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One Nation’s clear and present danger to the conservative establishment

One Nation’s clear and present danger to the conservative establishment

Friday 10 February, 2017
The second edition of One Nation is not to be confused with the first, for Pauline's new approach is a threat not only to the Left but also those who represent conservatism in this country.
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The second edition of One Nation is not to be confused with the first, for Pauline’s new approach is a threat not only to the Left but also those who represent conservatism in this country.

Conventional wisdom has it that, in politics and otherwise, 2016 was for many a year to forget. It’s a safe bet that Hillary Clinton would agree; Theresa May, on the other hand, may be less inclined. For Australia’s conservative political leaders the New Year hasn’t brought much to cheer about either. New South Wales continues to deal with Premier Mike Baird’s unexpected resignation, while West Australian Premier Colin Barnett confronts jarring polls ahead of a March state election.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, meanwhile, was forced in the last month to wade through a Centrelink debt recovery debacle, parliamentary entitlement scandals and a hasty frontbench reshuffle amid continuing backbench disquiet. The turmoil, though, is writ large in Queensland. Recent developments there have made the state a hotspot of animated political behaviour and commentary.

At the centre of this commotion is Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, who stepped up their assault on the two-party dominance of Queensland politics. The outspoken senator has spent much of the summer parliamentary break campaigning (though, officially, “not campaigning”) for One Nation in its home state. In shades of Clive Palmer’s bullish best, Hanson has declared her party aims to win government at the next state election, due by early 2018.

Reinforcing her claim in December, Hanson unveiled three dozen endorsed state candidates, with promises of more to come. They’ll stand in electorates mostly in regional and semi-urban areas outside the state’s capital, and more often than not, in Liberal National Party (LNP)-held seats. Hanson capped off a month of mischief by poaching a sitting LNP MP to join One Nation’s ranks. These bold moves highlight the party’s imminent threat to the conservative political establishment in Queensland and elsewhere.

This threat took on an ominous air, fittingly, on Friday the 13th of January. Hanson revealed that Steve Dickson, LNP member for Buderim in the Sunshine Coast hinterland since 2006 and former Newman government minister, had defected to her camp. The flimsy reasoning of wanting quicker action on medically prescribed cannabis didn’t really wash. Observers have noted Dickson’s role a year ago in an abortive challenge against then LNP leader, Lawrence Springborg, cementing his place on the opposition backbench. For his trouble, Dickson now finds himself the state leader of One Nation with a place on the crossbenches.

Dickson’s move gives One Nation a potentially pivotal seat – its first state MP since 2009 – in Queensland’s hung Parliament. This could make life even more troublesome for Annastacia Palaszczuk’s minority Labor government. More significantly, it raises the prospect of more defections from the opposition benches in coming weeks. This was underlined in recent days when former one-term LNP MPs, Sam Cox and Michael Pucci, announced they’d joined One Nation as election candidate and campaign director respectively. They join Neil Symes, another “oncer” from the Newman LNP government, throwing in their lot with One Nation.

As state and national polling shows One Nation’s popularity on the rise, LNP bosses in Queensland – and MPs sitting in marginal electorates – are growing decidedly anxious. This much was obvious in the reaction of Opposition Leader, Tim Nicholls, to Dickson’s “massive betrayal”, launching a spirited defence of his LNP team at a hastily convened press conference. Nicholls has since been boosting his profile, both online and via a “charm offensive” tour through the regions and in metropolitan centres such as Townsville. He’s also under pressure to exert his leadership and stem the bleeding of members from his party.

Not to be outdone, Premier Palaszczuk returned from holidays to spruik her government’s regional jobs agenda in western Queensland. She recently chaired a Cabinet meeting in Rockhampton, where unsurprisingly people’s focus was on job creation and living costs. Clearly, both leaders have an eye on One Nation’s rising electoral stocks (and persistently rising unemployment levels) outside the state’s southeast corner. Equally, both will need to make a convincing case to voters that their plans for regional economies are workable and quickly effective. The Adani Carmichael coal mine proposal looms large in such discussions, but comes with problematic political considerations that will need to be negotiated.

With an election in Western Australia due soon, and speculation growing that Queensland may head to the polls later this year, One Nation shapes as a contender in both calculations. It also spells danger for the major parties on both sides of politics. Poll figures since last year’s federal election showing double-digit support in some areas for One Nation have made the established parties take notice. How the major parties respond to this threat is uncertain, though One Nation’s last “star turn” on the political stage two decades ago provides cautionary lessons.

 

Lessons from 1998

Then, as now, preference arrangements, candidate selection and locality were central to the electoral fortunes of One Nation. While the party famously attracted 22.7% of the primary vote at the 1998 Queensland election, much of this vote was spread across the state’s regions, coming mostly at the expense of the Coalition parties. This came after federal Coalition officials overrode then-premier Rob Borbidge, insisting One Nation be preferenced ahead of Labor.

Indeed, the eleven One Nation MPs elected in regional and semi-urban seats, captured in almost equal number from Labor and Nationals incumbents, won largely thanks to Coalition preference flows. Having seen Queensland’s conservative vote split (repeated to a lesser extent in that year’s federal election), Coalition parties in all jurisdictions later resolved to not steer preferences One Nation’s way.

Shunned for preferences from both sides of politics, and with acrimonious internal divisions and MPs’ ill-discipline undermining the party’s attempts to sustain itself, One Nation rapidly went into decline at both state and federal levels. Its eleven Queensland MPs lasted less than a year before abandoning the party en masse and sapping the party’s voter support.

Hanson lasted only a single term in federal Parliament, as the party’s support shrunk back to isolated regional and formerly industrial areas in north and central Queensland, and near Ipswich to Brisbane’s west.

