A month before last weekend’s state election in Western Australia, One Nation’s state president, Ron McLean, received a phone call from newly appointed party secretary and upper house candidate Colin Tincknell.
Tincknell told McLean the party was entering a preference-swapping arrangement with the WA Liberal Party for the election. McLean told Tincknell he thought it was a bad idea.
“I spoke strongly against it,” McLean told The Saturday Paper. “I said One Nation would lose from it.”
McLean says he told Tincknell that the government of Premier Colin Barnett needed to be removed, that people no longer wanted them to run WA.
But Tincknell told him the deal was done and it was not negotiable.
In the wake of the electoral wipeout of the Barnett Liberal government, much soul-searching is under way about the preference deal and whether either party allowed itself to be too closely aligned to the other.
Pauline Hanson’s party in particular has suffered damage to its brand as an anti-establishment protest group. And some who were jettisoned mid-campaign are asking why Hanson was so willing to dispense with them to uphold the preference deal.
Ron McLean’s wife, a former party state secretary, Marye Louise Daniels, says when they questioned the deal, Pauline Hanson, her Queensland-based advisers and other appointees in WA ostracised the couple “from that day forward”.
Soon after, they were told they would no longer be running the party in WA.
Daniels says she was devastated. She and Hanson had been close friends. The One Nation leader had stayed at the couple’s home on seven occasions.
“She’s been my buddy,” Daniels told The Saturday Paper. “We sat in the lounge room in our nighties and had a glass of wine, like girls do.”
McLean and Daniels have been involved with One Nation for 20 years.
McLean is a farmer still active in the community at 87, and the couple have donated tens of thousands of dollars to One Nation over time.
They had also personally interviewed most of the candidates the party subsequently appointed to stand at the state election.
On March 7, four days before the election, the couple held a news conference with their lawyer in Perth, revealing that Hanson, her adviser James Ashby, his 19-year-old Queensland-based offsider Aidan Nagle and Colin Tincknell had turned up at their home with a half-hour’s warning on February 20, told them their duties were being reassigned, and demanded the pair return all the files they’d kept for the party over the previous 20 years.
McLean and Daniels said Hanson also told McLean she was removing him as a candidate for the upper house Agricultural Region, where he was third on the One Nation ticket – an unwinnable spot for the minor party.
“She said she was sacking me from the third position on the ticket for Agricultural because I was too old,” McLean said. She told him it was because if he won – which nobody expected him to do – he would be 91 by the end of his term.
McLean and Daniels are now suing Hanson and her party for age discrimination. But they believe their opposition to the preference deal was at least as influential in their removal as McLean’s age.
During a tumultuous state election campaign, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation parted company with a string of its own officials and candidates, all complaining of broken promises and an authoritarian style.
Along with McLean, Hanson disendorsed two other candidates – Dane Sorenson and Sandy Baraiolo – accusing them of failing to meet the party’s required standards.
Like McLean and Daniels, Sorenson had objected to the preference deal, calling it shambolic and saying it was designed to get people into the upper house at the expense of lower house candidates.
Hanson herself had promised there would be no such agreement.
At a meeting with her WA candidates in Perth on January 19, Hanson told them she would not do a preference-swap deal and they could decide the order of candidates on their own how-to-vote cards.
But three weeks later, WA state leader Colin Tincknell confirmed the deal was done.
One Nation agreed to recommend its voters give their second preferences to the Liberals in the lower house seats where government is determined. In return, the Liberals would recommend One Nation be given their voters’ second preferences in the upper house, where the smaller party correctly saw its best chance of securing seats.
Given the unpopularity of Barnett’s Liberals, the deal did nothing to advance the chances of One Nation’s candidates in the lower house. Some of them now think Hanson and her colleagues recruited them for reasons other than trying to win.
The party that started out running 33 candidates in lower-house electorates has wound up with no lower-house seats, although it may secure as many as three across the various upper house regions.
Most likely among the upper house candidates to be elected is Tincknell himself. Tincknell did not return The Saturday Paper’s calls this week.
“It’s now my belief that she went and put candidates in every seat as a cash cow,” Sandy Baraiolo told The Saturday Paper.
Baraiolo was disendorsed after she objected to 19-year-old Aidan Nagle, based in One Nation’s Queensland head office, taking over her campaign Facebook page, deciding when her advertisements would run – at her expense – and effectively locking her out.
High-profile law-and-order campaigner and One Nation candidate Margaret Dodd, who quit over the preference deal the day before the election, is equally critical of the party and the way its campaign was run.
“What they basically did, they conned people into standing in the lower house,” Dodd told The Saturday Paper. “Not one of them had a chance of getting in.”
Hanson publicly invited Dodd to resign after she objected to the preference deal.
In her resignation letter, which she circulated to other candidates, Dodd said it was her opinion that “this party is more adherent to a dictatorship than a democratic organisation and lacks principles”.
She wrote: “Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in my eyes are not for the WA people and their future but for personal power for Senator Hanson who will do and say anything to achieve her goal at any cost.”
A spokesman for Senator Hanson had no comment on the criticisms. But on Thursday, Hanson tweeted that the party’s lower house candidates averaged 8.5 per cent, which she said was a strong result after a tough campaign.
Each of the candidates One Nation endorsed for lower house seats had to pay the standard $250 nomination fee required under electoral law. But instead of paying it direct to the Western Australian Electoral Commission, they paid it via the party.
At the January meeting, they were told they would have to fund their own campaigns at a likely cost of between $3000 and $5000 each. They were also told they would have to have their campaign material printed through James Ashby’s marketing company in Queensland.
Some objected, arguing that was not supporting jobs in WA, and were then allowed to arrange their own printing – at their own expense.
