In the 2019 Federal Election, the Liberal Party are preferencing One Nation behind the ALP but are not imposing that directive on their Coalition partners, The National Party. This continues a long history of the LNP taking an unprincipled stand on One Nation preferencing in order to retain power.
As Kathryn Murphy of The Guardian has exposed, the decision to direct Liberal voters to preference One Nation behind Labor was made reluctantly by Liberal Party leader Scott Morrison and the Liberal leadership. They were driven to it by the public revulsion directed toward One Nation in relation to the views of Pauline Hanson, One Nation’s leader, that the horrific Australian gun tragedy, The Port Arthur Massacre, in which 35 people were gunned down, was the result of a secret government conspiracy.
As always the LNP is claiming that their approach to One Nation preferencing is based on ethical principles, but in reality, as always, the LNP approach to One Nation preferencing is based entirely on strategic motives.
Placating One Nation: An LNP Quandry
Hanson’s comments on Port Arthur were made public in the week following the Christchurch Massacre in which a racist Australian gunman, adorned with Neo-Nazi symbols, gunned down Muslims in two New Zealand Mosques, killing 50 and wounding 50 others. The public was further disgusted by revelations that One Nation party officials had met with the American National Rifle Association with the intention of seeking donations to support One Nation watering down Australia’s gun control laws.
Consequently, the LNP found itself in a similar quandry to that in 1997 when One Nation was held in opprobrium by a large section of the voting public, at that time as a result of its xenophobic anti-Asian immigration views. Then, as now, the LNP wanted to attract One Nation preferences but could not broker a preference deal with One Nation without alienating a large segment of the electorate. Then, as now, the LNP was trapped between wanting to mollify One Nation supporters and alienating the political centre by association with One Nation and certain of their viewpoints which are shocking to political moderates.
Backlash and Tactical Response
In the Queensland State Election of 1998, the first election after One Nation’s formation the Liberals preferenced One Nation above the ALP and were punished by inner-city Brisbane voters for association with One Nation’s xenophobic viewpoints, losing 5 seats while also assisting One Nation to win seats in outer-metropolitan areas with Liberal preferences. For the Liberals it was an absolute disaster.
After this very negative electoral experience, Howard put One Nation last on tactical considerations, to avoid being punished by moderate voters. But following the Tampa Incident Howard pushed Australian immigration policy to the right. The public proved receptive to this view which was inflamed by Howard and Peter Reith concocting the infamous Children Overboard scare on the Australian public. As Muslim asylum-seekers continued to flow in from Afghanistan following the Taliban wars there, Australian public opinion, encouraged by Howard, Abbott and Morrison, continued to harden such that majority views on immigration became compatible with the rejectionist stance of One Nation and also embedded in LNP policy.
As the Australian Financial Review puts it
The suggestion Hanson has changed in some fundamental way is actually an indication of how much the rest of politics has changed
This rightward drift of mainstream views on immigration occurred during a period when One Nation was largely neutralized within Australian politics. John Howard and Tony Abbott had succeeded in neutralizing One Nation as a political force by secretly funding legal action against One Nation in relation to breaches of the Electoral Act with the result that Pauline Hanson went to jail for three months during 2003. This, along with the organisational chaos of One Nation, culminating in the expulsion of Hanson from her own party, caused One Nation to lose voter legitimacy and One Nation temporarily ceased to be an important political force. In fact Hanson herself did not hold parliamentary office between 1998 and 2015. But the xenophobic sentiments of One Nation had become entrenched in the mainstream and were now amply reflected in LNP government policy.
The overall effect was that One Nation was no longer held in general opprobium. Its xenophobic views, now directed primarily at Muslims instead of Chinese, were embraced by the majority of Australians. Instead of being a repository for the anti-immigration vote, One Nation was now more a home for a generalised right-wing protest vote for those on the right alienated with the major parties. But in general, One Nation no longer excited disgust from the political centre because on One Nation’s core issue – immigration – the centre had shifted rightward and was largely satisfied with LNP rejectionism of Muslims.
Disgusting The Centre Again
Furthermore, the major parties had come to a consensus that directly criticizing One Nation and especially Pauline Hanson was counter-productive and merely acted to increase its support. So after 2016, with the election of Pauline Hanson to the Federal Senate, One Nation was treated by the main parties and the public as a fixture of Australian politics – perhaps not liked or truly respected by many – but representative of an alienated minority of Australians and part of business-as-usual within the Australian polity.
This acceptance of One Nation changed with Pauline Hanson’s embrace of conspiratorial views of the Port Arthur Massacre and their publication in the week following the Christchurch Massacre. One Nation was again equated with far-right viewpoints which disgusted the political centre. Consequently, the LNP again faced the dilemma of associating with far-right opinion and risking backlash from metropolitan and moderate voters.
Tactical, Not Ethical
But Morrison and the Liberal Party also had to accommodate the fact the One Nation vote is significant in some key Queensland rural seats. One Nation traditionally retaliate if put last in preferences by likewise putting opposing parties. One Nation ran this style of campaign in the Western Australian State election of 2001 putting all sitting members last. Fearing losing the flow of One Nation preferences in these key rural Queensland seats, Morrison has allowed the National Party to preference One Nation and so avoid One Nation retaliation and thus receive One Nation preferences.
The overall strategy of Scott Morrison and the LNP in relation to One Nation preferences therefore is to maximise seat retention. Putting One Nation last in Liberal seats avoids voter backlash in metropolitan seats. Accepting One Nation preferences in National seats allows the Nationals to receive One Nation preferences and hopefully retain rural seats.
So, in the LNP tradition, the One Nation preferencing strategy is all about strategy and power: retaining seats whilst attempting to mollify One Nation voters as far as possible even while trying to retain distance from certain far right views of Pauline Hanson.
I go into more detail about the early LNP / One Nation history here, drawing heavily on research by Margo Kingston.