An unpredictable new chapter in Australian politics was ushered in last week with the swearing-in of Pauline Hanson and her three One Nation colleagues to the Senate.
The full extent of the party’s impact over the coming parliamentary term and beyond rests on two known unknowns: whether it can do a better job of maintaining coherence and unity than it did last time around, and the extent to which it can maintain popular momentum by seizing the opportunities afforded by state elections.
On the latter count, the party has had some encouraging early signs, with an opinion poll conducted by Galaxy for the Courier-Mail finding its support in Queensland rocketing from zero to 16% in the wake of the federal election.
Since Annastacia Palaszczuk led Labor to an unexpected victory early last year, polls have shown that the Queensland public is neither enamoured with her new government nor regretful of its decision to oust its predecessor.
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This suggests fertile ground for One Nation to repeat its triumph in 1998, when it scored 22.7% of the vote and 11 of the parliament’s 89 seats.
Should something similar occur when the next election is held in early 2019, the party could end up with either a kingmaker role in a hung parliament, or a second act as an agent of the Coalition’s destruction — something that was accomplished last time around as bush conservatives fell out with city liberals over the question of preference deals with the new party.
Palaszczuk’s government inadvertently added an extra sting to the issue when it legislated to revert the state’s electoral system from optional to compulsory preferential voting, thereby depriving the Liberal National Party of the safe middle ground of a just-vote-one recommendation.
Closer at hand, a state election is scheduled for March 9 in Western Australia — traditionally One Nation’s strongest state after Queensland, and one of the three states where the party can now boast Senate representation.
Here, too, the prospect of history repeating itself could only be viewed by the conservative establishment with great alarm.
The WA election that coincided with the first golden age of One Nation was held in February 2001, after two terms of Liberal-National government headed by Richard Court.
Wariness about returning to Labor was matched on that occasion by fatigue with an eight-year-old conservative government, compounded by growing dissatisfaction with a second-term Coalition government at federal level — precisely the circumstances that now confront the beleaguered Colin Barnett.
Despite the fact that One Nation had lost much of its gloss by 2001, the brand retained enough appeal to secure 9.6% of the statewide vote, driving the overall non-major party vote to a record high.
The Court government’s ultimate defeat may well have been owed to the scorched-earth approach that One Nation had, by then, adopted to the question of preferences.
The failure of One Nation at the federal election in October 1998, from which it emerged with only a Queensland Senate seat to show for more than one million votes nationally, was largely due to the Coalition following Labor’s example in putting the party last on preferences, after the Queensland result four months earlier persuaded it that it would be courting electoral disaster to do otherwise.
In its frustration, One Nation adopted a policy of directing preferences against all sitting members — a outwardly even-handed approach that was actually a body blow for the Court government, which had to defend the decisive marginal seats.
It’s impossible to say precisely how differently the election would have played out if One Nation had behaved otherwise, but it’s surely significant that the state’s four regional city seats all changed hands — Bunbury, Geraldton and Albany from Liberal to Labor, and Kalgoorlie vice-versa.
Throw in two close-run city seats that would likely have gone the other way if One Nation’s preference recommendations had been reversed, and there’s a strong case that the Hanson factor was what finally tipped the scales in Labor’s favour.
For such issues to arise again in March, it would first be necessary for One Nation to secure formal party registration, something it currently has at state level only in Queensland.
To clear this hurdle, it would have to satisfy the Western Australian Electoral Commission that it has 500 enrolled voters as members — a requirement it knows to take very seriously, as Pauline Hanson’s short-lived conviction and imprisonment in 2003 related to a finding that it had done so in a fraudulent fashion.
Whether One Nation’s WA outfit, which must now contend with a court challenge to the election of its new Senator, is sufficiently organised to get this done in time is anybody’s guess. Efforts by Crikey to seek clarification from various party spokespersons yielded either no comment or no response.
For as long as One Nation’s wild card status remains, strategists charting a course to the election — including those Liberals said to be plotting to oust Barnett — are largely flying blind.
*To read more from Crikey‘s William Bowe, visit The Poll Bludger