Whether by good fortune or design, the party has timed its re-emergence now to coincide with another surge in voter frustration. Supporters look to send the “elites” and “vested interests” of the established parties an unequivocal message. Some of the targets of their angst and scorn might have changed, but familiar themes of disenchantment with the “establishment” remain. So too do concerns over the sources and levels of immigration and perceived cultural diminution. This is especially so in those regions and outer-city areas with lower average incomes and higher unemployment levels, held to be long ignored by the major parties.

Those major parties are well aware that the next Queensland election will be largely fought out in the state’s struggling regions, and over issues which matter most to voters outside the more prosperous southeast corner. Some of these issues attach to the traditional culture of regional locations, but are mainly economic in nature. Voters there also bemoan the loss of a political party with which they identify, recalling a National Party that looked out for regional interests. Of interest to election analysts and LNP officials will be any “destabilising” effect on the party’s regional support base caused by the resignation of long-serving MP, and chief proponent of the merged conservative party, Lawrence Springborg.

It didn’t escape the attention of LNP leaders that Senate vote support for One Nation at last year’s federal election was recorded mostly in regional LNP-held seats in former National Party “heartland” territory. The story was similar at the 2015 Queensland state election, although to a lesser extent. Then, One Nation fielded only eleven candidates in mainly regional or semi-urban seats, the highest support being recorded in Ipswich West and Lockyer west of Brisbane – where Hanson herself nearly unseated the LNP incumbent. Nicholls, criticised as too “urbane” and “city-centric” while Treasurer in the Newman government and since becoming LNP leader in May last year, knows he is in One Nation’s firing line as much as his Labor counterpart.

Recent polling (and past form) in Western Australia and Queensland suggests that One Nation will take votes from both sides. In turn, preferences will feed back to the major parties in roughly equal measure. Yet analysts see a clear danger for the conservative parties, and especially the state and federal representatives of the Nationals, or those identified as such in Queensland’s LNP. While due in part to the preponderance of One Nation candidates and campaign efforts in regional areas, this also reflects a trend where, as the party’s electoral support tips over into double figures, the vote “bleeding” mostly comes at the Coalition’s expense.

With optional preferential voting no longer a feature at state elections in Queensland, One Nation’s preferences there will most certainly come into play. The issue of preference deals will weigh heavily upon the LNP’s leadership and party officials, much like it did at the 1998 state election. Nicholls has coyly refused to rule anything in or out. Presumably, though, he won’t want to be seen to be too prompt in “rewarding” the defectors leaving his own party by offering them preferences.

But Nicholls and LNP officials know that denying preferences to One Nation risks alienating sections of their own supporter base, especially in the regions. This brings to light tensions between old National and Liberal elements of the LNP, evidenced in last year’s leadership spill installing Nicholls over Springborg. Preference deal pressure will be keenly felt in regional seats seen as “at risk”, such as Lockyer after the decision of sitting LNP MP Ian Rickuss to retire ahead of the next election.

Meanwhile, some familiar internal – though very public – divisions have appeared within the One Nation outfit. West Australian Senator Rod Culleton’s dramatic resignation and later expulsion from Parliament was the first in a series of embarrassing or damaging gaffes from candidates on both sides of the country. This led to the standing down or expulsion of three (at this point) previously endorsed Queensland candidates. The party asserted in December that it had “learned the lessons of the past” regarding candidate selection processes. Yet recent transgressions and candidate misjudgements hark back to the party’s earlier incarnation in the late 1990s, when such episodes saw One Nation collapse upon itself.

Despite these missteps, and its occasional collision course with the federal Coalition over unsettled policy issues, Hanson has made clear that her party considers the ALP to be “the enemy”. Some of Turnbull’s ministers and certain vocal backbenchers (George Christensen in Dawson in central Queensland, for instance) have duly sought to appease and appeal to One Nation’s numerous supporters by making concessions to the party’s policies. This message is not lost on state Coalition parties and MPs around the country.

Reports indicate that Premier Barnett is considering bucking 16 years of “tradition” and entering preference negotiations with One Nation in Western Australia. Prime Minister Turnbull has washed his hands of the issue, declaring preferences are a matter for the state branches. But Coalition rifts have already begun to surface. Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister, Barnaby Joyce, has warned Barnett’s Liberals that such a move would hurt the WA Nationals and damage the Coalition in that state. This has echoes of former Queensland Senator, Ron Boswell, taking the fight up to One Nation (and with his federal Coalition colleagues) two decades ago on behalf of a besieged National Party.

Federal and state Labor will also watch such developments with interest. Palaszczuk’s decision on when to call the Queensland election may hinge on wanting to maximise any fallout from Coalition deals with One Nation, and anticipating more disunity and candidate selection errors from the latter. Equally, though, the Premier will know that her Labor government needs “runs on the board” where it counts. Delivering on job creation, service delivery and infrastructure projects in both the regions and the densely-populated southeast corner should precede any call for an election.

One Nation no doubt will assert itself in competition for uncommitted Labor voters – and Hanson already claims that a former ALP identity is working for them on policy settings. But it’s the conservative side which is under immediate pressure from the revived party, as evidenced by Dickson’s and others’ defection from the LNP in Queensland.

How well Hanson harnesses this momentum will keep the state’s LNP opposition – and its federal Coalition counterparts – on their toes, wary of ceding more electoral support and sitting members. In the short term, the major conservative parties will need to perform some “heavy lifting” to neutralise One Nation’s rising popularity if they’re to maintain electoral dominance – and relevance? – at state and federal levels.

 

This piece was originally published on the Machinery of Government, and is reprinted with permission.

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