Five months on from the election, there are no signs that the second coming of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is playing out any differently from the first.
The unity of the party’s four-member Senate delegation is hanging by a thread after this week’s public spat between Hanson and Rod Culleton, the party’s Senator for Western Australia (for now).
Still inside the tent are Hanson’s Queensland colleague Malcolm Roberts, who has kept the party’s profile up with dotty pronouncements about climate change and the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and chief media adviser James Ashby, who faces an official complaint for allegedly throwing his mobile phone at Culleton’s chief-of-staff.
All of this will sound exceedingly familiar to those who recall the party’s first golden age in the late 1990s, which reached a climax when it won 11 seats at the Queensland state election in June 1998.
Then as now, barely six months had passed before the party was buckling under the weight of personal rivalries and the pronounced eccentricity of certain of its parliamentarians.
In a world that seems to have become unmoored from its political foundations lately, such consistency might almost be thought reassuring.
So it’s been rather bemusing to hear two substantial figures in conservative politics express admiration of a sort for how far Hanson and her operation have come along.
Last week, former Queensland premier Campbell Newman predicted that an “older and wiser” Hanson would be calling the shots in the state after its next election, and advised the Liberal National Party leadership to prepare for the reality of One Nation holding the balance of power.
Still more surprising was the view expressed on Wednesday by Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett — who, unlike Newman, is noted as an ideological moderate — that the Liberal Party should keep its options open on a preference deal with One Nation, which was “not the party it was 20 years ago”.
Such comments say far less about One Nation than they do about the changing calculations of mainstream conservatives in an increasingly illiberal political environment.
When Hanson first crashed onto the scene by winning the seat of Oxley at the 1996 federal election, the Coalition eventually settled on an adversarial response, after initially hesitating to put her electorally potent support base off side.
The first response of the newly elected prime minister, John Howard, was to argue that some of Hanson’s viewpoints were “an accurate reflection of what people feel”.
In an early sign of tension between the prime minister and his treasurer, Peter Costello had a much firmer response, leading the charge for the Victorian branch of the Liberal Party to follow Labor’s example in putting One Nation last on its how-to-vote cards.
A flashpoint arrived when both the Nationals and the Liberals played nice with the new party at the 1998 Queensland election, having calculated that a one-sided flow of One Nation preferences could prove an election-winning bonanza for Rob Borbidge’s struggling government.
However, this gravely underestimated the scale of the One Nation challenge, with opinion polls understating its support for reasons that should sound highly familiar in the wake of the Donald Trump and Brexit surprises.
The expectation that One Nation preferences would prop up Nationals and Liberal candidates was turned on its head, with One Nation poaching six seats from Labor along with five from the Nationals in rural seats where Labor preferences were insufficient to make up the difference.
Worse still, Labor was able to make good its losses with gains at the expense of the Liberals, driven largely by the hostility of Brisbane voters towards the party’s mollycoddling of One Nation, and Peter Beattie was able to form a minority government with independent support.
This settled the argument in Coalition ranks, resulting in One Nation being put last on all Coalition how-to-vote cards when the federal election was held four months later.
The result was a disaster for One Nation, with Pauline Hanson losing her seat and the party only having a single Senate seat in Queensland to show for more than a million votes nationwide.
From the point forward, it was all downhill for the party, which disintegrated organisationally and had its ideological turf cornered by John Howard’s handling of the Tampa episode.
The success of the major parties’ preference collusion appeared to offer reassurance that Australia’s party and electoral systems had the measure of any threats that might arise on the ideological fringes.
Since then though, anti-major party sentiment has burst its banks, causing the combined minor party and micro-party Senate vote to reach 32% in 2013 and 35% in 2016.
Even if the Turnbull government hadn’t surrendered the parties’ power to corral preferences en masse with its Senate reforms, and then lowered the electoral bar for minor parties by bringing on a double dissolution, a united front on preferences would not have been nearly sufficient to keep Hanson out of the Senate, though she might have been deprived of the mixed blessing of her three-going-on-two party colleagues.
Similar calculations are in play at state level, at least in Queensland and Western Australia.
Recent polling has had One Nation tracking in the high teens in Queensland, and Campbell Newman might well be correct when he says these numbers are subdued by a Trump-style under-measurement of the party’s white working-class support base. Equally, One Nation at least has the potential to decide the result of the election to be held in Western Australia on March 11, should its local operation prove organised enough to mount a meaningful campaign — a fact that obviously hasn’t been lost on Colin Barnett, who trails in the polls.
For conservatives in both states, it would be encouraging to imagine that a battle-hardened Pauline Hanson today stands at the head of a party that offers a stable and well-organised counterpoint to the Greens at the opposite edge of the ideological mainstream.
The only thing that’s missing is any evidence to support the notion.