COALITION MPs who think Pauline Hanson must be vilified and her party smashed must reconsider; the inherent risks in any attempt at accommodation of the right-wing party are tempered by the dangers of literally ignoring it. A procession of state Coalition figures 15 years ago — headed by former Queensland Premier Rob Borbidge — offers an object lesson in the consequences of crucifying Hanson, One Nation, and the people who vote for it.
If there’s one thing that has generally been missed in much of the published commentary since last month’s election, it’s that the overall swing that occurred — in raw terms — was to the Right, the success of Nick Xenophon in South Australia notwithstanding, rather than to the Left.
Certainly, it’s the ALP and Bill Shorten who ostensibly emerge as the biggest winners and, in the House of Representatives at least, this is also certainly true; Labor now requires just seven additional seats to win an outright majority, and a swing on paper of just over 1% of the two-party vote would deliver them.
But with the Labor primary vote still languishing at a near-historical low of 35%, it would be unwise for Shorten to get too carried away with his own importance; votes obtained on preferences are every bit as valid as primary votes, but it is preferences — not outright support — that have pushed the insidious Shorten far closer to the finish line this time than any reasonable assessment would suggest was either merited or warranted.
And in that sense, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s coterie of “strategists” (and I use the term despairingly) would do well to look to the past, for just as night follows day, history is repeating itself in ways that could cost the Coalition very dearly indeed.
I have been relatively quiet these past few weeks; something rather splendid — sarcasm intended — that made its way into the general population from my son’s daycare centre six weeks ago performed a spectacular 180-degree rebound on me a couple of weeks ago with all the fury and malevolence of a Sarah Hanson-Young rant against reality, and despite being OK now, the past week has seen my workload ramp right back up including the resumption of my weekly field trips to Brisbane. There are things we should discuss, and over the next few days, we will cover some of them.
But the emergence of four Senators from One Nation, with Pauline Hanson at its helm, is a development than can scarcely come as much of a surprise in view of increasingly frequent Islam-related terrorist attacks this year, or given the vocal intentions emanating from some sections of the Right to abandon the Coalition in retaliation for the ascension of Malcolm Turnbull to the Liberal Party leadership late last year, and it is with this matter we restart our conversation this evening.
Let’s slip back in time: firstly to 1998 and then, more ominously, to 2001.
It is an irony lost on many, but had the Liberal Party not disendorsed Pauline Hanson in 1996 over remarks she made about Aborigines leading up to that year’s election, it is doubtful she would ever have broken through as a political force; her disendorsement oxygenated her campaign in the media, and — with no other local campaign to work on — the foot soldiers of Liberal Party branches in the seat of Oxley continued to toil for Hanson: delivering the manpower and resources to mount a credible campaign without the weight of the Liberal brand to back her.
That’s a matter of history, of course, and the Queensland Liberals probably had little choice but to show Hanson the door; since then she has used Asians, and now Muslims, as her pretext to stir up resentment among lower socio-economic groups and rednecks, and the proof lies in the fact (as we’ve said many times) that just as she’s adept at articulating “problems” in these areas, there is never a rational, credible “solution” in sight.
This time, the “solutions” — such as insisting on CCTV cameras in mosques to capture evidence of radicalising activities for use by law enforcement agencies — miss the obvious point that even were this silly idea to be implemented, the activity it contrived to target (if any, indeed, occurred) would simply be conducted at other venues, rendering the entire exercise pointless. But that’s a detail lost on the redoubtable Ms Hanson.
Even so, her win in Oxley in 1996, and the media attention it enabled her to generate, sounded a clarion call to every redneck in Australia to embark on race-related crusades in politics; it should be pointed out that aside from the lunar right-wing fringe, others who backed Hanson couldn’t be accurately described as “racist” at all: these were the people who felt alienated by rapid economic change, the digital revolution, and by globalisation, who feared for their jobs and livelihoods and their ability to provide for (and hold together) their families. These were (and are) the people who saw in Hanson a voice of “reason” that merely articulated their concerns without any deeper contemplation of the validity of her arguments, and as condescending as this might sound, it is not reasonable to expect every voter in Australia to be an expert on social policy, economics, and/or the minutiae of the political process.
In other words, some of the people attracted by Hanson were well-meaning and honest (if poorly informed) folk supporting someone they believed spoke for them, as was their right.
Where all of this crystallises into relevance in terms of the present situation federally begins back in Queensland, ahead of the 1998 state election, at which Hanson’s One Nation party scored 23% of the primary vote and 11 of the 89 seats in Parliament.
One constant about One Nation has been its appeal to voters in regional and provincial areas — hardly a shock, given communities in these areas are statistically much more likely to experience downturn and decline even in the face of overall economic expansion — and in a textbook illustration of how the National Party routinely called the shots in Queensland state politics, the Coalition government of Rob Borbidge went to the 1998 election with a strategy of preferencing One Nation ahead of Labor in all 89 seats.
