Opinion

Paul Bongiorno
Pauline Hanson’s need for attention

Pauline Hanson sees herself as an Australian Joan of Arc. The saviour of a nation under siege from crippling debt, excessive spending and immigrants, neglectful of self-funded retirees, and abused by multinational energy companies. Worse, a nation ruled by a government that does not deliver its side of a bargain.

So on the day that she blew up the central plank of the government’s enterprise tax plan she sounded positively heroic: “The people of this country want leadership. They want honesty and they want trust. And I have to do that job.” She said she’s “a senator for the people of Australia” and in “all good conscience I cannot look back in time and think I could have made a difference and never did anything about it”.

What earned her scorn was the May budget. Apparently she was looking to it to deliver on the elements of the deal she had struck with Finance Minister Mathias Cormann. We had already heard about the $60 million pilot project to deliver 1000 apprenticeships. We had no idea she had also received assurances on an even more ambitious wish list. At least that is her understanding, as related to The Australian and later to a Hobart news conference. Near the top of the list: fewer migrants, because the current high numbers are “destroying our standard of living and way of life”.

Then, a health card for all self-funded retirees. They deserve a reward, unlike “those others who are a drain on our society I have no regard for and we cannot afford it”. Hanson is appalled by the $190 billion welfare bill and says “it’s rising”.

She’s also after a new coal-fired power station for North Queensland and a pipeline from the gas fields of Western Australia across the continent to the east coast. She says she’s been pressuring the government for more than a year to make multinational energy companies pay their fair share of tax. This would provide, she says, a more reliable and generous revenue stream.

Hanson says foreign companies exported $35 billion worth of “our gas” last year but paid only $1.9 billion in taxes. She wants the petroleum resource rent tax increased and applied to these companies. She rejects government arguments that this would amount to retrospectivity and could be a sovereign risk. Her defiant response: “I do not accept that. I do not.” The kerfuffle flushed out government plans, as yet announced, to raise the petroleum resource rent tax.

In what amounts to her fourth position on the company tax cuts, she explains that while she supports the first two stages of the personal tax cuts she does not support the last stage. She is now applying the same logic to the final stage of the company tax cuts: they are too far down the track.

Labor seized on these revelations as a “secret deal” and unsuccessfully demanded in question time and Senate estimates that the government spell out its understanding of the agreement with One Nation. The prime minister and Cormann refused to do so. Cormann told a persistent Labor interrogator, Penny Wong, that there is no longer a deal because the condition for one was not met. The Senate had to pass the company tax cuts to trigger any agreements. It’s much like the rewards police offer when information leads to a conviction. Cormann had the agreement with Hanson in writing. He has good reason to think she is not giving the real reason for reneging on it.

There is compelling circumstantial evidence, provided by the Longman byelection in Queensland, that her support for the corporate tax cuts was politically lethal. Labor was already making a big meal of it in the electorate. A ReachTEL poll in Longman for The Australia Institute found 77 per cent of voters wanted the company tax rate to remain as it is or be lifted. Almost 70 per cent of One Nation voters held these views.

In a development that could stymie the Liberal National Party’s chances of defeating Labor’s Susan Lamb, Hanson’s chief of staff, James Ashby, told Ten News they have not decided on where their preferences will go. The only thing locked in is that the “Greens will be last”. Their preferences gave Lamb a narrow victory last time. Hanson says, “I am not here to support either party; I am here to stand up for the people.” The danger of directing preferences to the Liberals has been heightened by her rejection of their core economic policy. As one Labor strategist says, if One Nation preferences the Liberals it is helping to elect a candidate who is committed to tax cuts “for the big banks and the multinationals”.

Little wonder then that Labor was quick to ask the government if it would now abandon the rest of its corporate tax cuts. It was Bill Shorten’s first question to Malcolm Turnbull on the day of the Hanson bombshell. The prime minister said if he can’t get them legislated this term, he will take them to the election. Not all of his colleagues are convinced this is a good idea. Liberal backbenchers are hoping the prime minister comes to his political senses. Ironically, Labor’s Chris Bowen may have given him a formula to do just that.

Bowen told Radio National that the corporate tax cuts “are not the right priority for Australia at this moment”. The opinion polls overwhelmingly support that view. If the voters confirm it in the five byelections – and especially in Longman – it must lead to a discussion along these lines. One senior minister believes this must happen “inevitably”. Midweek, Turnbull dodged a Labor question about ministers thinking now was the right time to drop the tax cuts. He handballed it to Scott Morrison. Neither man denied this was the case.

Cormann is not for turning. When he was asked if he and the government remain committed to the tax cuts, he replied: “Yes, and I can explain why, because it is even more important now than it was when we took it to the 2016 election.” That is seen as a message to stiffen the resolve of Turnbull and Morrison.

While Cormann was pessimistic about ever getting the policy through parliament, the mercurial Hanson has given him a glimmer of hope. Consistency is not her strong suit, but on Tuesday she sounded Trumpesque in the way she was contradicting herself. She capped off her Hobart news conference by saying “business needs immediate relief, not seven or eight years down the track”. It seems that, when you are a vehicle for protest, or anger or resentment, you don’t need the credibility of other mere mortals.

Major party leaders don’t have the same luxury, although Turnbull’s willingness to listen to the realpolitik of his back bench is never guaranteed. Rumblings over the corporate tax cuts have been ignored for months. At Tuesday’s government party room meeting, the prime minister chastised backbencher Sussan Ley for pressing ahead with her private member’s bill to phase out the live sheep trade and ban it in the summer months. She won support from colleagues in an intense debate where 14 other MPs reported the strength of community reaction against the cruel commerce. Politicians have been shocked by the overwhelming number of protests being received in their offices.

Victorian regional MP Russell Broadbent warned Turnbull and the cabinet that the trade had turned from an “issue” to “a vote changer”. But the Nationals and WA Liberals are eyeing the votes and donations of the vested interests behind live exports. While Ley is hoping she can build a consensus in the party room to win the PM’s support for her bill, it may not be resolved in time for the next election. Calls for a banking royal commission went unheeded for more than a year. And with the non-government numbers in the House depleted by the citizenship fiasco there is no immediate threat of the sort of floor-crossing revolt that forced that capitulation.

As the week went on, Turnbull was hit by another of his backbenchers freelancing in parliament over Australia–China relations. In an intervention widely seen as a shot across the bows of both the prime minister and Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Andrew Hastie used parliamentary privilege to name Australian–Chinese businessman Chau Chak Wing as an unindicted co-conspirator in a United States bribery case. Chau has not been charged and has previously disputed allegations against him.

Hastie’s comments follow the furore over Chinese interference during the Bennelong byelection. Turnbull accused then Labor senator Sam Dastyari of tipping off another Chinese billionaire that ASIO was tapping his phone. Unsurprisingly, Beijing took great offence at being singled out in proposed international interference legislation. The government has been scrambling to repair the damage ever since.

Hastie’s intervention coincided with Bishop’s attempts at fence-mending, the schmoozing of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi at the G20 meeting in Argentina. Adding to the intrigue, Turnbull told parliament Hastie had not consulted or forewarned him.

Neither had Hanson.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 26, 2018 as "The maid of contretemps". Subscribe here.

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

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