She may be as much pilloried celebrity as politician, but when One Nation leader Pauline Hanson speaks, the disillusioned listen. By Karen Middleton.

Pauline Hanson’s plans to expand One Nation

West Australian One Nation senator Rod Culleton.
West Australian One Nation senator Rod Culleton.

Two Thursdays ago, when the parliamentary year wound up too late to catch the last plane, One Nation leader Pauline Hanson repaired to the closest thing to an actual pub within cooee of Capital Hill: the Kingston Hotel, known as the Kingo.

Hanson sat down with two New South Wales senators, One Nation’s Brian Burston and Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm. Over a couple of hours in the pub’s dining room, Leyonhjelm estimates they barely passed more than five minutes without a stranger or group approaching to congratulate Hanson, ask for a photograph and urge her on.

“It was extraordinary,” he tells The Saturday Paper. “I wouldn’t have believed that if I hadn’t have seen it. They were all very polite... They just kept coming and coming.”

He says the attention was more staggering for the fact that this wasn’t Queensland or even rural Australia. “This was Canberra.”

In parliament again after an 18-year hiatus involving one unsuccessful senate bid, three failed attempts at seats in Queensland andNSW, and a conviction and jail term for electoral fraud that was later quashed, Pauline Hanson is as much celebrity as politician.

But the politician in her is much smarter than 20 years ago, making her infinitely more dangerous to the bigger parties, especially as triumphant anti- establishment sentiment rises across the world.

One Queensland LNP member says that originally rookie mistakes and extremism made her easy to attack.

“That’s not what she’s doing now,” he says. He recounts how he was recently in “a very affluent club” when a man in a suit approached. “I’ve always voted for you,” the man told him. “But now ... I’m voting for Pauline Hanson.”

Hanson is focused on the Queensland election, due by 2018. This week, while their West Australian senatorial colleague Rod Culleton was in court in Canberra, fellow Queensland senator Malcolm Roberts was dispatched to the far north, talking to the residents of Coen, halfway up Cape York in the federal electorate of Leichhardt.

1 . A genuine threat

Liberal National MP for Leichhardt Warren Entsch says One Nation is a genuine threat. “I think you’ve got to take ’em seriously,” he says.

He nominates state governments’ persistent failure to do anything about a reliable electricity supply north of the Daintree River as an issue ripe for exploitation.

“That’s the sort of stuff that really pisses people off and that’s the sort of stuff that attracts them to One Nation,” Entsch says. “They are a threat but that threat can be reduced if the LNP and the Labor Party do something about these things.”

These things include local demands to dump a federal plan to compulsorily acquire Queensland grazing land to train Singaporean armed forces. Entsch says One Nation is “all over it like a fat kid on a cupcake”. LNP members are threatening to quit the party.

“They will hand out [how-to-vote cards] for whatever party promises them they will do it. And they will hand out for One Nation.”

He adds: “And I would support that.”

Hanson’s aspirations stretch beyond Queensland. She hopes to register her party for the state election in Tasmania and run candidates in NSW and Western Australia.

2 . Growing support

David Leyonhjelm is convinced support for Hanson is growing.

“I think she’s on an absolute roll,” he says. “Now, whether that will last is another question. We saw the messiah complex with Clive [Palmer].”

Leyonhjelm doesn’t support many of Hanson’s ideas, but believes her immigration stance is resonating. He is learning a few things from her, noting she bypasses mainstream media when it suits, targeting social media instead.

Leyonhjelm and former Palmer United Party senator turned Tasmanian independent Jacqui Lambie both joined Hanson’s weekly live Facebook broadcast recently, in which she and colleagues stand awkwardly around a table in a parliamentary courtyard for a live-streamed chat about what’s been happening in parliament.

It’s raw, unscripted and unsophisticated. It works.

Last week, Hanson persuaded visiting action-movie star Jean-Claude Van Damme to join the broadcast. The actor was in Australia campaigning to build wildlife parks. It wasn’t an issue Hanson had embraced before but it didn’t matter. She harnessed his star power.

This week, she scored another PR coup when entrepreneur Dick Smith endorsed her, backing her ideas on limiting immigration although not her views on Muslims.

Hanson clearly calculates his caveats will be lost in the hubbub, so attaching his credibility to her brand is all upside. She is probably right.

Leyonhjelm praises Hanson’s instincts but attributes her political smarts primarily to her key adviser, chief of staff James Ashby. Other observers concur.