For those who don’t recall, this strategy was a prescription for vicious internal brawling in Coalition ranks (and especially in Liberal-held areas in Brisbane where the Liberal moderates held sway), which allowed Labor — then led by Peter Beattie — to deploy the age-old Queensland argument against Borbidge that the ALP was united, but the Coalition was at war with itself over how to deal with the threat from the racist Right: a proposition the Coalition couldn’t (or wouldn’t) convincingly refute.
It didn’t help that some Liberal candidates (such as Steve Wilson, standing in the One Nation target seat of Ipswich) took it upon themselves to break ranks and refuse to issue preference recommendations placing One Nation ahead of the ALP: Wilson was instantly disendorsed for his trouble, and the ALP retained the seat that would arguably have fallen to One Nation (and thereby prevented Beattie taking minority government after the election) had the episode not occurred.
Most of One Nation’s 1998 Queensland votes — as they did federally on 2 July — came from people who in 1995 had voted for the Coalition.
The loss of government (with 31 seats and just 31% of the primary vote) was embarrassment enough for the Coalition, but worse was to follow; believing it had learned its lesson, by early 2001 the conservative parties had decided One Nation must be placed last in any and all circumstances, and — just to repay the favour — Hanson went on an “anti-incumbents” crusade, with One Nation preferences directed to the ALP and helping to blow away a seemingly unassailable Liberal state government in Western Australia and the conservative CLP regime in the Northern Territory.
By the time the tortuously conflicted Queensland Coalition faced off against the Beattie government in early 2001, the damage was done; now bent on placing One Nation last, Hanson’s outfit once again lined Borbidge up: and as some of his terrified backbenchers in provincial seats, sensing imminent annihilation, attempted to do seat-by-seat deals with One Nation in their own electorates, the facade of Coalition unity was rent asunder, and One Nation preferences poured onto ALP piles across Queensland, turning a likely Labor landslide into a near-existential shellacking. Labor won 66 seats; the Liberals just three, two of which were in doubt days after the election. One Nation lost most of its MPs, but the damage was done, and the Queensland Coalition commenced what would prove to be more than a further decade in opposition.
By contrast, the Howard government — itself facing an election — suddenly became very keen to mollify a lot of One Nation’s grievances, and by the time the MV Tampa appeared on the horizon, the government’s credentials on dealing with what would otherwise have become a signature issue for One Nation to latch onto were set in stone.
My apologies for the history lesson, but recent events bring what happened 15-20 years ago sharply back into focus; already, in the lead-up to the July election, we have witnessed Turnbull’s declaration that Pauline Hanson wasn’t welcome in Canberra — followed in short order not only by the resurrection of One Nation as a parliamentary force, but by One Nation preferences in lower house seats either contributing to the defeat of Liberal MPs (for example, Longman and Herbert) or contributing toward the overall swing against Liberal MPs in marginal seats who have held on, but with their margins drastically cut, in some cases to next to nothing.
Hanson holds a grudge, and so too do those who vote for her; the more fervid of her supporters, on the hard Right, view the Liberal Party as no different or better than the ALP: far from having “nowhere else to go,” as Liberal pollster Mark Textor infamously decreed of the party’s conservative and harder Right contingents following Turnbull’s replacement of Tony Abbott last year, the hard Right at least is more than happy to both withdraw its support in favour of a Hanson (or the ALA, or some other hard-right entity), and to double the insult by directing preferences to the ALP in the certitude that Labor is no better and no worse than the party lined up in their sights.
To these people, it matters nowt that the Liberal Party is nominally a conservative party, nor that it offers — at face value — an easier ticket than the ALP to getting the measures it wants into legislation; to Hanson’s supporters, the Liberal Party is filled with people who want to destroy their leader, put her back in gaol, and to tell them they are stupid and ignorant and bigoted: to them, the Liberals are just as bad as Labor and the Greens. There isn’t even a distinction to draw.
Perversely, the years of conniptions over what to do on the fraught issue of preferences and One Nation has probably only exacerbated this malignant assessment of the Liberals in One Nation eyes; by making such a big deal of it, the clear invitation was sent to the ALP to make an even bigger deal of it. Never mind that the Greens are, arguably, exponentially more odious and contemptible than One Nation: the Coalition has never sought to punish Labor electorally for its proximity to the Greens. No, even when the decision is to put Hanson last, there is a ready reservoir of shit to be tipped all over the Liberals, and when the decision is to put her before Labor, the tactical ineptitude on show merely invites being belted from arsehole to breakfast by literally every conceivable opponent.
Whether anyone likes it or not, the arrival of Hanson in Canberra — replete with garbled sentences and half-baked conclusions drawn from idiot-simple ideas — has put the issue of Muslim immigration onto the mainstream political agenda once and for all; it is the issue the major parties do not wish to talk about, let alone even acknowledge exists, for the ALP milks votes from the Islamic community whilst the Coalition is too scared to mention or acknowledge it, lest it be labelled “bigoted.”
