Opinion

Just as Barnett benefited from the disarray in the ALP and the backlash against the Gillard government in 2013, now he has the baggage of his Canberra colleagues replaying a similar script. By Paul Bongiorno.

Paul Bongiorno
Colin Barnett’s One Nation gamble in the WA election

Today the sun will set on more than one political career in the west. The West Australian state election has shot to national prominence mainly because of the resurgence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the preference deal the Liberals did with her to save their bacon.

All the signs are there that it almost certainly won’t work. The trend in the polls for more than 12 months has been decidedly against the eight-and-a-half-year-old Barnett Liberal government. Midweek, Sportsbet had the odds for a Labor victory at $1.17 with the Liberals blowing out to $4.50. A seat-by-seat analysis of the betting shows Labor ahead in 34 of the 59 seats in the legislative assembly and tied in five more. Those five have margins for the Liberals, after the redistribution of boundaries, of between 10 and 18 points. It fits in with a swing that Liberal polling has reportedly picked up of 14 per cent against the government.

So if Colin Barnett hangs on it will be a boilover. And according to veteran Nationals warhorse Ron Boswell, he and the Liberal Party will rue their decision not to put the Hanson party last. Boswell retired from the senate in 2014. He had been a tireless opponent of One Nation as it built up a head of steam in his home state of Queensland 20 years ago. Today will be a big test of his assertion in the Guardian Australia that Coalition voters would desert them if they did deals with One Nation. Citing Sir Robert Menzies, he said success comes governing from the centre, not being dragged to the hard right.

In WA, the deal sees the Liberals preferencing against their allies in the Nationals. Sportsbet has the Nationals ahead in the seven seats they hold. Depending on how the votes fall, it could make for very tense bedfellows if Barnett needs them to remain on the treasury benches. Complicating that play could be an upper house with One Nation holding the balance of power. That is, after all, the reason Hanson gives for doing the preference deal in the first place.

Labor research in Queensland has found that One Nation-inclined voters don’t like it when they hear of Hanson doing deals. “It makes her just another politician,” according to one ALP insider. That could be showing up in WA, where One Nation’s support has slipped below 10 per cent, according to Galaxy and ReachTEL. Labor, both federally and in the state campaign, has at every opportunity painted the Libs and One Nation as being in an unholy alliance. They have tried to make Hanson a surrogate for the unpopular Barnett government. The WA Nationals, too, have made the point that a vote for Hanson that ends up going back to the Liberals is a “wasted protest vote”.

No doubt if the election goes the way of the polls and the betting markets, Malcolm Turnbull and his colleagues will fall back on the old excuse that it was a state election with state issues dominating. The prime minister made only one fleeting visit during the campaign, and was skewered for not delivering on a promise to fix the GST revenue carve-up that the sandgropers say is unfair.

But just as Barnett benefited mightily from the disarray in the federal ALP and the backlash against the Gillard minority government in 2013, now he has the baggage of his Canberra colleagues replaying a similar script. One veteran federal Liberal MP says there’s no escaping the damage or the benefit state and federal parties of the same stripe do to each other.

For that reason, Pauline Hanson has a lot riding on the performance of her candidates today. If she emerges with a double-digit vote and three or four MLCs in the upper house, her reputation as a disrupter will be enhanced. It will also be remarkable, given the circus One Nation has provided in the campaign: three candidates disendorsed; one candidate quitting and saying he will vote Labor out of disgust with the preference deal; and, the remarkable spectacle of Hanson threatened with legal action for age discrimination inside the party.

That last fracas blew up with three days to go. Eighty-seven-year-old Ron McLean and his 79-year-old wife, Marye Daniels, hit out at Hanson for sacking them as state party president and secretary despite the fact they had stuck with her for 20 years and had donated $100,000 to the cause. They called a news conference at their lawyer’s office and blasted Hanson as a Queensland carpetbagger who should have stayed out of the WA campaign. McLean said his erstwhile friend was acting like any other politician, not listening to the members – he said she was a dictator and he wanted to wrest back the party from her for the rank and file.

In the rule book of politics as usual, all that should be more than enough to damage the party’s chances. But One Nation is not always usual. Today we will find out if Hanson has the magic Teflon touch of Donald Trump, the politician she so admires and tries to ape even in defending Russian strongman Vladimir Putin.

