Fragile on the fringe: One Nation unlikely to become a genuine right-wing alternative

Simon Cowan

18 March 2017 | Canberra Times

pauline-hansonAs the Western Australian senate count limps along, One Nation have passed the Greens in terms of percentage vote. Predictions are they will now get two upper house seats and the narrative around their result may change from shame to… well, if not pride then at least less shame.

Yet the WA result makes it clear it will not be as simple as One Nation riding a wave of populist dissent to a permanent place on the political landscape. The pitfalls have claimed a number of previous contenders, including the original iteration of One Nation.

Their biggest challenge will be to convert disgruntled right wing ex-liberal voters into One Nation supporters. One Nation may have polled around 4.3% nationally at the last election but not many of those voters are long time One Nation supporters. One Nation barely broke 0.5% in either 2013 or 2010.

Those disgruntled voters have instead floated between a number of parties, rarely staying in one place for long — The Palmer United Party being one prominent example, polling nearly 5% nationally in 2013 and just 0.2% in 2016.

Not only are protest voters fickle, they also don’t like protest parties working constructively with government. One Nation may need to negotiate preference and policy deals with the major parties to satisfy their base, but doing so risks losing the bulk of their voters.

Even the Greens — themselves a successful example of converting a protest vote into an enduring political force — have faced difficulties with their supporters for doing deals with the Liberal government.

Indeed, One Nation’s likely goal is to replicate the position of Greens on the opposite wing. A right wing alternative to the Liberals, who may hold the balance of power in the Senate.

However, One Nation will find this much harder than the Greens did for a number of reasons. First is One Nation’s lack of appeal to economic rationalists. The political compass has two axes: social and economic. One of the successes of the Greens is that they have managed to secure the votes of both the economic hard left (think Lee Rhiannon) and the social / environmental hard left.

One Nation’s protectionist, anti-trade rhetoric means free-marketeers will give One Nation a wide berth.

The second challenge in replicating the Greens’ relative success is the lack of grass roots organisations on the right. The Greens drew heavily on the environmental movement for their initial momentum. Australia lacks the active evangelical communities that provide grass roots support for the US right. The Liberals have had decades to organise a base, One Nation will have to create one from scratch.

The difficulty in doing this is evident in the troubles One Nation has had with their candidate selection process. In order to run candidates nationally, the party has been forced to draw on inexperienced candidates and those who have defected from major parties, with all the teething difficulties and baggage that brings.

The lack of organisation also causes problems for the administration of the party — as a number of minor parties that have been catapulted to national success have found.

Even if they manage to get over this initial hump, this will not be the end of the challenges. Two of the biggest issues they face will arise if they continue their early success.

The most obvious is that a populist national agenda will occasionally conflict with a populist state agenda. No better example arises than the GST distribution. Pauline Hanson’s support of a rebalancing of GST revenue to WA would undoubtedly be a popular position in WA. However, not so much in Queensland, which could lose out. The major parties might like to learn that lesson too — sometimes you are better off standing for a principle than a poll result.

The last, and perhaps most significan,t challenge is Hanson herself. The mere fact it is called Pauline Hanson’s One Nation says much. Not only does Hanson have a tendency to get into trouble by straying off topic — such as her absurd anti-vaxxer comments — but she has her own political baggage.

Beyond this, Hanson can’t be everywhere forever. The party will eventually have to stand apart from Hanson if it wants to succeed. It will be harder even for One Nation than it was for the Greens moving on from Bob Brown. Brown may have been the heart and soul of the Greens, but Hanson is the identity of One Nation. However many upper house reps One Nation gets in WA, they have a lot further to go if they want political legitimacy.

Simon Cowan is Research Manager at the Centre for Independent Studies

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