Real Life

EXCLUSIVE: Jacqui Lambie talks family, politics and a life of service

When Jacqui Lambie strolled into Parliament in July 2014, dressed by St Vincent de Paul and prone to saying exactly what was on her mind, she was a curiosity – and sometimes a laughing stock. But 10 years later, this one-time soldier and mother of two is still standing.

Jacqui Lambie wears army fatigues, a hard hat and a grin from ear to ear as she rappels down a cliff face, never taking her eyes from Alexa, 15, who asked the straight-talking Tasmanian senator to partner with her on this abseiling challenge.

“Little bit of a jump,” Jacqui coaxes. “That’s it.” They land confidently on a rocky outcrop, the whole emerald expanse of Kangaroo Valley spread before them.

Experiences like this are the stock in trade of Veteran Mentors, which runs camps for young people, some (though by no means all) of whom are grappling with deeply troubled lives. This is Jacqui’s passion project, the apex of her two chief concerns – the wellbeing of veterans (who gain as much from these programs as the kids) and early intervention to support young people at risk.

“She’s been up every night until midnight doing the washing for the whole camp,” Veteran Mentors Director Matthew French tells The Weekly when Jacqui’s out of earshot. No one would describe the senator as reticent, but nor is she one for big-noting herself.

“I think the army gave me the opportunity to believe in myself, and a lot of self-esteem. I do believe that, without doing 11 years; service, I wouldn’t be in the Senate.” (Photo by Alana Landsberry)

“No one asked her to do it,” he adds. She arrived, saw that the kids were up at sparrow’s, wading through muddy, leech-infested bushland, and decided they’d feel better about themselves with clean fatigues. She washes, dries, folds them, and tiptoes back to the dormitories after lights-out to deliver them like some kind of laundress Santa Claus.

Most of these kids have no idea who she is – just another mentor – but they like and trust her. Two girls sidle up after lunch, there’s a hushed conversation and she follows them to their dorm to collect a small bundle of undies and trousers (their periods arrived unexpectedly) and Jacqui’s off to the laundry again.

“People wonder, ‘what is she doing, spending her time helping these kids when her own son needs so much help?’” Jacqui says as we trudge through the gentle afternoon rain. Back in 2015, Jacqui controversially spoke in parliament about her youngest boy Dylan’s struggles with a brain injury and drugs. That’s a big part of why she’s here – to offer these kids a bit of direction, a sense of self-worth and hope before they wander into the type of danger that snared her son. But one wonders whether she also catches a glimpse of her own teenage years in these youngsters.

Jacquiline Louise Lambie was born February 26, 1971, and grew up in the rugged north-west of Tasmania. Her mother, a Palawa (First Nations) woman who worked in a local factory, was one of 21, “so we had a lot of family around us – we had cousins everywhere,” Jacqui remembers. Her father, Tom, was a Scotsman by birth and a truck driver.

Today, Jacqui mentors young Australians through Veteran Mentors. (Photo: Supplied)

Jacqui’s was a happy, small-town childhood. She loved horses and Barbie dolls. “My dearest friend and her sister lived up the road,” she recalls, “and that was quite near the basketball courts, where we’d shoot hoops. I was sporty.”

Jacqui’s parents separated, but it was cordial, and neither she nor her brother, Bobby, were bothered, even though it involved a move to public housing while her mother retrained at TAFE. “Quite frankly,” she says, “I had some of my best times up there.”

Jacqui was a tearaway teen. High spirits and a couple of run-ins with police for underage drinking, but no major infractions.

“There was this place we called the wrecked ship,” she remembers. “We’d all go down there and have a fag at about 14 and make ramps for our BMX bikes … And we’d go to Mersey Bluff – jumping off the blowhole, which we weren’t supposed to do. It was pretty free and easy.”

By the time she turned 18, Jacqui had lost interest in school, though she was still enrolled in her final year. Then, milling about with friends at Centrelink one day, she spied an army recruitment bus. The gang agreed on the spot to enlist, but as Jacqui signed the papers, her friends headed for the hills.

She was on her own … Well, not entirely. At the time she began her training, Jacqui was three weeks’ pregnant, though it would be four months before either she or the Australian Army would twig. And when they did, after the initial shock, they treated her fairly. She continued her training in heavy vehicles, and her son, Brentyn, was born the following year.

Jacqui pictured with mentee Alexa. (Photo: Supplied)

From the outset, Jacqui loved army life.

“Looking back,” she says, “I think the army gave me the opportunity to believe in myself, and a lot of self-esteem. I do believe that, without doing that 11 years’ service, I wouldn’t be in the Senate. When it says it pushes you to the edge, it actually does, but for better, and then you’ll only keep growing. I’ve always had that fire in my belly, but I learnt how to handle myself, to have no fear … I learnt to stand on my own feet.”

