied forth. Spot policies remain – Bass catamarans now! – but there is no program, no argument about what would be done with power. Lambie has led her followers – save for the canny, centrist Liberals – into notions of conciliation, common sense, discussion, “as real people who get things done”.
Lambie, at her book launch in chi-chi Hobart central, gave me the standard flash of anger when I asked what the JLN’s position was on deficits vs tax increases vs spending levels. “Look we don’t know what the situation is, we’ll get in and we’ll sit down and we’ll find and we’ll talk some straight sense, when we know the facts….I don’t want my people battered by the old politics, I want to look after my people, I’ll be there to guide them…”
The politics of Lambie’s network have become so focused on the individual, excluded from all power systems, living off their wits that, paradoxically, a therapeutic narrative has taken over. In this, voters get such people into parliament as another part of their journey, where they are then protected from the ravages of power. It is the next stage of populism, a step on the way to exiting standard politics altogether.
Gina Timms would make a great MLA. I hope she gets there. If only for the flash of anger I got from a Greens MLA when I said I would be doing the walkaround: “the JLN isn’t a party I regard as a player.” Yeah, uh, true, but that’s the point (and the point about the troubled place the Greens are at). Gina Timms, as she drives away in the Pajero, looking forward, as she stares out the side is trapped like all of us, as one politics dies and another comes into being, in the eternal regress of politic.