I am no apologist for Pauline Hanson — and it’s so obvious that even certain long-term readers who once suggested I had much “in common” with her now concede my aversion to her is genuine — but I have always been emphatic that MPs of all colours are people first and politicians second, and deserve to be treated as such; there are exceptions (such as the liar Bill Shorten, and the cretinous pathology case Kevin Rudd), but the treatment doled out to Hanson personally over the years (and especially by the Liberal Party) borders on sub-human.
Whilst I agree with Derryn Hinch that Hanson is “full of shit” — after all, her views on Islam are so defective it’s clear she has no clue how to solve the problems she raises — I also believe she’s a damned side smarter than Jacqui Lambie, and treating her like a real person with bad ideas might be a bit more productive than treating her like Frankenstein with leprosy.
It is also the case that in the Senate, Turnbull is going to need every vote he can cobble together if his government is to pass any legislation whatsoever: Labor plus the Greens command 35 of the 76 Senate spots, and the Liberal-hating Jacqui Lambie makes that a lock for 36. If the left-leaning Nick Xenophon and his team of three can be enticed by Shorten, the opposition can block whatever it likes, which means that whatever he thinks of Hanson, Turnbull has no choice but to deal with her.
The first sign of any bullshit about “not accepting” the votes of Hanson and, ridiculously, the grotesque spectacle of Coalition MPs vaulting out of the Senate whenever Hanson and her minions line up with them during votes, will be a sign the Coalition has learned absolutely nothing.
The ALP has never had the slightest compunction in accepting parliamentary support from wherever it originates; it doesn’t get crucified over such matters: it doesn’t even get crucified over its links to violent, thuggish unions. Perhaps Coalition efforts might be better directed dealing with the predictably vacuous onslaught and turning it back whence it came, where the Senate votes of Hanson are concerned, than to negating those votes.
The people who vote for One Nation (and other entities of the harder Right) — almost three-quarters of a million in the lower house, and roughly double that number in the Senate — deserve better from national leaders than to be noisily dismissed as racist, bigoted, stupid, ignorant or offensive: and in demonising Hanson in these terms, Coalition MPs of the past were also guilty of demonising her supporters.
It isn’t like Jacqui Lambie, by whose own admission flitted from party to party seeking money, support and leverage simply to get her arse into a seat; Lambie’s only apparent principles seem to be based on getting taxpayer money thrown at various constituencies to buy their support, and nobody could accuse Hanson, at the very least, of that.
During the week, Turnbull announced, rather unconvincingly, that he could deal with Hanson; it’s a start, and it needs to go further.
John Howard understood that politics is the art of the possible and — in some cases, when confronted by circumstances he would prefer not to have to deal with — pragmatism dictated that giving a little bit away was a worthwhile price for the protection of his government and its ability to otherwise deliver the platform upon which it was elected in the first place.
I think that if Hanson is made to feel she has been listened to, taken seriously, and can see some kind of return on at least a portion of her wish list, the flow of preferences from One Nation next time will almost certainly favour the Coalition rather than its opponents.
The alternative storyline has already been played out once, and it isn’t pretty: One Nation preferences destroyed the Court government in WA; brought down a 23-year CLP administration in the NT; and helped lift Bob Carr to a landslide in 1999 over a first-term Liberal opposition that rated itself half a chance of returning to office.
It also destroyed Rob Borbidge in Queensland — not once, but twice — and left in a smoking ruin the political career of a good man who in other circumstances could have been a natural long-term Premier in the Sunshine State.
And as I said at the outset, the movement of votes at the election that has just concluded was toward the Right — not the Left, the appearance conjured by the final results in the lower house notwithstanding.
There are plenty of challenges Turnbull will face as he attempts to govern with minimal parliamentary authority, and we will return to some of the others in short order, but how he manages Hanson is probably the pivotal relationship he faces: not just now, for his government, but in terms of the fortunes of the Liberal Party federally in the medium term.
The potential for error — and disaster — is considerable, as is the scope to inflict collateral damage elsewhere: the excellent new leader of the Queensland LNP, Tim Nicholls, is already feeling the impact of resurgent One Nation poll numbers in state voting intention surveys.
History is repeating itself. Hanson is back, against all odds. Her party carries more clout (and oddly, more credibility) than the likes of Clive Palmer could ever have dreamed of.
The ball is in Malcolm’s court, but if the Liberal Party’s response echoes that of the late 1990s, its repercussions will be disastrous — and not just for the Coalition.
Snivelling, opportunistic grub Bill Shorten doesn’t care how he gets to be Prime Minister, so long as he gets there: and if the response to Hanson delivers Shorten that office, the effects on the Coalition might be bad, but the effects of a Shorten government would be cataclysmic for Australia.
Let’s hope those “strategists” have learned a bit during the parliamentary recess. They will have had to.