Before the broad sandstone sweep of the Kalgoorlie courthouse, arches and porticos and a clock tower etched against the sky, Pauline Hanson paused and turned on her heel to the photographers. It was close to midday and the sun was high in the sky, and she was perfectly turned out as always, a model for us all. The red coiffure had not a hair out of place, the eyebrows were as arched and feline as ever, and the dress was a knock-out — a black and white just-below-the-knee number, with white, pink and orange tropical flowers growing up the back and front, black high heels, clack clack clack on the pavement.

The verandas of Hannan Street stretched before her, long and low, cast-iron rusting in the sun. A crowd of admirers stretched behind, came out of the K-Mart, white and Aboriginal, Indian and east Asian, wheeling shopping trolleys with their kids in the high-bit, and 16-pack toilet rolls and chuck steak in the front. They whispered excitedly to each other, they pushed each forward.

“It’s her, it’s her!”

“I’ve already voted for you,” said one, short woman with low fringe and a rat’s tail, as her kid reached for the Tim Tams.

“What do you like about her?” I asked.

“She says what she believes!”

“What does she believe that you like? What’s your favourite policies?”

“Oh, mate I wouldn’t have a clue. Darren!!” She was off, roller-derbying her way to the car. La Hanson was still turning.

This was a woman in dire need of a parasol, both for protection of that skin and for simple style completion. James Ashby was minding her today. For godssake, he looks like a man who knows how to accessorise. Where was the parasol? With it, she would be the heroine of our dreams, every woman who had stepped down from a train at a country station a century ago, with nothing but a grip and a teaching engagement, and three years later was a widow who owned a cattle station. She’d already spoken to the staff at the courthouse, Indian guys in blue shirts with Serco across their left nipples, trying to sell them on the abolition of penalty rates.

[Rundle: inside the One Nation campaign on the ground in WA]

Simultaneously, a few metres away, their local candidate, Richard Bolton, had been selling me on the need for the government to buy back all foreign-owned mining tenements in the region. “And keep them?” I had said. “Yes, only give out short-term leases.”

With this newly discovered commitment to the resocialisation of mineral resources coming from One Nation, I had staggered over to the photo shoot, which was ending. Ashby was packing up the camera equipment he’d been, for some reason, using — the job of minding the leader of the nation’s potential third political force on a streetwalk apparently not a full-time job. “Can you carry the camera, James?” someone said irritably. Apparently not.

Across the way, a young couple, neat, slim, stylish, were so besotted with La Hanson, the girl was having her photo taken with Pauline in the background. 

“Do you want a photo?” Pauline trilled, and they came over delightedly, the young woman standing close in beside her, and as the snapping started, unfurling a neat hand-printed A4 sign …

“You’re the worst,” it read.

People around Hanson were slow to react — too-slow reaction is what Hanson’s people do best — but Hanson kept her cool.

“Ohhhh, look if you disagreed with me, why didn’t you come over and talk about it.” 

“Because there’s nothing we could talk about we could possibly agree on,” said Kate, folding up the sign. “There’s nothing to talk about.”

Hanson scoped the situation as Ashby, about as useful as a creme brulee dildo, began to bluster. She turned on that heel again, down the street towards the ABC shopfront.

Kate and photo-taking boyfriend Jake explained: “We’re from Adelaide moving to Coral Bay for a tourism job. Nothing Pauline Hanson believes could possibly represent us.”

What was her current profession?

“Scuba-diving instructor.”

That they weren’t Hansonistas should have been obvious: clear skin, absence of sagging tatts of Celtic crosses and Eminem, no mouth-damp half-lit Horizon 50 hanging from the lower lip. Why hadn’t Hanson scoped it? She was cross. “I don’t like it,” she said, in Morse code, with her heels, clacking down Hannan Street. Following La Hanson is like being in a late Joan Crawford flick: it’s a pure privilege. But who’s her Bette Davis? “Wait,” yelled Ashby, awkwardly toting his camera case, following behind. When the wheels caught on the curb, on she clacked.