Ashby gained notoriety through his sexual harassment suit against former boss and then speaker Peter Slipper, and has been working with Hanson for about a year, hired initially as her personal pilot.

He has a volatile reputation, prone to exploding at One Nation staff not following instructions. But the combined instincts of Ashby and Hanson have her correctly identifying and speaking out on issues simmering away in the Australia that feels abandoned.

3 . Pushing the messages

Recently, Hanson went to Norfolk Island to hear the grievances of islanders angry at a federal government takeover. This week, she was in Queensland meeting taxi drivers angry at the disruption of Uber.

Wherever there are disillusioned voters, she is there.

She’s pushing her anti-Islam and anti-immigration messages hard.

On Wednesday, she tweeted: “If people would care to look my policies remain: No Radical Islam, No #HalalCert, No Burqa and No Sharia law.”

Another tweet vowed to pursue a Muslim immigration ban next year. She ended with a bright “#MerryChristmasEveryone!”

“I don’t think she offers solutions,” Leyonhjelm says. “That’s why I’m a bit frustrated with her ... I don’t think the protest vote is looking for solutions. They want someone who understands what the problem is.”

Warren Entsch has a similar view. “They are comfortable saying anything they like and not being held accountable,” he says. “They can say anything and blame the government.”

A Queensland-based adviser for another party concurs. “With most other politicians, they get judged on what they deliver. But with her, it’s not that. They just want her to shake up the joint.”

Bob Katter worked closely with One Nation when it swept into the Queensland parliament in 1998, winning 11 seats before losing them all. He wonders if Hanson will follow that trajectory again. “How long until she implodes?” he asks.

4 . Culleton crisis

The greatest threat to the Hanson juggernaut is her very public relationship breakdown with Rod Culleton, awaiting the High Court’s verdict, sitting as the Court of Disputed Returns, on whether his senate election was invalid.

Hanson has effectively cut Culleton loose, declaring on Sydney radio that he is “not a team player”.

Speaking on 2GB, she said: “We can’t work with him. You can’t reason with him and honestly I think the whole lot’s gone to his head. He loves the limelight, he loves the publicity and he’s not really listening to the advice ... I’ve been in this for 20 years. For a new kid on the block telling me what to do, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Culleton dismissed the outburst. None of it surprised Leyonhjelm.

“That has been coming,” he says.

“They’ve talked to me about that.” He describes Hanson, Malcolm Roberts and Brian Burston as “quite sensible, good senators”. He leaves Culleton – embroiled in financial troubles and being pursued for millions of dollars in unpaid debts – off that list.

Culleton believes Hanson is no longer steadfastly behind a banking royal commission, something she denies. He says that once elected Hanson reneged on an undertaking that One Nation senators could vote independently.

“She said we’re all going to vote as a bloc,” he told The Saturday Paper. “I said, ‘No we’re not.’ I want to be true because that’s my campaign, that is my commitment I made to my constituents: that I would stand up as an individual.”

In the absence of his own colleagues, Culleton’s only parliamentary supporter in the High Court’s public gallery was Katter, “an old mate”. Will Katter’s Australian Party recruit him?

“That’s up to Rod, not up to me,” Katter says.

Katter and Culleton have campaigned together against the banks for years. Culleton’s adviser, Margaret Menzel, who made the news after James Ashby threw a mobile phone at her, is married to Max Menzel, former president of Katter’s party in Queensland.

The full bench of five judges heard arguments on Wednesday as to whether Culleton’s election should be void because, at the time, he stood convicted of minor larceny for taking the key to a tow truck being repossessed.

The conviction on March 2 this year in the local court in Armidale, NSW, was made in absentia after what Culleton says was a mix-up over dates. It was eventually overturned but he was elected in between. The constitution bars anyone from standing for parliament who is “subject to sentence” for an offence potentially punishable by a year or more in jail.

Culleton’s barrister, former Liberal MP Peter King, is arguing he was never “subject to sentence”, and because the conviction was quashed, effectively it never existed.

In Culleton’s office, Margaret Menzel has been fielding calls from One Nation members. “They are really unhappy with Pauline’s comments,” Menzel says. “They support him. They don’t think the High Court should even be hearing this. They think it’s a political beat-up.”

She said they had noticed the other One Nation senators hadn’t objected to the court referral. “The fact that Pauline and the other senators appear to be supporting it is just so far from what they believe One Nation is really about.”

The High Court has reserved its judgement. In the court of public opinion, the jury is still out.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 10, 2016 as "Hanson reward".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.

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