In the run up to the WA election, with the focus on One Nation, several vox pop pieces came out to explain its support. They were presented as empirical evidence from which political conclusions could be drawn but in reality they were the reverse: conclusions had already been made about why One Nation was getting support, and it was a matter of simply finding the voters that fit the bill.
They were similar to reports last year explaining the Brexit and Trump voter. They carried a mixture of faux empathy at those who have been “left behind” and the occasional touch of disapproval of un-PC lifestyle (“skimpy night at the Victoria Hotel”). The similarity with pieces last year in the US and UK was no accident, they were all trying to explain the same thing: the rise of right-wing populist nationalism.
But the articles themselves showed that the sentiment and dissatisfaction with the major parties was hardly new. So the recent return of Hanson could hardly be put to a recent shift in public mood. What was new was yet another rapid breakdown in the popularity of incumbent governments, that made it look as though Hanson might have a chance, this time in WA, of a break-through.
In the end it didn’t happen. But something extraordinary still did. While Hanson’s party barely scratched 5% in the state, the Barnett government suffered what is looking like the biggest swing against it of any government in Western Australia’s history.
Yet despite all the focus on Hanson’s rise as a sign of a significant shift in politics before the election, the unprecedented event that did happen was hardly seen as much of an event at all. It is understandable that a losing Premier might just want to make it about little more than an “it’s time” factor after eight years, but fairly bizarre other commentators would attribute that to a swing rarely seen since Federation.
We have here the same phenomenon that we saw in NSW in 2011 and Queensland in 2010, a comprehension gap between an historical electoral event and the humdrum reasons thought up to explain it. In WA this time, beyond it just being a turn in the cycle for something that was clearly not, the only other real reason given on Insiders yesterday was the end of the mining boom, as though that hasn’t happened in that state before.
With little then to explain the unsettling volatility, attention quickly turned to something more reassuring, the flop of One Nation. But the same problem still came out.
It was a neat morality tale to say that the One Nation deal did damage to the Liberals, but there is little evidence for it. Polling showed the Liberals’ primary vote was little affected before and after the deal. Hanson probably had more grounds to rethink about it, given the slide in her party’s polling over the last month. Ironically a deal that some decried as giving a boost to One Nation by giving it “legitimacy” quite likely had the opposite effect by attaching One Nation closer to the major parties it was supposed to be protesting against (especially the one party voters really wanted to protest against).
More bizarre was the conclusion from one quarter that One Nation should bring in the political professionals. Leaving aside the current reputation of political professions, it assumes One Nation is a political party, it is not. It not only has no real social base, it barely has a political structure – certainly nothing that can provide the sort of screening of candidates that prevents periodic embarrassments from whacky announcements and opinions that, if anything, highlights their social isolation.
One Nation is less political party than just a symptom of a corroded political system that has nowhere to go. That displays itself on the state level with decreasing party loyalty and unprecedented swings that come from nowhere, and on the federal level with a constant merry-go-round of hapless leaders that no one seems to be able to stop. In WA, this time it was the main opposition party who positioned itself to catch that disaffection, next time it won’t and One Nation will be “back”.