Sunday’s news that the Liberals and One Nation have struck a preference deal ahead of the March 11 Western Australian election has been a long time coming, having been telegraphed well in advance not just by Colin Barnett, but by numerous other conservative leaders and ex-leaders around the country.
The now standard Liberal Party line was again trotted out by Senator Arthur Sinodinos on Insiders Sunday morning: that the One Nation of today is “a lot more sophisticated” than the one John Howard forbade preference dealings with two decades ago, and that due respect must be paid to the fact that the party has “clearly resonated with a lot of people”.
Coming after the Rod Culleton fiasco, the eye-popping eccentricities of Senator Malcolm Roberts, and the disendorsement of more election candidates than can readily be kept track of, the falsity of the first of these observations could hardly be more plain.
It’s the latter of the two that is more to the point — the Liberals generally, and the beleaguered Barnett government in particular, clearly feel they can no more win an election in the current environment without One Nation than Labor can without the Greens.
Despite all that, the comprehensiveness of the accommodation with Hanson’s jerry-rigged Western Australian operation has come as something of a shock.
Far from merely declining to put One Nation last, the Liberals’ side of the bargain is, to all intents and purposes, to put the party second — including ahead of their partners in government, the Nationals.
This well and truly puts the Nationals on the defensive in the seats they hold outside their wheat belt heartland, including party leader Brendon Grylls’ seat of Pilbara, and they look certain to have their wings clipped in the upper house, where the odds on One Nation holding the balance of power after the election have shortened considerably.
Whether it will do comparable harm to Labor is another matter entirely.
First and foremost, it’s far from certain that the deal will do what it says on the tin: deliver One Nation preferences to the Liberals in the lower house.
In the past, the recommendations on One Nation how-to-vote cards haven’t made a huge amount of difference to the behaviour of their voters, in part because the party lacked the volunteers needed to get them into voters’ hands on polling day.
This point has not been lost on the Liberals, judging by the party source who was quoted as saying the party might “ask its polling booth people to hand out One Nation how-to-vote cards”.
However, there’s another complication that can’t so easily be dodged — One Nation is only contesting 35 out of the 59 lower house seats, and providing succour to the Liberals clearly didn’t feature in its calculations when deciding which ones.
Excluded from the list are many of the Liberals’ most sensitive seats: Perth, Morley and Balcatta, each a must-win for Labor; and Mount Lawley, Joondalup, Bicton, Southern River and Burns Beach, of which Labor will need at least two or three to make it to the magic 30.
The deal stands to benefit the Liberals only in their ultra-marginal seats of Forrestfield, Belmont and Swan Hills, which are probably beyond salvation in any case; Kalamunda, which Labor can get by without; and Wanneroo, which would undeniably be a very handy seat for the Liberals to retain.
In addition to the seats already mentioned, each of which is located in the Perth metropolitan area, are the regional city seats of Bunbury and Albany, which have responded well to One Nation in the past.
Bunbury was always going to be tough for Labor, but the Nationals’ high hopes of nabbing the seat with the retirement of popular Liberal incumbent John Castrilli are now diminished.
Albany is a normally conservative seat that has been held for Labor against all odds by Peter Watson since 2001, when One Nation preferences were an important factor in helping him over the line.
If history repeats itself in reverse in Albany, and the Liberals can hang on in Wanneroo, it might just be that the One Nation deal will indeed save Barnett’s bacon.
However, the electoral implications don’t begin and end with the narrow question of preferences flows.
The preference deal has been perhaps the biggest conversation-stopper of the campaign so far — and history suggests the signals such deals send have an important impact on how voters perceive the campaign.
Some hard data on this question emerged over the weekend courtesy of a timely large-sample poll conducted for the Greens by Essential Research.
One of its findings was that 30% of those intending to vote Liberal would be less likely to do so if the party struck a deal with One Nation (another 26% said they would be more likely to, but as the Liberals have these votes already, this is of little comfort to them).
An idea of how that might look in practice is provided by the Queensland election in 1998, when the One Nation preference question fuelled a backlash against the Liberals in the more cosmopolitan areas of Brisbane.
If this offers any guide at all, the Liberals will have just handed Belmont, Perth, Morley, Balcatta and Mount Lawley to Labor on a platter.
Taking all that into account, it’s hard not to conclude that the deal is a destructive long-shot gamble by a government that believes itself to be in desperate straits.