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Mark Latham’s success in the NSW election buoyed One Nation, but the exposé of its bid for donations from the US National Rifle Association may have shot the party in the foot in the run-up to the federal poll. By Damien Murphy.

One Nation and the gun lobby

Queensland senator and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, flanked by party officials James Ashby (left) and Steve Dickson, at a press conference in Brisbane on Thursday.
Credit: AAP Image / Dan Peled

An Australian man kills 50 New Zealanders with semi-automatic rifles outlawed in his homeland.

Ten days after the Christchurch massacre, footage is broadcast across Australia of One Nation operatives James Ashby and Steve Dickson soliciting political donations from the United States National Rifle Association (NRA) in exchange for watering down gun laws that ban those very semi-automatics.

Al Jazeera lured Pauline Hanson’s men to Washington last September and secretly filmed them grovelling and boasting how a $US20 million NRA donation could give One Nation control of the upper and lower houses. The story ran as ABC Breakfast’s lead news item last Monday. It rained on One Nation all week.

The tape exposed political opportunism in a way not possible by ethical journalism. But, juxtaposed against the Christchurch massacre, One Nation suffered a moral core meltdown.

Had the ABC run the exposé a week earlier, perhaps even Mark Latham’s political renaissance may have been stillborn.

Latham, Hanson’s latest alpha pick, pumped new life into One Nation, provisionally winning a New South Wales upper house seat in last Saturday’s election. Always a good talker, Latham is talking up a possible second legislative council seat, too.

But his victory buzz faded as the Al Jazeera investigation, “How to Sell a Massacre”, bit hard. Wags quickly renamed it “How to Shoot Yourself in the Foot”. One Nation limps back towards being a political pariah.

Ashby and Dickson lay doggo for a day. Then they came out to say they were drunk. Besides, they said, the sting was “a deliberate set-up by the Qatari government”. Hanson, who in the Al Jazeera report mentioned conspiracy theories surrounding the 1996 Port Arthur massacre, was reportedly suffering from a tick bite on the face.

When she broke cover she stuck to the Qatari line in a tweet on Wednesday, adding the matter had been referred to ASIO. Latham told Alan Jones, a donor to One Nation, that he did not condone the Washington behaviour but that Al Jazeera had set up his colleagues. Latham thought the main issue was “the betrayal of our democracy”.

Before the story hit, One Nation had a rare good story to tell.

The party came out of nowhere last weekend and received nearly 6 per cent of the NSW upper house vote, enough to keep Latham employed for eight years.

Further, the notoriously prickly former federal Labor leader will hold the balance of power with the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party (SFF) and the Christian Democratic Party.

As with Hanson, Latham’s celebrity, not policy, got him the new job.

It was a different story in the lower house, where One Nation fielded 12 unknowns and won zip.

In stark comparison, SFF, a party increasingly built on perceptions that NSW Nationals have abandoned the bush, took three seats off them – Barwon, Murray, Orange – and now own western NSW.

Wrestling with the drought, the vanishing Darling River and Barnaby Joyce seems to have neutered the Nationals, and the federal election ramifications of the SFF victories are profound for the Coalition.

Amid the furore over One Nation’s Washington trip, The Australia Institute released a report, “Point Blank: Political strategies of Australia’s gun lobby”, showing the SFF had evolved into a real power: the Shooters received $699,834 in disclosed donations. Among minor parties only Katter’s Australian Party got more, at $808,760. One Nation scored a measly $6203.

SFF NSW upper house leader Robert Borsak thinks One Nation needlessly risked a lot for very little in Washington.

“Look, we appeal to the same people,” he says. “One Nation has race as part of its policy mix. We don’t. They’ve sort of atrophied, going around doing dumb things like that. It was embarrassing and naive.”

Nobody knew One Nation was pondering an alliance with the NRA before the NSW election but now, as the focus shifts to the federal election, the whole country knows the party’s perfidy.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, said the attempt to sell Australia’s gun laws to the highest bidder is abhorrent but it took him until Thursday to commit that the Liberal Party would put One Nation behind Labor on how-to-vote cards.

