Scott Morrison belatedly tried to do the right thing — morally and politically — on One Nation preferences. However, his own weakness and the malevolence of his Coalition colleagues has instead created an unholy mess. Such is the addled state of Australian politics currently, though, it hardly looks any different to the Morrison status quo.
As Michelle Grattan has been pointing out, John Howard had to be dragged kicking and screaming to preferencing One Nation last, after initially seeking to exploit the racist rage stirred up by Hanson. So his Coalition successors seeking to do just that is entirely consistent with the Howard playbook. But he got there eventually.
Moreover, this is not your party elder’s One Nation. This is a party that is every bit as racist, but has added to its list of offences trying to use foreign money to weaken the gun laws Howard put in place with Tim Fischer. One Nation is a fascist party that has sought to betray Australia and endanger its citizens. So the issue of where to preference its candidates should be straightforward — even for ardent conservatives.
Except it’s not. The initial Al Jazeera report wasn’t enough for Morrison, who debated what to do with his Liberal colleagues on Tuesday, and decided to do nothing. Wednesday’s revelation that Pauline Hanson is a Port Arthur conspiracy theorist, though, was apparently enough — at least according to Morrison, who used that to declare he’d asked that the Liberal Party put One Nation below Labor (as Crikey noted yesterday, Hanson’s history of questioning the mass murder by Martin Bryant goes back nearly 20 years). At last, Morrison moved to both do the right thing and put an end to the preference issue which has dogged him this week and looked likely to keep on loyally chasing him all the way to polling day.
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Only, of course, it didn’t put an end to it. In declaring One Nation would go last, he wasn’t speaking as Coalition leader, only Liberal leader, and the Nationals quickly made clear they would make their own mind up. Which in practical terms is fair enough — except, the state where all this really counts is Queensland. Morrison, unlike Howard, has to deal with an entirely separate party there, the LNP, but a number of its members sit as Liberals in his party room — like Peter Dutton. No one really cares where the Liberals put One Nation in Victoria or South Australia or, at least in the House of Reps, in NSW. What matters is what the LNP does in Queensland.
We know by now that plenty of LNP MPs want to preference a party that sought to betray Australia to the NRA. The Courier-Mail has reported that Michelle Landry, a Morrison frontbencher who sits as a National in Canberra, has an “informal arrangement” with One Nation in her ultra-marginal seat — despite Morrison saying there would be “no deals” with One Nation. So last night, the LNP proceeded to split itself formally in two: LNP MPs sitting in the Liberal partyroom would put One Nation last, their fellow LNP MPs sitting in the Nats partyroom would not. One party would have two contradictory preference policies. To use Nick Greiner’s favourite word, it’s a nonsense.
But worse, born-again Hanson fan Tony Abbott, who thinks One Nation is more “constructive” than Labor or the Greens, joined in the defiance and says One Nation should still be preferenced ahead of them, despite the Prime Minister’s clear statement.
Then a cabinet minister leaked the entire discussion from Tuesday morning about preferences to Katherine Murphy, which showed Peter Dutton — quelle surprise — arguing against putting One Nation last, so now we know Dutton outright opposes Morrison’s — and his own party’s — adopted strategy. It’s also the sort of detailed leak, the kind where you can almost see the semi-colons in the note-taker’s work, that characterised the last stages of the doomed Abbott prime ministership.
So, Morrison faces defiance by the Nationals and by a former prime minister, opposition from his vanquished rival for the top job, and a bucket-like leak from cabinet, all over that dead-simple issue of where to preference fascist traitors. Just another day in politics, circa 2019.