***

Poor Pauline. She hasn’t been able to take a trick these days. The preference deal with the Libs may well turn out to be a wise and necessary move for upper house seats, but it burnt the brand badly, since most of One Nation’s policies — no privatising of Western Power, big infrastructure spending — align more closely with Labor than with Barnett’s beleagured mob. So, too, do many of the candidates.

“How you going to pay for an infrastructure push?” I asked Bolton, outside the courthouse. “Taxes or deficit?”

“Well I hope neither.”

“Choose one.” 

“Well we could put a corporate tariff on FIFO work.”

“Tariff? You mean a tax?”

“Well yes, in that sense, a tariff is a tax,” he said, with the air of explaining something obvious. It’s like that all over.

In the ’90s, Hanson’s backers were obsessed with race and immigration and free-marketeers, desperate for government sell-offs. Government has long since sold everything off, and now One Nation’s base are economic nationalists, who can’t really reconcile their hatred of unions with what amounts to a belief in some sort of socialism. They’re all over the shop, left and right, and Hanson appeared to recognise this — not least in the rapid expulsion, virtual liquidation of the WA One Nation old guard, which consisted of a single elderly couple, Ron McLean and Marye Louise Daniels. In their place, Hanson had put Colin Tincknell, a likeable, and voluble, good bloke, who had become the face and voice of WA One Nation, the new hope of PHON. But now Tincknell was nowhere to be seen. (The elderly couple are now suing Hanson and One Nation for age discrimination).

“What do you think of Colin Tincknell’s suggestion that WA’s GST share be improved by Queensland paying in more of theirs?”

“Well, Colin was having a senior moment when he said that … ” and Tincknell was now, presumably, running a chromium plant in Northern Manchuria.

[Poll Bludger: is Pauline Hanson becoming electoral poison?]

This party didn’t muck around, even if it was rapidly becoming Hanson alone. Outside the ABC as she watched Ashby, in his sweat-soaked blue and white dotted shirt, trying to manoeuver his luggage into the ABC foyer, and I felt a panic of sympathy for La Hanson. One knows what it is like in any collective endeavour, whether it be political campaign, take-over of Tsarist Russia, or student production of Twelfth Night set in a tiki restaurant, when it is revealed that everyone around you is an idiot (if you’ve never felt this, you’ve always been the idiot), and the whole thing teeters on the brink of absurdity and futility. Why, the look said, am I clacking round this cow town on a hot summer’s day with a minder who doesn’t, you know, mind? Why does every morning involve correcting the gaffes of the night before? Why is everyone against me?! Brief exhaustion passed over her face, before she recomposed herself and strode into the building.

***

Forty-eight hours earlier, in Harry’s cafe, Bunbury, Colin Tincknell had swept in and plonked himself down opposite me. “Let’s solve the problems of the world!” he said, the start of a beautiful friendship of sorts. Tanned, Caesar-haired mildly fleshy, in a light blue and white dot business shirt — the Mao tunic of male One Nationistas — Tincknell was immediately likable, and, from a few stray and honest remarks I’d made about infrastructure policy in an email, saw me as a kindred spirit, and I winced in advance, for his lack of interview prep, googling “Guy Rundle — Communist” or something.

“When I saw Pauline I knew I had to get into the game,” he said, almost without prompting. “She’s there to speak up for people who don’t have a voice!” Tincknell’s rapid rise has had people calling him the new face of One Nation, but “I was there in 1998 the first time round. I was press spokesman for a while”.

He’d been an ad sales guy then, doing very well — and suddenly over that, wanting to do something meaningful with his life. One Nation 1.0 had come and gone, and he committed himself to community liaison between white people and Aboriginal Australians, in sport first, and then in mining in the Pilbara. People from that world speak highly of him, and One Nation’s policy on indigenous affairs has become a curious hybrid — they oppose the forced consolidation of remote WA communities, for example — and miles away from Hanson’s notorious remark in the ’90s, that she wouldn’t represent Aboriginal people in her electorate. “I set her straight on that,” Tincknell said, and talked of his love of indigenous community, the need to combine jobs with traditional culture and much much more besides.

