Of all the controversies to conceivably bring Pauline Hanson undone, private discussions about gun law amendments wasn’t an obvious candidate.
Yet her recorded comments about the 1996 Port Arthur massacre and subsequent gun law reforms are potentially destructive for her One Nation party. Only potentially, though; Hanson’s supporters have long shown a propensity to forgive or shrug off her party’s outlandish or shocking assertions.
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Already, Hanson and party colleagues have shifted blame for the Al Jazeera “sting” to a media “stitch-up” and, they claimed, foreign political interference by an “Islamist media organisation”.
Presumably some Hanson adherents will find that plausible – the party has made anti-Muslim rhetoric part of its regular platform. Other One Nation supporters might now question the principles the party claims to stand for.
Why guns policy?
Why would One Nation seemingly risk whatever political capital it possesses by flirting with changes to gun controls and seeking assistance (if not funding) from gun lobby groups?
The party’s nativist policy positions on refugees, immigration and foreign investment are well known and readily detailed on its website. Until now, gun law amendment has sat well behind these. One Nation’s listed policies on firearms regulations include increasing penalties for gun-related crime and “streamlining” weapon licensing requirements. Not exactly controversial stuff.
But it is important to remember that the party first emerged in the wake of the Port Arthur shootings and rural resistance to the Howard government’s gun ownership reforms. Hanson and her candidates campaigned in the party’s early years on relaxing John Howard’s laws. They also benefited politically from a mainly regional backlash against these – and against Howard’s National Party partners.
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Recently highlighted connections between Australian gun lobby groups and minor parties, including One Nation and Katter’s Australian Party, bring the backdrop to this policy agenda into sharper relief.
One Nation’s original and more recent platform caters to disaffected, largely non-metropolitan constituents who feel the party’s anti-immigration, anti-foreign business and anti-government intervention policies “speak for them”.
In its recent incarnation, One Nation has tried – and found ready accomplices in sections of the media – to “mainstream” its appeal and some of its positions. It’s been observed that the party’s Senate members have regularly supported the Coalition government’s legislative agenda during this term, on matters ranging from the reintroduction of the Australian Building and Construction Commission (ABCC) to reduced welfare spending.
The party’s suite of published policies covers matters of concern to many Australians, such as power prices, transport infrastructure, water supply and jobs creation.
In this respect, it was perhaps not so surprising that Liberal MPs should describe the party as “more responsible” than its earlier manifestation. Even former prime minister Tony Abbott, Hanson’s one-time political nemesis, endorsed One Nation owing to its “constructive” relationship with the government in parliament.
But this normalisation fails to mask the party’s extreme stances or inconsistent policy positions – even between its own members. One Nation adheres to curious policies decrying United Nations infringement on our sovereignty, as well as questionable claims about evidence-based climate policy.
Then there is the attention-seeking behaviour: Hanson wearing a burqa in the Senate chamber; or Queensland Senate candidate Steve Dickson suggesting the Safe Schools program involved teachers instructing students in masturbation techniques; or New South Wales upper house candidate Mark Latham proposing Indigenous welfare recipients undergo DNA testing. Stunts like these place One Nation firmly on the political fringe – though not without fellow dwellers. Notoriously, Coalition senators scrambled to backtrack on supporting Hanson’s Senate motion decreeing that “it’s OK to be white”.
This latest party engagement in seeking out overseas gun lobby assistance highlights another inconsistency, given Hanson’s vote in the Senate supporting new restrictions on foreign donations.
The Queensland question
Considering this, why do One Nation’s policies seemingly still appeal to significant numbers of voters, particularly in Queensland? Traces of an entrenched conservative political culture thumbing its nose at “the establishment” partly explain the party’s appeal in Queensland (and perhaps some of Peter Dutton’s ill-judged, racially charged comments as immigration minister).
It’s a culture underpinned by a history of less diverse migrant influence than other parts of the country and arguably a more wary, paternalistic past regarding Indigenous and minority communities.
Another reason is the accentuated city-country divide in Australia’s most decentralised mainland state. Here, some agrarian-themed party policies – such as for dam building or vegetation management – directly pander to regional voters. As a minor party not in government, though, One Nation has limited opportunity to carry these through, beyond aiming to wield balance-of-power influence in the Senate.
More telling is One Nation’s claimed inheritance of an old National Party constituency. It is one that feels “left behind” – a sentiment the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party successfully tapped into in the NSW election.
As in the past, the Nationals will seek to differentiate themselves from their Coalition partners and marginalise One Nation and other far-right parties ahead of the 2019 federal election.
But that’s no easy feat in Queensland. Since the Liberal and National parties merged in the state to form the LNP in 2008, there has been no distinct outward National Party. Some rural and regional voters in Queensland have felt unrepresented to a certain extent, and their grievances have placed many in a resurgent One Nation camp.
The party’s identification with aggrieved outer-urban and regional conservative interests keeps its voters’ preferences an issue. Again, this is especially so in Queensland, where several LNP MPs hold seats in such areas on tight margins.
But following this week’s revelations, and particularly in the wake of the Christchurch shootings, the preference issue will bedevil the Coalition in this state and elsewhere.
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The prime minister’s latest announcement directing the Liberal Party’s state branches to preference Labor ahead of One Nation sends a needed message, but not unequivocally. It apparently leaves Liberals free to place One Nation ahead of the Greens or others, and is ambiguous on how this will apply to all LNP MPs in Queensland, or possibly influence Nationals MPs elsewhere.
But the clamouring of Queensland’s Nationals-aligned MPs for new coal-fired power stations – mirroring One Nation policy – indicates their likely preference leanings in favour of the minor party (and presumably leaves the Greens last of all).
The recorded actions and comments of Hanson and her party colleagues could bring a political reckoning for One Nation at the coming federal election. Voters will soon judge if the party warrants their electoral support and decide if this new controversy is a bridge too far.
For its part, the Coalition is treading a line between getting its hands burned over preference “deals”, as happened at Western Australia’s last election, or doing as John Howard (ultimately) did and jettisoning One Nation preferences altogether.