MUNGO MacCALLUM. Political morality and preference deals.

Feb 21, 2017

Turnbull, having told us that he is now an agnostic on energy policy – whatever works, by which he means whatever is good politics has now become an agnostic, even an atheist, when it comes to political morality.

It was announced this week that the Australian model of representative democratic government was officially dead. The news of its demise was provided by the (hopefully soon to be ex-) premier of Western Australia, Colin Barnett. Explaining the reason his Liberal Party was preferring Pauline Hanson’s One Nation above his former colleagues the Nationals at the forthcoming election, the leader made light of it: “I don’t even now what their policies are,” he boasted. “It has nothing to do with policy at all.”

So there we have it: the country’s longest serving head of government, the senior conservative leader having easily outlasted any of his federal, state and territory counterparts, is standing for re-election over a deal which has nothing to do with policy. No policy, only politics: preparing to trade favours with everyone or anyone he thinks might give him an edge.

In Canberra Malcolm Turnbull defended the arrangement: while refusing to say what he himself now thought of One Nation (a few months ago he said it would not be welcome in the parliament) he said that preference swaps did not mean that policy endorsement: why, just look at Labor and The Greens! Well, sure, look at The Greens, now preferred by the Western Australian Nats above the Libs, whom have been put on the bottom of some tickets.

This payback chagrined even the normally ebullient National Leader, Barnaby Joyce, who was uncharacteristically restrained about the unedifying stoush. But neither he, nor Turnbull, nor anyone else who mattered within the coalition was prepared to say directly that One Nation should not be given preferences because its policies are simply too horrible to contemplate.

John Howard did, of course; in 1998 he ordered all Liberal branches to put One Nation last on their how-to-vote tickets.. Turnbull, obviously, has neither Howard’s conviction nor his authority. But even he must have squirmed as his devoted acolytes tried to justify the move on grounds more than mere expediency.

Arthur Sinodinos, among others, said that One nation was a very different party today from what it was 20 years ago – now it is much more sophisticated. Certainly the retouched version of Hanson has been taught a few street smarts by both the hard knocks of her past and the political savvy of those around her. But to call One Nation – the party of Malcolm Roberts and Rod Culleton sophisticated suggests that Sinodinos must frequent some pretty rough company.

Howard, who of all people should know better, says that the Greens are the real extremists — One Nation is not really extreme nowadays. This is arrant nonsense. One Nation has not changed except that some of the labels have been brought up to date – Hanson now targets Muslims rather than Asians. But her ideas on economics, immigration, foreign policy, social issues – you name it – are just as wacky as ever. Hanson has not changed: but enough of the electorate has been sufficiently Trumped to enable her to charge forward on her bandwagon of fear and prejudice without any consideration of policy. And in this regard she seems to have brought Barnett, and perhaps even Turnbull, to the party.

The point, surely, is that there are some lines you do not cross. Preference deals are all very well when those involved have something in common. Labor and The Greens are often at daggers drawn, but as both are parties of the left and both are more or less rational, they are notionally on the same side. Similarly with the Liberals and the Nationals: their agendas are seldom the same in detail but there is enough common ground for them to find accommodation.

One Nation is not in the same suburb – in the same planet, for that matter. Supping with them requires not just a long spoon, you need an army of food tasters and a stomach pump at the ready. If policy does not matter — if it is all politics, all about winning at any cost – this is a licence to deal with the devil if he will deliver a few second preference votes. But with all the ill will in the world from Barnett, it may not actually deliver enough of them.

Most One Nation voters are naturally perverse; that is why they are protest voters in the first place. And it appears that many of the Sandgropers are not inclined to comply with the ukase from head office – which means, in effect, Hanson and her Eminence Gris, James Ashby. They are not interested in re-electing the Barnett government – if they were, they would never have defected from it, or, more significantly, from Labor. One Nation preferences have seldom if ever been directed in the past, with the result that they have generally split more or less fifty-fifty, with, in some cases, an edge to Labor. If this is the result in Western Australia, not only is Barnett doomed, but it will have been an open rebellion among the ranks of the one Nation rank and file. With more than a handful of loonies and bigots already having left or been disendorsed the new, sophisticated One Nation may well be on the way to the untidy demise of its previous incarnation.

But in the meantime, Turnbull insists that it should be treated like any other party, or perhaps more so. The preference deal, he declares, is all about and only about giving the Libs a helping hand. Like Barnett, the implication is that it has nothing about policy – policy just doesn’t matter. But as more and more outrageous rants emerge from One Nation candidates, this is getting hard to sustain. Turnbull keeps turning back to the fact that Labor preferences The Greens, which it does. But The Greens, while at times moving to the extremes of policy, are at least rational. The Pauline’s orcs are clearly off the edge of the known universe: they can work up another deranged conspiracy theory before breakfast and vomit up before lunch. There is just no equivalence.

Turnbull, having told us that he is now an agnostic on energy policy – whatever works, by which he means whatever is good politics has now become an agnostic, even an atheist, when it comes to political morality. This is perhaps a matter between him and his confessor. But in the process, his cowardly and unprincipled stand brings the already shaky system of parliamentary democracy still further into disrepute. He may yet go down in history as the Attila who broke down Australian civil society and brought us into the new dark age ruled by the likes of Pauline Hanson.

Mungo MacCallum is a veteran journalist who was a senior member of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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