Paul Bongiorno
Hanson gunning for Queensland

Two weeks ago, before the horror of the Las Vegas massacre, Pauline Hanson took a camera to a Sunshine Coast shooting range. There she was, having “the best day I’ve had for about 20 years” target shooting with two handguns, firing one “like Dirty Harry”. “Don’t mess with me,” she added. “Just make my day.”

In her sights are seats in the imminent Queensland state election, particularly the parts of that state identified as “deliverance country”. Twenty-one years ago, the fiercest resistance to John Howard’s Port Arthur gun crackdown came from the Sunshine Coast hinterland. Gympie gun shop owner Ron Owen led the charge. Hanson is hoping to plug into the resentment that has simmered since. She is not alone. Bob Katter’s outfit, Katter’s Australian Party, is after the same voters.

There is a strong conviction that outside of Brisbane and the increasingly urban conglomeration that is the Sunshine and Gold coasts, guns swing votes. They are “a freedom issue”, as Katter proclaimed after tough restrictions were imposed on the Adler lever-action shotgun. Hanson, too, strongly opposed the temporary ban and the subsequent tougher limitations on that weapon. For her, the issue played nicely into the narrative of the “big parties” acting as oppressive, out-of-touch “big brothers”. But the horrified worldwide reaction to the latest American obscenity could mean gun-toting politics has just about run out of luck.

Hanson is still pushing hers. She’s promising her One Nation party will “stop making criminals out of licensed gun owners”. She proposes to make it much easier and cheaper to obtain licences, and to standardise all firearm licences to a 10-year renewal with no increase in fees. She also wants to make target ammunition for off-duty police shooters tax deductible.

Nothing would have pleased her more than the reaction of one of her Facebook admirers: “You and Donald Trump go hand in hand, you want the same things. He loves America, you love Australia. You want no bad for us, he has the same.” Hanson is a Trump admirer and identifies as a similar disrupter. She is definitely playing to the same sentiment, in which worldwide established political parties are losing support. And if last weekend’s Sky News ReachTEL poll is any guide, it is working a treat for her. Her vote in the Sunshine State was at 18 per cent, with 30 per cent of voters giving their first preferences to independents or minor parties. The LNP and Labor saw their vote crashing since the last election.

This dynamic is worrying the big parties and being closely watched in Canberra. Nationally, it is not quite as dire yet. The recent Newspoll had 20 per cent of voters looking elsewhere for their votes.

Unlike Donald Trump, though, Hanson was not quick to comment on the Las Vegas atrocity. Three days after the tragedy she had said nothing, in stark contrast to her quick condemnation when those identified as Islamic terrorists have stuck in Britain or on the Continent. As president of the United States, Trump had no option but to respond. In a national address, he condemned the Vegas gunman as “pure evil”. And in a throwaway line, on his belated way to hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico, said lawmakers would discuss the issue of gun laws “as time goes by”. Perhaps even Trump has twigged that the need for some tightening rather than loosening of guns laws is becoming impossible to ignore.

If anyone is going to be wedged by the gun issue here, it is the Liberal National Party in Queensland and the Nationals in Canberra. On the Adler ban, some Nationals joined Hanson in the senate, voting against it. But LNP strategists are sceptical of the ReachTEL poll, especially its 52-48 two-party-preferred result their way. They don’t doubt Hanson spells trouble for them, but say that private polling in Buderim, held by Hanson’s state leader, MP Steve Dickson, an LNP defector, shows the seat will come back to their party. A Sunshine Coast Daily poll a few months ago backed that finding. We’ll see. Labor hardheads have no doubt many seats in the election, likely to be held in November, will be tight three-way contests that could leave Labor or the LNP falling short of a majority.

Maybe with an eye to Queensland, Malcolm Turnbull was very wary of running with the ball of even tighter gun laws in Australia. In a couple of interviews, he was given the opportunity. On ABC Radio, he said they were already very tight. “They are among the strictest in the world. They’re obviously – again there’s no place for set and forget in any area of national security – but the laws are already very strict.”

