Symptoms of panic in Pauline’s Senate stoush
Pauline Hanson’s tears of rage on live TV last week heralded a familiar collapse into histrionics for her One Nation party.
But her meltdown also offered a glimpse into the panic of the Lilliputian protest parties that have dominated the Senate crossbench since Clive Palmer burst onto the scene in 2014.
They haven’t capitalised on the 20 per cent disaffected vote up for grabs to create a coherent third force in politics, and they fear their moment has passed.
The unseen hand in all of this is Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, the Coalition’s affable Senate whisperer, who painstakingly has won over the crossbench with superhuman courtesy and has negotiated through a good slab of government policy. No one has a bad word to say about him.
The same cannot be said for Hanson.
“She has her moods,” sneers Senator Brian Burston, the latest of a long line of male loyalists spectacularly discarded by the Iron Lady from Ipswich.
Once so close he moved into the same apartment building in Canberra as Hanson and her gay live-in chief of staff James Ashby, 39, now they communicate by press release. The estrangement, which began six months ago with a serious of small slights, exploded in a Please Resign letter from Hanson sent to Burston on Friday a few minutes before 2GB host Ben Fordham read it on air.
Burston, 70, a boilermaker and deputy mayor of Cessnock before he joined the Hanson bandwagon two decades ago, now calls the party “I Nation” and says Hanson thinks she’s “president for life”.
“It’s very sad,” he says. “But it’s all self-inflicted on her part.”
Their simmering antipathy came to a head last week after Hanson welshed on her deal with Cormann to pass the $35.6 billion corporate tax cuts.
“We all shook hands on the deal, a list written down on paper, the biggest deal for a crossbench Mathias said he’d ever negotiated … He’s a very clever man. We went through the deal in detail with Mathias, and we fully understood what the deal was,” Burston says.
That was March. Then, two weeks ago, Burston was “blindsided” to read in the newspapers that Hanson had changed her mind.
He says he never agreed to the backflip and had sent a text message to Ashby at 8.46pm on May 21, saying: “We need to have a face-to-face re the company tax cuts. I am not comfortable reneging on a handshake deal we made … We will lose our credibility if we walk away from this.”
Ashby, knowing the bombshell to be unleashed in The Australian the next day, mentioned nothing in his reply: “I think it’s a good idea for you to all have those discussions.”
For Burston it was the last straw. He decided then to defy Hanson and honour his promise: “My word is my bond. That’s the way my father brought me up.”
Hanson’s miraculous resurrection at the 2016 election had given her four senators and the Australian government on her leash.
Now there are two, Hanson, 64, and sparky Peter Georgiou, 44, the accidental WA senator who replaced his brother-in-law, her disqualified first pick, ex farmer Rod Culleton, with whom she has also fallen out.
Hanson is back with the pack, and to get the eight votes he needs to pass legislation, Cormann can bypass One Nation altogether for the first time since the 2016 election. If Burston hooks up with David Leyonhjelm, Cory Bernardi, and the other recent One Nation escapee Fraser Anning, that makes their loose conservative/ libertarian alliance the most powerful grouping.
No wonder Hanson fell apart with Fordham on Sky News on Thursday, attacking Burston as a “backstabber”.
“She seems to make a habit of this,” says Hanson’s original mentor, crocodile hunter John Pasquarelli, 80, who wrote the “swamped by Asians” maiden speech in 1996, but was discarded soon after for David Oldfield, who became her chief of staff and lover.
“Longman is the test,” he says from Thailand. “If she crashes that’s almost game over.”
“I love Pauline,” Burston says. “She’s a fabulous girl. I was the most loyal bloody supporter … But Ashby is the problem.
“When I first got elected I was always by her side at press conferences. Now who’s there? It’s Ashby. He’s another David Oldfield out to control her.”
About six months ago, he and Georgiou started being “excluded from decision-making”. Then Hanson refused to endorse them for the next election.
“Which one of you two could lead the party if I wasn’t here?” she said.
Burston suspects Hanson was talking to former Labor leader Mark Latham about taking his spot on the NSW Senate ticket.
Latham, who joined Leyonhjelm’s Liberal Democrats a year ago, will only say he’s been “approached by four different parties to run in the NSW Senate”. His family is unenthusiastic about a return to politics, though he doesn’t rule it out for ever.
“The minor parties, four or five of them, are fishing from the same pond,” he says.
“Putting them together is like herding cats.”
Latham quips that the person who could combine the protest parties of the right as a single force could “solve the Middle-East crisis”.
Meanwhile, Cormann, who has more in common with The Terminator than his accent, allowed himself an uncharacteristic gesture of triumph last week when he tweeted “I’ll be back” over a cartoon of himself, all beaten up, one red eye glowing.
If he does get the company tax cuts through, he deserves the Nobel Peace prize.
The Iron Lady from Ipswich Pauline Hanson.