It was One Nation’s turn this week to learn how political fortunes can change in the blink of an eye, leaving little chance to recover. And for the PM, Scott Morrison, to find a silver lining in the most unlikely of places.
With the horrific violence perpetrated on defenceless worshippers in New Zealand still fresh in everyone’s minds, Pauline Hanson’s hard-line conservative party was already under pressure for its aggressive rhetoric against Muslims.
At this point the party’s supporters in the conservative commentariat were still forcefully rejecting the logical conclusion that One Nation had contributed to the anti-Muslim sentiment which drove the white supremacist gunman to mow down scores of people at prayer.
The fact that the Australian gunman had moved to New Zealand to exploit its weaker gun laws was a mere footnote to the tragedy’s larger themes of hatred and bigotry.
That changed when the Arab news outlet Al Jazeera exposed the attempts by two of One Nation’s most senior operatives to secure a multi-million donation from the US gun lobby in return for a weakening of Australia’s strict gun ownership laws.
The revelation propelled One Nation from being able to plausibly deny its role in the fostering of hate speech to being seen as promoting the instruments that could convert that abuse into violent action. Pauline Hanson’s subsequent admission (later denied) to being a Port Arthur conspiracist added crazy to the already troubling mix of hatred and weaponry.
To be saddled with such baggage is highly problematic for One Nation, given that strict gun control is one of the few issues that unites the vast majority of Australian voters. This unity was forged in the shock and grief that followed the Port Arthur massacre, which is likely to be remembered by anyone aged over 30 today.
As a result, One Nation being seen to go soft on guns could lose the party support in a way that its anti-Muslim stance doesn’t. Even an uber-conservative like Tasmanian Liberal Eric Abetz is alive to this potential.
Senator Abetz, whose friend died at Port Arthur, labelled Ms Hanson’s comments as loopy and hurtful. “To try to say that this was somehow a conspiracy defies any objective analysis and does One Nation no credit,” the Senator told Sky News, adding that “minor parties are always immersed in loopy ideas and are not fit to be part of the government of Australia”.
They should be “preferenced lower”, he continued, “because if we’re not going to have a good Liberal National Party Government, let’s have a Labor Government.”
But not, the Senator stressed, a Labor Government “directed by the Greens”. This is because the Labor Opposition spent much of the week pressuring the PM to direct the Coalition parties to put One Nation last on their how to vote (HTV) cards.
Labor leader Bill Shorten strengthened his case by reportedly insisting the union movement does the same, requiring the ACTU to drop its “Put Liberals Last” campaign.
Mr Morrison eventually landed on a ‘half pregnant’ solution, convincing the organisational wing of the Liberals (but not the Nationals) to place One Nation after Labor. Senator Abetz’s comments are an example of the Government challenge that followed, with the claim that Labor should also reject ‘loopy’ fringe parties by placing the Greens after the Liberals.
Implementation of the PM’s edict gets messy in Queensland, where the state division of the Liberal Party is an amalgam of the Liberal and National parties, known as the Liberal National Party. Some LNP federal MPs and senators sit with the Liberals in Canberra, while others sit with the Nationals.
It is an interesting quirk of this arrangement that only the “Liberal” LNP members get to vote in the party room for leader.
The problem – perhaps better labelled an opportunity – for Scott Morrison is that the “National” LNP members, yes those MPs who are insisting that the Coalition Government commit to building an uneconomical coal-fired power station in Queensland, refuse to preference One Nation last on their HTV cards.
These MPs, several of whom are in marginal seats, have lost voters to Pauline Hanson’s party and are reliant on getting at least some of those votes back by doing preference deals with One Nation. Many LNP candidates in marginal seats are almost assured to lose if Ms Hanson decides to take revenge by placing all Liberal and National candidates last.
Such an outcome would be regrettable for Scott Morrison, certainly, but not without an upside. Peter Dutton (a ‘Liberal’ LNP member in a marginal seat) could be gone from the Parliament, leaving fewer contenders after the election to fight for the Liberal leadership. There may even be less hard-line conservatives in the Liberal party room altogether.
The most heartening, and ironic, result of all would be if the bloc of climate troglodyte Nationals sitting in Queensland marginal seats were starved of preferences by their climate sceptic allies in One Nation and swept out of Parliament. Then Pauline Hanson would at least be remembered for doing one good deed for the nation.