The incoherence of the Australian right
“My words appear to leave you cold; Poor babes, I will not be your scolder: Reflect, the Devil, he is old, To understand him, best grow older.” – Goethe, Faust Part 2, lines 6815–18
Say what you like about Satan, but he does at least give a fair price for souls. Faust got 24 years of worldly knowledge and pleasure in exchange for his; Robert Johnson mastered the blues overnight. Pauline Hanson was not so generous with the Liberal Party in Western Australia. The Liberals traded their integrity for One Nation preferences at the state election last month, and were rewarded with a pasting of historic proportions. The result was an electoral keelhauling that saw Labor win 41 seats, the Liberals’ semi-estranged coalition partner the Nationals stabilise, and One Nation crawl to 4.9% of the vote. It was supposed to be the new dawn of an Australian Le Pen – when the Liberals sold themselves out, polling showed One Nation threatening 13% of the primary vote – and instead finished with Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) on par with Fluoride Free WA as an electoral force. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, self-exiled from the hustings, spent the day with the staff of the satirical news site the Betoota Advocate. Whether he was drowning his sorrows, secretly celebrating or simply didn’t care anymore, it was hard to say. The federal minister for finance, Mathias Cormann, one of the architects of the disastrous preference swap, refused to rule out a repeat at the federal level. One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts was more upbeat. On Twitter he claimed that the party was on track for three seats: “3 is a great start from zero! Increase of 300%.” Punditry was less kind, as was federal Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce. One Nation had had “a bit of a shocker”, he said, and the horsetrading had been a “mistake”. Remarkably, one of the fiercest critics of the deal was Pauline Hanson herself, who blamed a lack of voter education for her poor showing.
In fact, voters had educated themselves about Hanson very well, certainly better than the press or most of her fellow politicians. Even One Nation candidates cottoned on. Margaret Dodd, running for the seat of Scarborough, quit the party just 24 hours before the poll. In a statement she said that “PHON in my eyes are not about the WA people and their future but for personal power for Senator Hanson, who will do and say anything to achieve her goal at whatever cost”. “Saying anything” had extended to mid-campaign endorsements of both Vladimir Putin and a pre-vaccination “test” no one had heard of, off-piste pronouncements that had left even the disaffected in the electorate bewildered. The protest vote found a home elsewhere, and, in a karmic footnote, a federal One Nation senator came down with measles.
In the aftermath, the Western Australian election looks like an inversion of the explanations for Donald Trump and Brexit. Ordinary voters held the line against populist rabble-rousing, while elements of the political class were