We’ve known for a while it would happen. One Nation’s vote in NSW was always going to be such that, as state leader and first candidate on their upper house ticket, Mark Latham almost couldn’t help but be returned to parliament over the weekend.
So, a week after the Christchurch massacre brought about a brief reckoning — albeit furtive and faltering — with racism in Australia’s discourse, a man who campaigned on male grievance, banning immigration from Muslim majority countries and junk science race theory now has eight years in parliament. Beyond the deeply dispiriting symbolism, it’s worth asking; what’s the worst that Latham can actually achieve?
Will he change the law?
Let’s start with the good news. It’s highly unlikely that Latham will be able to set any kind of legislative agenda.
As the sole One Nation representative (so far, the breakdown is yet to be finalised) in the upper house, he’ll have no power to veto government legislation, nor introduce it, without knitting together an unlikely coalition of support from minors, independents and/or the majors. Even if another One Nation representative is elected, the Berejiklian government should be able to get legislation through without having to make concessions to Latham. His discredited policy on testing the DNA of Indigenous welfare recipients is thus unlikley to become law.
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Of course, there is nothing to stop him initiating bills that don’t pass.
What about parliamentary privilege?
In the next eight years most of the most damage Latham can do is rhetorical — something that, unless you’re a cab driver, has always been the case for a man who has never held a ministerial portfolio. In a blow to defamation lawyers all over the country, he is now subject to parliamentary privilege. Apart from shielding him from legal recourse, this gives him a platform to make an inflammatory first speech, allows him to move motions, put loaded questions to the government, sit on committees and attempt to initiate inquiries.
If that seems a purely symbolic set of powers, it’s worth remembering that fringe far-right talking points have monopolised government business (and thus the public discourse) with disturbing regularity in recent years.
First speeches approvingly referencing holocaust terms didn’t deny a former One Nation senator handshakes and hugs from government ministers. Motions endorsing white supremacist talking points were briefly voted up by government ministers. A little further back, an inquiry into halal food certification established no link between the practice and the funding of terrorist activity, but not before it unleashed a torrent of vile abuse towards Muslims.
None of this resulted in changes to any law, but the effect these politicians have had in moving the “Overton window” so that it now inarguably includes white supremacist talking points is now beyond doubt. Latham now has the power (albeit on the smaller state government stage) to do the same.
What about his media profile?
All this points to the ultimate damage of Latham being elected. He has spent the past few years railing against (in the words of Crikey‘s Bernard Keane) “what he sees as a conspiracy against white heterosexual males by women, by LGBTI communities, by Muslims, by “the Left”, in the process becoming an avatar of angry white males”, but, as his temperament saw him move from employer after employer, his audience shrunk and shrunk. Much of this happened after he criticised domestic violence survivor and campaigner Rosie Batty on Triple M.
Opposition leader, to commercial TV pundit and nationally published columnist, to Sky News after dark rant doer, to “guy getting sued for things he said on Facebook“. But now, he has the legitimacy (and the megaphone) of elected office. For one thing, the commercial networks who never stopped interviewing him now have a legitimate reason to continue.
As his proximity to political power became increasingly distant, Latham’s ability to do damage rested on his profile, and the voice and audience that came with it. Whatever else happens in the next eight years, that voice just got louder, the profile more prominent, and the audience bigger.