Pauline Hanson has been a magnet for the media and for academic analysts since she burst on the scene in 1996 as the federal member for Oxley and her party won eleven seats and potentially the balance of power at the 1998 state election. Now, like the legendary phoenix, she seems to have suddenly risen from the ashes.
Analysts in 1998 all wrote her off politically, even though she remained in the headlines and continued to appear on ballot papers as well as television screens. But, with the advantage of hindsight, six factors can be identified which explain this resurgence.
First, it is important to recognise the continuing subterranean cult-like belief in Pauline Hanson among her long-standing core supporters. She continued to be the epitome of a particular set of values about race, religion and nationality. Her celebrity status barely waned over two decades, and she came close to reviving her career when she was only narrowly defeated when she stood for the upper house in NSW in 2011 and again in the Queensland election in 2015.
A second explanation was the continuing alienation of a much larger group of voters, disappointed by their perceived relative deprivation as a result of globalisation and being willing to punish both major party groupings. Opinion polls showed an escalating trend – compelled to vote, voters were signalling their discontent with the two major groupings.
Third, these voters were not responsive to substantial public evidence of the limitations of the Hanson party. The problem of organisation chaos, financial scandals and poor quality candidates might have been expected to raise doubts among potential floating voters. One Nation’s established pattern of centralised control, shutting out new recruits, was reinforced when the preference deals during the Western Australian elections made Hanson appear to be ‘just another politician’. But how Hanson looked to her potential voters was determined by the media that they chose as their source of facts, ideas and attitudes. These new specialised sources of information provided both reinforcement for this alienation and an alternative universe where simple public policy solutions could be divorced from facts and evidence.
The fourth factor was the internal tension in the Liberal / National amalgamation and the related emergence of splinter groups. The emergence, towards the end of this period, of internal discord within both the major party groupings also contributed to Hanson’s resurgence, as did the presence in Queensland politics of other contenders for the protest vote between 1999 and 2017. After a period of ALP dominance under Peter Beattie and Anna Bligh, the conservative forces were in disarray.
The unification of the Liberal and National parties into the Liberal National Party (LNP) did not eliminate the tensions between the two but provided the springboard which allowed Campbell Newman to leap from Brisbane municipal politics into the state arena with spectacular success. His urban focus and commitment to uncompromising neo-liberal policies allowed the Katter Party to emerge, aimed at protecting rural interests, and Clive Palmer’s Palmer United Party to make a temporary impact on the national stage.
One Nation did not find its distinctive voice until 2016 when its major policies from 1998 started to regain traction and alternative parties disappeared. None of One Nation’s competitors in either state or national politics was active in the international policy arena, where issues of race, religion and nationality were prominent.
Two unintended consequences of decisions by the two major parties helped the re-establishment of the One Nation party. First was the bipartisan strategic initiative to disarm the “preferences whisperers” who were blamed for facilitating the election of rogue and unpredictable senators who were accidental beneficiaries of trading small fractions of support for their specialised agenda – typified by Ricky Muir of the Australian Motoring Enthusiasts Party. The new rules may have eliminated Muir but benefitted One Nation by the concentration of protest votes among a small number of alternatives.
Secondly, this concentration was magnified by the decision by Prime Minister Turnbull to create the circumstances which allowed him to call a double dissolution election. One aim was to maximise his chances of creating a workable pattern of Senate representation. The failure of Turnbull’s strategy left him with weakened authority in the lower house and the need to mobilise support by making concessions to gain policy support, on frequent occasions choosing the four One Nation Senators from among the various groups on offer.
The price of their co-operation was One Nation being able to claim an impact on Turnbull’s media policy and on aspects of family law which were aimed at rewarding one of most vocal special interests – male constituents who believed that divorce and custody arrangements were entirely loaded against them by more politically correct feminists. Turnbull also facilitated the age-old ploy of pork-barrel distributions and enraged his National Party colleagues by allowing Hanson to make announcements of rewards in preference to the local National party members.
If any one of these influences had been totally absent, the One Nation revival might have been stalled. It would not have been stopped. The continuity of her supporters’ belief in Hanson herself was the least susceptible to change, with true believers perceiving Hanson’s imprisonment and frequent misguided policy comments and apparent financial mismanagement to be the result of misrepresentation by her enemies, eliciting sympathy rather than condemnation.
It remains to be seen whether this transformation at the national level can be repeated at the next Queensland election. Queensland historians will recognise that Hanson is neither a continuation of rural fundamentalism which bedevilled public policy under Bjelke Petersen nor (as suggested in an editorial in “The Monthly”) that Hanson herself is politically a direct descendent of Joh himself. There is also the history of the Liberal component wishing to distance themselves from Hanson while the Nationals wish to outbid her in regional competition, so a different array of forces exist here. The other party leaders must surely have identified the need to focus on the limitations of her policies and her candidates and thus avoid the counterproductive effect of attacking Hanson herself.
There are echoes of past problems in terms of organisational mismanagement and securing credible local candidates, and some of its national figures were gaining negative press coverage. But it would be surprising if those now running One Nation, and the phoenix herself, have not learned from the organisation’s near-death experience. It remains to be seen whether the same applies to the other major parties.
Roger Scott is an Emeritus Professor of Public Administration in the University of Queensland and former Director-General of Education in Queensland. He was the Foundation Director of the TJ Ryan Foundation in Brisbane.
Source: Research Report 54: Phoenix? Pauline Hanson and Queensland Politics, T.J.Ryan Foundation. Published October 15.