Jacqui married a fellow soldier, John Milverton, who raised Brentyn as his own. Together they had a second boy, Dylan.

Jacqui was a committed soldier and she pushed herself hard. She’d no sooner completed one challenge than she’d set herself a new one. In time, she was promoted from heavy vehicles to the military police.

But Jacqui suffered a back injury in 1997 and it became increasingly debilitating.

“I ignored it at first,” she admits, “and took more Panadeine Forte and Mersyndol Forte – I just lived off that. I doctor shopped a bit.”

Then her dream assignment came up. She was two days out from being sent to East Timor when the walls of denial crumbled. She was being fitted for a bulletproof jacket – heavy things even without a back injury – “and they held it above my shoulders and dropped it, and I just went down”.

Jacqui’s army career was over. She was diagnosed with nerve damage and chronic pain, and discharged from military service.

There followed 11 years of crippling chronic pain, an addiction to painkillers and a battle for compensation with the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, which eventually cost Jacqui her home. Moreover, she struggled through all of this as a single mum because, by the time she left the military, she and John had separated, albeit with no ill will.

Jacqui joined the Australian Army aged 18. (Photo: Supplied)

“The worst thing is the effect it has on those closest to you,” Jacqui says. “My eldest one was lucky because he’s a very good sportsman – he was good at everything – so he got that break of a night-time, whereas Dylan pretty much became my carer at eight or nine years of age.

“Dylan was great – nice kid, beautiful, big heart – and he would do anything: Pick up the vacuum cleaner, mow the lawn, because I couldn’t get any services out of Veterans’ Affairs … Brentyn did a lot of the banking and bills because most of the time I just wasn’t fit for purpose. And Dylan bore the brunt of my care … There were times when he’d be helping me to the toilet, putting me in the shower. It was a fair bit for someone his age.”

It was also a fair bit for his mother.

“It was a really dark, lonely, cold place. You were just, I don’t know, you were five per cent of your normal self. You had no purpose. No job. You couldn’t get the medical attention you needed. You’re no use to your kids. And you’re fighting a department at the same time. Over eight or nine years of doing that, it just wore me into the ground. I gave up.

“You have no feeling left. You know, you can pinch yourself but you don’t feel anything. I see why people cut themselves when they’re that low, because you actually don’t feel any pain, apart from your nerve pain which is driving you nuts.”

Jacqui’s sons, Brentyn (right) and Dylan (left), helped her during her dark period. (Photo: Supplied)

Then, one night, Jacqui wrote a note to her boys and attempted to end her life. “I should have been dead,” she says now, sitting on a hard wooden bench in a bushland clearing. “I was physically okay,” she adds, but admits she did obtain some minor injuries. “And it meant that I got help.”

Jacqui spent time over the next two years in psychiatric care, and the clinic found a pain specialist who managed, to some extent, to deaden the nerves that had caused her such agony.

“The first time I had that treatment,” she says, “I went, ‘Yep, beauty.’ I knew this was my second chance and I grabbed it with everything I could.”

Until that point, Jacqui says, she hadn’t given much thought to God, but now she vowed to “the Big Boy Upstairs”, or “Obi-Wan” as she also calls him, “that if he gave me a second chance at life, I would do everything I could to help my veteran mates, because I knew they were going through the same shit I was … And I knew the only way we were going to get anywhere was if one of us could get elected to Parliament.”

A miniature replica of a Tasmanian Devil guards the entrance to Jacqui’s Parliament House office. Fierce, emblematic, a protector of vulnerable species – it shares the odd characteristic with the Tasmanian senator. When The Weekly arrives, she is rehearsing a pithy defence of the largely female Textile, Clothing and Footwear Union’s right to split from its monolithic parent, the CFMEU. Then – tiny, wiry, determined and cutting a smart figure in a houndstooth pencil skirt and a faux Chanel jacket – she dashes to the Senate chamber.

Her dad Tom is her biggest supporter. (Photo: Supplied)

All this is a far cry from the politically naïve but disarmingly outspoken 43-year-old, dressed in Palmer United Party canary yellow, who stood to make her first speech to Parliament in September 2014, calling for, among other things, a judicial inquiry into the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Jacqui was proud of her speech – it underscored why she was here – but for the most part those early months in Canberra were chaos.

“It was a bloody disaster,” she says. “When I first came up here, I had no money, so I was wearing clothes from Vinnies. I still had chronic fatigue [brought on, she thinks, by the stress of going cold turkey off the pain meds], I had to wear my hair up because half of it was missing [also a result of stress]. And there was media all over us all the time, you could not breathe, it was suffocating.”