Later that day Hanson stood between Ashby and Dickson at a tense 30-minute Brisbane press conference and said she had not authorised their trip to Washington to discuss a deal and she would never water down Australia’s gun laws. She said the pair would keep their jobs but Morrison’s undertaking to put One Nation behind Labor on preferences ensured he had handed his to Opposition Leader Bill Shorten. “Prime minister, you’re a fool,” said Hanson.

Shorten is having a field day, calling Morrison’s dealing with One Nation a test of his leadership. Shorten doubled down, attacking the Australian Council of Trade Unions for maintaining its position of preferring One Nation over the Coalition.

Former Nationals deputy prime minister Tim Fischer, who endured three years of Hanson from 1996, went public to put One Nation last.

Ostracised by the mainstream, run to ground and jailed over the years, Hanson turned herself into a self-perpetuating cottage industry. She learnt the true value of Product Pauline during the 2001 Tampa federal election. Suffering an electoral redistribution and towing a herd of bickering former One Nation Queensland state MPs in her wake, she took her first shot at the senate.

She concentrated campaigning around Queensland’s gun seats north of the Sunshine Coast and baby boomer men in flannel shirts threw thousands of dollars into plastic rubbish bins touted up and down the aisles of her public meetings: no receipts, no records. She missed the senate but the cash was on the barrelhead.

Convicted of electoral fraud in 2003, then acquitted, she spent 11 weeks in jail and kept coming back from political death to pick up a jaunty $200,000 in public electoral funding each time she failed in federal and state elections in NSW and Queensland. Hanson morphed into a kind of celebrity, appearing on Dancing with the Stars, Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, Enough Rope and so on, and remains a regular on morning commercial television.

She is a great political act. Killer Queen to some, Evil Sister to others, she’s a never-ending drama of near scrapes, silly stunts and men who done her wrong: John Pasquarelli, David Oldfield, David Ettridge, Brian Burston, Fraser Anning, Malcolm Roberts. All have either been dumped or a disappointment. And now her sole senate colleague, West Australian Peter Georgiou, faces relegation from the No. 1 spot on the ticket as Perth party room heavies try to limit the Al Jazeera damage.

Can her latest svengali, James Ashby, survive Washington?

Barred from parliament for thumping Burston in February, his penchant for controversy first surfaced in 2002 as a broadcaster on a Newcastle FM radio station. He was sacked there after anonymously phoning a rival presenter and threatening to knock him off his bicycle. “Fuck it,” he said in the phone call. “If I was your mother I would have drowned you at birth.”

A decade later, Ashby was working for the speaker of the house of representatives, Peter Slipper, and accused his boss of sexual harassment. Slipper retired and Ashby got a pilot’s licence. He resurfaced flying Hanson around Queensland on her senate campaign.

Clive Bean, professor in politics and voting trends at Queensland University of Technology, says exposure of the Washington trip could not have come at a worse time for One Nation.

“The party has not been travelling well in Queensland. Its message is getting drowned by the petty squabbling, the lacklustre performance of candidates and MPs, stupid stunts and a general inability to put itself ahead on issues,” Bean says. “Its media profile has shrunk, and now the NRA trip blows up.

“I suspect that [Hanson’s] core support it will not upset, but then in a party that sells patriotism as a cornerstone, they may not like the idea of their side apparently wanting to set up a secret deal with overseas interests to interfere in Australian politics.”

Bean thinks Hanson can never be written off but the NRA gambit can shave support in a political patch she pioneered but that is becoming very crowded.

“Bob Katter, Clive Palmer, the Shooters are all working the same seam. Who knows if support for the small parties will hold as the battle this time is between the Coalition and Labor,” he says.

“The Turnbull government’s failure to get its program through the senate has shown voters that ill-disciplined small parties are no longer the goad to change they were once perceived [as being].”

Bean says the real issue remains the Queensland Liberal National Party’s need to tread softly around Pauline Hanson while down south the Liberal and National Coalition have to be seen to banish One Nation.

Of course, the Queensland Liberal National Party remembers Hanson took 11 seats in the 1998 state election, and are dithering about how to negotiate a preference swap with her to hold seats. What’s a bad look around Australia can sometimes pass muster in Queensland.

“This will run for weeks,” Bean says. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 29, 2019 as "How to quell One Nation". Subscribe here.

Damien Murphy
has reported on Pauline Hanson as a staffer on The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Bulletin and Time magazine.