I liked Colin, but so, too, did Colin, and the interview became a wide-ranging table-talk, which showed off the besetting sin of One Nation: their constitutional inability to accept contradiction, or tough choices.

“OK, infrastructure,” I said, “raise taxes, deficit fund?”

“We don’t need to do either,” and off we went into the self-bootstrapping world of five-year infrastructure plans, which fund themselves from the get-go. “On immigration, One Nation is to the right, on everything else we’re to the left.” What about that preference deal?

“Look, I think One Nation voters have always voted 50-50, and will now.”

“So the aim is … I mean, the preference deal will have no effect?”

“No! It won’t! It’s all Big Picture stuff!” he said, as the waitress brought a spearmint milkshake.

“Sounds like Big Government stuff …”

He broke off, mid-straw slurp: “It is! It is!”

Western Power would stay in public hands, other deprivatisations would be looked at. The deficit would come down. Our liberties would be preserved, but Section 116 of the constitution could be removed to allow the burqa to be banned. The 9% figure One Nation was on at the moment in the polls was probably correct, but that would leap back to 15, “with Pauline’s appearance this week”. Questions ceased about 40 minutes in. A One Nation colleague had complained to the press that they couldn’t get a word in edgewise, with Tincknell, which isn’t so bad given he’s the leader, except the bloke was undergoing a preselection interview at the time.

The themes all joined together in Colin’s talk; he took on that oceanic, rapturous style some One Nation candidates get when they talk of an Australia that will once again be undivided, where our unity will body forth. It is genuinely meant, and utterly foolish, and it is why their candidates, up to and including the leaderene herself, are not only easily photobombed, but call the bombers over to them to get a better shot.

***

Back in Kalgoorlie, after Hanson had disappeared into the confines of the ABC — featuring all women presenters on this, International Women’s Day, like a giant networked student union c.1976, which Hanson must have really loved — the half-dozen members of the press on the beat straggled back up Hannan Street, past empty shopfronts and public art, and shut-down pubs. The town is either doing it real tough or in a minor set-back, depending who you believe.

The city returned to national attention last year after Aboriginal teenager Elijah Doughty was hit by a car and died some days later. The driver has now been charged with manslaughter, his name suppressed, the state alleging that he ran Doughty down, the event itself being followed by a day of unrest, described by some as a riot, during which the courthouse was stormed.

The event came amid a fraying of relations, since the mining boom peaked and began to falter in 2013, and the town’s economy contracted. In that period, meth use has either somewhat increased or SKYROCKETED! — “it’s always ‘the scourge of meth’,” a community worker ruefully remarked — and with it, some increase in street crime. “But what’s really changed is the perception,” an Aboriginal service worker remarked — the state is so heavily interwoven into this alleged wild west town that almost no one with any knowledge of the situation can speak on the record. “White hypervigilance. There’s always been mobs in town in summer. But now they’re” — she paused for theatrical effect — “dangerous mobs!” One Nation’s hopes to win the seat are high. Their critics argue that they are hoping for an alleged “Trump” effect, voters who won’t own up to supporting Hanson because they do so on residual racist grounds. That said, Hanson has her fair share of Aboriginal supporters. On her walk up Hannan Street, three separate Aboriginal couples stopped her to chat, told her what a good job she was doing: “You tell the truth, Pauline!” etc, etc.

***

In the seating area of the Rockingham Gloria Jeans, the One Nation operative in, yes, blue and white dotted shirt, leaned over me to talk to one of the half-dozen candidates here for a photo opp with Pauline. This was Monday, and Sam Brown, Bunbury candidate, had driven me up here. Now he, like the others, were cooling their heels waiting for Hanson, an hour late, en route from Mandurah, a half-hour away. Most likely, someone was getting a bollocking.

“Hey, roll your sleeves up,” the operative said to a candidate, “makes us look average. Not like Labor, Liberal, not like politicians.” I looked down at my table. My reporters’ notebook was on it, unopened, with the legend “reporter’s notebook” across the cover. My media credentials saying “MEDIA”, were beside them. It was difficult to know what more one could do, short of wearing a fedora with “Press” in the band.

