US News & World Report

By Nicole Hemmer

Perhaps the radio hosts were to blame. They were, after all, the ones who asked Australian Sen. Jacqui Lambie about the state of her bikini line, which led her to wax on about what she looks for in men. “They must have heaps of cash and they’ve got to have a package between their legs,” she told the "Kim and Dave Show." “They don’t even need to speak.” The hosts then brokered a date between Lambie and a 22-year-old Tasmanian who assured the senator he was “hung like a donkey.”

Not your typical morning show banter. But then Lambie isn’t your typical senator. Her life story is the stuff of a Lifetime movie. An ex-corporal in the Australian Army and a single mother of two, she lost a stripe for punching a fellow soldier, waged a 10-year disability battle with the army, and attempted suicide by stepping in front of an oncoming car. She survived, and last September won a senate seat as a member of the Palmer United Party.

The Palmer United Party, or PUP, holds just four of the senate’s 76 seats. But because the Coalition, Australia’s governing party, failed to win an outright majority in the senate, PUP now holds the balance of power. If Prime Minister Tony Abbott wants to pass his legislation, he needs to go through PUP. And since the new senate first convened on July 1, PUP has made clear that if Abbott wants its votes, he’s going to have to work for them.

That’s a tough assignment for Abbott, because no real ideology unites PUP. Instead, it is a blend of free-floating populism and outsized personalities. No personality is more outsized than Clive Palmer, the megalomaniacal mining magnate more interested in attention than political power. Two weeks ago he spiked the carbon tax repeal just hours before it was supposed to pass, earning him an extra week in the spotlight. As one of my Sydney-based colleagues put it, “Imagine if Donald Trump had his own party, and that party controlled the balance of power in the Senate.” That’s Clive Palmer and PUP.

Now imagine Trump’s party had scraped together a ragtag group of inexperienced populists rejected by the Republican Party. That’s the PUP bloc of senators, which looks an awful lot like a microcosm of the tea party. Lambie, for instance, has more personality than policy knowledge. She initially went on record in support of the country’s now-defunct carbon tax, until reminded that PUP actually supported its repeal. “I just buggered that up,” she shrugged to reporters.

Her fellow senators include Glenn Lazarus, a former rugby player whose thick, rectangular shape earned him the nickname “The Brick with Eyes,” and Dio Wang, the CEO of the Palmer-controlled corporation Australasian Resources. Wang won his seat after a missing-ballot scandal led to a statewide re-election, an event unprecedented in Australian politics. Asked about his interest in politics prior to running for office, Wang answered, “Zero.”

Joining the three PUP senators is Ricky Muir, a member of the Australia Motoring Enthusiast Party who agreed to vote with PUP. Muir, who lost his job when the sawmill he worked for closed up shop, was ill-prepared for the national spotlight. There was the infamous “roo poo” video, which caught him in a kangaroo dung fight with his friends. Then there was his Palin-esque television interview, full of deer-in-headlight stares and multiple requests to start his answers over. After one particularly spectacular flub, he asked to step out for a minute. Palmer, seeing a chance to seize the spotlight, rushed to Muir’s defense, calling the interviewer a “dickhead” with a “plum stuck up his arse.”

For all their flaws, the PUP senators signal the continuing power of populism in politics. They leveraged their inexperience and underdog status as part of their appeal: vote for us if you’re tired of politics as usual. Muir, though he only won about a thousand votes to get to the senate, proudly proclaimed himself a voice for the “ordinary, everyday Australian.” Wang claimed to be running against the hypocrites in power, who said one thing to get elected then did something altogether different once in office.

And then there’s Jacqui Lambie. Alex Douglas, a fellow PUP member, explained Lambie had “an ace up her sleeve” because she came from Boganland. (Calling someone a bogan in Australia is akin to calling someone a redneck in America.) It wasn’t meant as a compliment — he described bogans as “rejoicing in their own ignorance” — but Douglas acknowledged the power they had in Australian politics. Bogans, he said, have “inherited the earth and the world is full of them demanding their right, in an odd way, to be heard.” Lambie quickly appropriated the insult: “I will use the business contacts, advice and wisdom I’ve gained … to help restore hope and rebuild our beautiful state — not bad for a bogan.’’

Populism may be politically powerful – the billionaire Palmer has certainly leveraged it to great effect — but as the PUP senators show, it is also difficult to control. During the carbon tax debate, Ricky Muir suddenly broke ranks, voting against the Coalition and PUP in order to allow debate to continue in the senate. And Lambie, who called the prime minister a “political psychopath,” has also warned her loyalty to Palmer may not last forever. “If I don’t agree with something, I’ll stand up,” she said after her election. “I mean, Clive’s a billionaire, I’m the underdog — it’s like chalk and cheese."

All of which has made Australian politics entirely unpredictable — and a joy to watch. The tea party may have been tamed in America, but its spirit lives on half a world away.

This article was originally published in the US News & World Report