She remembers talking to her father. “I said, ‘I don’t think I’m cut out for this. I don’t think I’ve got it in me.’ He said, ‘Lambies never quit’, and to just get on with it. Then I started to find my way in that third year.”

Jacqui split from Clive Palmer, then resigned her place in the Senate in 2017 when she learnt she was a dual citizen. She funded her re-election campaign with a string of reality TV appearances, including SBS’s Go Back to Where You Came From, which was, she says, a “reality check” on refugee and immigration issues. She was returned to the Senate in 2019.

There, Jacqui’s politics continued to evolve. She jettisoned her chief of staff, Rob Messenger, who had been responsible for much of her far-right rhetoric, including her call for the deportation of any Australian who believed in Sharia law.

“Once you turn 50, you get more fearless. You realise, you know, I’ve done half my life now, and I’ve survived it beautifully.”(Photo by Alana Landsberry)

“I didn’t want to be like that,” she says. “I wanted to be centre. I wanted to take my life experience, whether that was serving in the military or pulling a beer in a pub or having those 11 years when I was out [of the army], and I wanted to use that to help others. I think those 11 years on the sidelines gave me a lot more compassion and understanding.”

A number of her fellow senators – including Nick Xenophon and Penny Wong – “took me under their wing”. And without the kind of clearly defined platform that guides the major parties, she assessed legislation herself, on its merits.

“It’s about fairness,” she explains. “Every time I look at a bill, I go through it, and I go, ‘Yeah, that’s going to have unintended consequences down here at this end, where people have got no money because I’ve been there’.”

ACT Independent David Pocock has the office across the corridor. He and Jacqui have had their differences, but they’ve also worked together closely.

“You see her on the news,” he says, “and you see someone who’s a straight shooter, who’s not like other politicians. You see someone who’s here to make a difference … The thing I love and appreciate is her honesty. With Jacqui, what you see is what you get.”

(Photo by Alana Landsberry)

The achievements she’s proudest of include negotiating with the Morrisson government to waive Tasmania’s housing debt, and her staunch advocacy for the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide which is due to deliver its final report in September. Jacqui still fields calls every week from veterans who are desperate for help and can’t think where else to turn.

Now, as we go to press, Jacqui is back in Tasmania. She’s been on the campaign trail with Jacqui Lambie Network candidates for the state election. After a nail-biting count, they have enjoyed a swing in their favour and are set to hold the balance of power.

This was Jacqui’s first campaign without her dad by her side and she felt it acutely. Tom passed away in 2022, suddenly, of a heart attack. Jacqui found her dad in his bed. He had died in the night in his sleep.

She had walked past his room and seen the rumpled bedclothes that morning, but assumed he had gone out early. When she returned home, she checked his room again, and found him lying beneath the sheets.

“Dad had been living with me,” she explains. “We’d converted the garage to a big Poppy flat and yeah, I think he liked it. He had a bit of instability with women after Mum, so he never really had anywhere to call home properly until he moved in here.”

Losing her father sent Jacqui into a period of grief. She was shocked by how deeply she was affected. “I’ve been feeling it the last few weeks, with the election,” she says. “Dad would have been getting signs ready and helping candidates with their trailers in the backyard.”

(Photo by Alana Landsberry)

Dylan was also staying with Jacqui for a time but he has moved back to Queensland. She is reluctant to talk about his ongoing struggles but they clearly weigh on her mind, and her heart. Brentyn is in the army and lives in Canberra, so they catch up for a meal when they’re both in town.

Back in 2020 Jacqui told journalist Chloe Hooper that she would like to have another shot at a romantic relationship. “I’m certainly open to it,” she says now, “but when would I have time? I need to slow down a bit.”

Jacqui certainly moves at a rapid-fire pace in spite of the chronic pain which still raises its head when she pushes herself. But the gain, she says, outweighs the pain.

“It’s a bit of a trade-off … By the end of a sitting fortnight, I’m in incredible pain. I’ll take a couple of Panadol if I have to, or some Nurofen, but I can’t take any of that [stronger] medication because it stuffs with my head.”

Looking forward, she has a whole new flock of state parliamentarians to shepherd, a Select Committee on Disaster Resilience to chair, and she’s lobbying hard for the government to fund a permanent home for Veteran Mentors to increase the number of kids it helps.

At 53, it seems Jacqui Lambie is just hitting her straps.

“Once you turn 50,” she says, “you get more fearless. You realise, you know, I’ve done half my life now, and I’ve survived it beautifully.”

To learn more about Veteran Mentors, visit, and watch out for a special feature accompanying Jacqui on this camp, coming soon on Seven. If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact Lifeline Australia on 13 11 14.

Related stories