Labor strategists believe Hanson has erred in opening herself up to so much scrutiny in the past week. She kicked off her campaigning with an interview on the ABC’s Insiders. By any logical measure, it was a car crash. Besides the defence of Putin over the Malaysia Airlines crash that killed 38 Australians, she backed the Sunday penalty rates cut and attacked paid parental leave, Muslims, the immigration intake and compulsory vaccination.

The prime minister had finally had enough. After months of being deferential, he slammed her view that parents were being “blackmailed” on measures to eradicate disease. An angry Turnbull, who is a grandfather, said that if parents chose not to have their children vaccinated they were putting the health of their own and every other person’s children at risk. The reaction generally was so bad for Hanson that the next day on Perth radio she retreated, even revealing she had her own children immunised.

Another Hanson outburst on national television – denigrating all Muslims because “it was impossible to tell good Muslims from bad Muslims” – brought a stinging rebuke from Turnbull. He rejected the sentiments entirely at a news conference in Jakarta, the capital of the most populous Muslim nation in the world. He praised Indonesia’s moderate inclusiveness and said a “vast majority of Muslims in Australia are utterly appalled by extremism, by violent extremism, by terrorism”. And unlike his predecessor Tony Abbott, he pointed out how essential Australia’s Muslims were in countering terrorism.

In his deputy prime minister, Barnaby Joyce, Turnbull had a firm ally in calling out Hanson’s dangerous nonsense. The Nationals leader warned that “a country run by One Nation would go down the toilet”. In a none too subtle swipe at Hanson’s cult of media celebrity, he said, “This is not My Kitchen Rules, this is not Dancing with the Stars, this is running the country.”

Indeed, but how the Coalition is running the country – or more precisely, themselves – is just as much a concern to voters. This week’s Essential poll has Labor leading the government 53 to 47. One of Tony Abbott’s mates, Catherine McGregor, wrote a column for The Daily Telegraph headed, “The point of no return. Disaster ahead for Turnbull.” She revealed the dumped prime minister expects Turnbull to go after the budget as the polls continue to fall. But she said Abbott had concluded that he himself was “probably irredeemably damaged” and that he should have let the polls run their course and been more patient. “It is a terrible mess,” she concludes. “Anyone care to guess what happens next?”

Another close ally of Abbott’s – and a failed Liberal preselection candidate for the right – Tom Switzer, is not so uncertain. He wrote in the Fairfax papers that “the scene is now set for a merciless and bloody civil war. It will be hard for Turnbull to survive the carnage.”

The mood in the government is so febrile that paranoia rules. Perennial deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop is being eyed with suspicion. Last week The Australian carried speculation of her ambitions for the top job. A confidant of Turnbull says he has no illusions that Bishop’s “loyalty to the leader” is bottomless.

Then there is Immigration Minister Peter Dutton. He is firming as the right’s preferred candidate. He is flattered by the attention but for now he’s supporting Turnbull in the hope he can pull it back together. Seven News showed Dutton’s morning walk with right powerbroker Mathias Cormann, the implication being that the two were plotting. Both deny it – as they would.

Some in the Liberal Party saw this week’s page one story in the Fairfax papers, of Turnbull planning a new mega department of homeland security, in this context. Dutton would get the job to “keep him on side”. The Prime Minister’s Office admits there is a security review going on but pours cold water on the departmental rejig being as speculated.

The biggest loser in such an outcome would be Attorney-General George Brandis. His portfolio would be gutted in the plan. His office furiously briefed against the idea, citing a 2015 review that concluded such a super-agency would be too unwieldy.

Bill Shorten seized on a Sky News report that quoted a senior minister saying, “Can you imagine how quickly public support for spy agencies would collapse if you put a fascist like Peter Dutton in charge of the portfolio?” He said the government “needs to stop fighting each other and focus on fighting terrorists”.

As Labor discovered, such infighting only guarantees the sun will set on them all.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 11, 2017 as "Westworld’s cliffhanger". Subscribe here.

Paul Bongiorno
is a columnist for The Saturday Paper and a regular commentator on ABC Radio National Breakfast.

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