Each was then required to pay a further $150 “interview fee”, which they were told was the daily cost of having the office staffed throughout the campaign.
They were assured that, as electoral law allows, any who secured more than 4 per cent of the vote in their electorates would be entitled to be reimbursed just under $1.87 a vote – an amount determined under the Electoral Commission’s public funding formula. But that would all go via the party, too.
Almost all One Nation lower house candidates appear to have polled above 4 per cent. Those who were disendorsed before polling day but still appeared on ballot papers are wondering who will pocket that funding now.
Just before the election, another former One Nation official, former president Lyn Vickery, offered a blunt view.
Vickery said Hanson and Ashby would not allow him to register the existing One Nation – the remnants of the original party that had struggled on through the wilderness years of the past two decades – as a party for the WA election. They quickly registered “Pauline Hanson’s One Nation”, controlled by them out of Queensland, instead.
“Pauline Hanson has run what is in effect a business model,” Vickery said last week. “Pauline Hanson’s One Nation – PHON – is a business. It’s not a political party. Most political parties under the electoral act are supposed to be incorporated associations. That’s what the electoral commission prefers. This is in fact a business. And in fact it’s a pyramid business.”
The preference deal wasn’t the only problem One Nation encountered as the WA election approached.
Hanson’s own comments endorsing Russian President Vladimir Putin and casting doubt on official findings that Russia was involved in shooting down the MH17 aircraft over Ukraine – in which one WA family lost three children and their grandfather – did not help her standing.
Nor did her endorsement of the anti-vaccination movement and suggestion that parents should have their children tested for susceptibility to adverse reactions before agreeing to have them immunised.
When a deluge of criticism followed, she apologised.
“A couple of doctors have said there is no test,” Hanson told the Seven Network. “If that be the case, I do apologise. I am wrong. I was of the opinion that I did read that that was the case. Apparently it’s not.”
Hanson also attracted criticism for suggesting she would support stripping some of Queensland’s GST revenue and transferring it to WA.
When Colin Tincknell echoed the position in an interview just days before the election, Hanson accused him of “having a senior’s moment”, saying she had never discussed it with him.
“At no time have I ever, ever said that it must come out of Queensland,” she said.
But she had said it – in January, when she was asked about the issue on Perth radio 6PR.
Nonetheless Hanson insists her biggest problem in WA was voters’ dislike for Colin Barnett.
“I am going to think very, very strongly about this, whether we are actually ever going to do a deal like this with anyone again,” Hanson said this week. “I think I’ll go back to the grassroots and stand alone.”
Some senior WA Liberals are now also reflecting on the deal with regret, saying it overshadowed the Liberals’ messages and that they had overestimated Hanson’s capacity to campaign.
But there are signs Hanson has been actively considering repeating the preference deal in Queensland.
There, three former Liberal National Party state MPs, and one still in parliament, have defected to One Nation in the past year.
The MP for Buderim, Steve Dickson, is understood to maintain close contact with the LNP.
Katter’s Australian Party’s Queensland state MP Robbie Katter is suspicious of One Nation’s plans.
He says he’s been trying to strike a preference deal with other minor parties, including One Nation.
“We’re strongly of the view that the minor party forces … particularly Pauline Hanson and Katter’s Australian Party, should very firmly be making a commitment in Queensland that they’ll preference each other before the majors,” he told The Saturday Paper. “We exist to diminish the interests of the major parties. That’s the whole reason for being here, not just being a puppet and a running dog of the majors.”
But Hanson has been a strong supporter of many of the federal government’s policy positions in the senate.
She has recently backed the Fair Work Commission’s decision in favour of cutting Sunday retail penalty rates.
She has also indicated she would back the government’s planned cut to the company tax rate.
A ReachTEL poll in the Queensland federal electorate of Dawson, commissioned last month by The Australia Institute, registered significant opposition to a company tax cut.
In a seat in which One Nation is polling at 30 per cent, only 15 per cent of voters overall said big business should receive a tax cut and 43 per cent said it should only apply to small business.
Asked if they supported a royal commission into the banks, 65.8 per cent said they did.
Originally in favour, Hanson changed her position on a royal commission – which her dumped former WA senator Rod Culleton had championed. Instead, she proposed a less intrusive senate inquiry, an option more acceptable to the federal government.
Margaret Menzel, who was chief of staff to Culleton, said she had received feedback from WA voters angry at the way One Nation had abandoned Culleton while he was battling the High Court challenge to his eligibility that eventually saw him stripped of his senate seat.
Menzel is angry at Hanson, too.
“This is not a vendetta,” she said. “If she was a good leader and had good motives, I’d say good luck to her. But she is deliberately harming good people who are only doing good things.”
Across the political spectrum, people are starting to ask whose interests she and her party are really seeking to serve.
Clarification: In an earlier version of this piece, former One Nation official Lyn Vickery used Amway as an example of a pyramid business. A spokeswoman for Amway disputed this characterisation. "The company is mindful of its legal obligations and its business structure and methodology is conducted in full compliance with Australian Law."
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 18, 2017 as "One Nation’s business model".
For almost a decade, The Saturday Paper has published Australia’s leading writers and thinkers. We have pursued stories that are ignored elsewhere, covering them with sensitivity and depth. We have done this on refugee policy, on government integrity, on robo-debt, on aged care, on climate change, on the pandemic.
All our journalism is fiercely independent. It relies on the support of readers. By subscribing to The Saturday Paper, you are ensuring that we can continue to produce essential, issue-defining coverage, to dig out stories that take time, to doggedly hold to account politicians and the political class.
There are very few titles that have the freedom and the space to produce journalism like this. In a country with a concentration of media ownership unlike anything else in the world, it is vitally important. Your subscription helps make it possible.
Select your digital subscription