Turnbull’s three-month national gun amnesty ended a week ago. Twenty-five thousand guns were handed over in the first two months, underscoring his boast that he is doing everything to keep the kind of guns “that were used by this killer in Las Vegas off the streets”. Unlike 21 years ago, there was no $304 million national buyback scheme, which led to 650,000 firearms being destroyed. The Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission doesn’t think the lesser number now is because John Howard’s efforts were a definitive success. It estimates there are up to 600,000 illegal guns in the community. Labor’s Bill Shorten is calling for the amnesty to run until the end of the year. He wants life sentences for gun smugglers, too. New South Wales Greens MLC David Shoebridge is urging Turnbull to push harder for a national firearms registry, “So we know just where the guns are.”

The Las Vegas tragedy pushed the “energy crisis” out of the headlines and gave added urgency to Turnbull’s Thursday Council of Australian Governments meeting to discuss crowd security at major events and even more laws sacrificing civil liberties in the name of thwarting terrorism. But Shorten is not for wedging – if, indeed, that is this prime minister’s purpose, as it was for his predecessors Howard and Tony Abbott. Labor wants to “reassure Australians” that it takes a bipartisan approach to good ideas about keeping Australians safe.

Elsewhere, it looks as though Turnbull’s voluntary postal survey on same-sex marriage will return the result he wants and definitely needs. For one thing, the Australian Bureau of Statistics says an estimated 57.5 per cent of voters have already returned their ballots, with four weeks still to go. Newgate Research polling for the marriage equality campaign, and Essential Research, has found a majority who have voted say they have voted “Yes”. If nothing else, the turnout looks to be heading for a credible 70 per cent.

But it is by no means certain that the opinion polls have got it right, with millions still to vote and the fact that in the privacy of the envelope voters may find it’s “Okay to say ‘No’ ”. The risk for the “Yes” camp is that the polls could feed complacency and rob them of a win, let alone a convincing one.

There was a scathing assessment of the whole exercise by former prime minister Bob Hawke midweek. The old Labor warhorse said the survey was the “worst economic decision by a prime minister since Federation”. He said it “cost 122-bloody-million dollars ... on a process that can’t produce a result”. Only a vote in parliament can do that, unlike in a constitutional referendum. Just think, Hawke said, what could have been done with that money for closing the gap on Aboriginal disadvantage or “health and so on”.

As prime minister in 1988, Hawke spent the equivalent of $75.4 million on four referendum questions, none of which succeeded. But if any had, they would have immediately become part of constitutional law.

Ironically, the worst result was recorded for the one that wanted to extend religious freedom. That was vehemently opposed by the Liberals, led by senior shadow minister Peter Reith and a young auxiliary Catholic bishop in Melbourne, George Pell. Pell went on national TV to add a church voice to the “No” campaign, a striking contradiction of the demands made by some of his episcopal mates now, using the lack of freedom of religion guarantees as a reason to deny same-sex-attracted Australians their civil rights.

But the protracted campaign, and the shrillness and ugliness of it at the edges, is annoying voters. It is also putting at risk people whose private lives have become every nark’s business. Essential Research found a couple of weeks ago that while a majority are in favour of respecting the dignity and rights of same-sex couples, 49 per cent do not back the postal survey as the best way to deal with the issue.

Some Liberal and Labor backbenchers are reporting coming face to face with just that sentiment from angry constituents. The message: Why aren’t you doing your job and saving us all this tiresome argument? Pauline Hanson has plugged into it. Curiously quiet on the substance of the issue, she says people are sick to death of it.

The Queensland election will be another litmus test of her political potency. One Nation’s poor state poll result in Western Australia damaged Hanson nationally – now riding at just 8 per cent support in Newspoll. The big boys and girls in Canberra will be hoping for a repeat. But it’s very possible they won’t get it.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2017 as "Hanson gunning for Queensland".

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Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a 30-year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery.

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