Hanson arrived eventually, and we and she and 30 supporters — times two hours, 60 hours of campaigning foregone — trooped out to hear her denounce Mark McGowan and Labor for putting the Liberals before One Nation in preferences, the match of what One Nation were accused of doing with the Libs. People, tattooed, mulleted, singleted, besieged us to get a photo with her. Agency reporters fired questions at her about vaccination. She kept her poise. Caro Meldrum-Hanna, Four Corners reporter extraordinaire, in serious glasses and a white T-shirt so neat as to have been pressed in the ABC’s atom-smashing labs, tried to get to the front. She wore a neat backpack, jetpack like; one gained the impression that she had been blasted out of a tube in Ultimo, in a perfect parabolic arc, to land in this press conference outside Target in Rockingham, WA.

Sympathetic hands propelled her forward, like a Newtown leper being presented to Lady Jesus. “Senator Hanson given [something something something — this is probably the bit I should have taken notes on] why should people vote for you?”

“Do you have a short memory?” Hanson asked, and then returned to Mark McGowan preferencing the Libs over One Nation. On message.

Later, back at Gloria Jeans, the supporters posed for photos with each other and compared tatts, a veritable armoury of Celtic axes, Mexican skulls, martini glasses, and the old Holden logo, many of them sagging over wrinkled skin. These folks had been early adopters, no stupid quotes in cursive script above the collar-line for them.

Colin approached: “When we sit down I’ll bring you over, no one else, just you, ’cause we can talk to you.” Oh Colin, Colin, Colin. At what point does a reporter vet himself and have himself thrown out of the building? Now I would have to ask confronting questions, and all I really wanted to do was write about the motel fittings.

We sat beside the leader, and Colin introduced us.

“Who do you write for?”

Crikey.” 

Hanson’s Picasso eyes parted and flared, one glaring at Colin, the other at me, a bifurcated Medusa stare. “They haven’t always been nice to me,” she said. We hadn’t been that very morning, with my colleagues Keane and Bowe carving up One Nation like a Christmas goose. I hoped she hadn’t read it, and started in on the infrastructure thing, figuring it gave a chance for a straightforward enough answer.

“We don’t have to choose between the deficit and the things we want to do. With federal funding and government savings on waste-“

“Politicians always say they’ll pay for stuff with efficiency savings, that’s a politician’s answer.”

“‘I want to run the government like I run my household, like I ran my shops,” and there it was, the same magical tralala. One Nation can’t decide whether it wants to be an economic nationalist party, talking back to free market, small government mantras, or the last Howardian party (which even Howard’s wasn’t), spruiking savings and the fair go at the same time. We finished early. Colin said he’d send me the next day’s itinerary. I never heard from him again. I’m not sure anyone else has either.

***

“Lithium,” said the journo, at the bar of the Palace Hotel, Kalgoorlie’s finest. “The town is putting its faith in lithium.” It was evening, and Hanson was on her way back to Perth, possibly to drop Ashby out over the Bight (“disarm doors”, “Pauline noooooo”). The dry evening air was a light electric blue, and a few of us were drinking Rogers stout in the Skimpies bar, so named because the barmaids wear diamante-encrusted lingerie.

Tonight, they’d put on double the staff, perhaps as part of International Women’s Day, everyone working together. Still, there was no crowd to speak of, the days of them lining up four deep in every bar in town long gone.

“Lithium,” said the journo, “vast reserves of it. The boom will return, they say.”

“Except,” said the photographer, “for all that cheap Argentinian lithium about to come on the market.”

The booms have gone. That was a one-time thing. Now, the town, the state, the country, has to face the truth that it let all that money that came in flow through, without catching all that much of it. Magical solutions appear, as real ones vanish.

“Lithium,” I said, “is used in the treatment of clinical manic depression, characterised by a psychotic break with reality.”

“Might be just what they need,” said the photographer. Then he looked at himself in the mirror behind the bar.

“You,” he said, “you are the worst.”

Peter Fray

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