If 1998 is remembered in Australian political history for nothing else—a probable assumption, given the administrative gridlock which otherwise prevailed—it will go down in the annals for two events: Prime Minister John Howard’s upset reelection on October 3; and, of longer-term significance, Pauline Hanson’s failure to retain her parliamentary seat. This latter development eliminated the last few semantic distinctions between vultures and political commentators, whether in Australia or abroad (British and Asian newspaper coverage of the election result was devoted to almost nothing else). Saying the last rites for Mrs. Hanson or for her One Nation party, however, will prove as reckless as were these same commentators’ assurances six months ago of her absolute invincibility.
What she has already achieved is formidable. At Queensland’s state election on June 13, One Nation won 11 parliamentary seats (from a total of 89) and 23 percent of the popular vote. The woman whose star had so completely faded by early 1998 that she seemed merely “to point a moral or adorn a tale” for journalists on an exceptionally dull Tuesday afternoon — in fact, on June 13 she did not even stand as a candidate—returned, to constitute the stuff of the chattering classes’ nightmares. Even she failed to predict her troops’ success. (As one subsequently disenchanted party member told reporters, One Nation had been devoting most of its resources not to the state poll but to the imminent federal Senate campaign: “We [the state election candidates] were just cannon-fodder.”) The humiliation of Mr. Howard’s party colleagues by the electorate on that occasion indicated that the chief threat Mrs. Hanson posed was to the Liberal- National Coalition. Queensland’s National Party leader Rob Borbidge insisted that—despite the special loathing in which One Nation held him because of his acquiescence in Mr. Howard’s 1996 anti-gun laws—he could safely ignore such One Nation bumper-stickers as “Shooters Put National Liars Last.” This was the biggest mistake of Mr. Borbidge’s life. Before June 13, he was Queensland’s premier. He is now Queensland’s former premier. (“Put[ting] National Liars Last” refers to Australia’s bizarre preferential suffrage system, which requires each voter to rank all candidates in his state or federal electorate by writing the digits 1, 2, 3, 4, etc., beside the candidates’ names on the ballot paper.) For days after the election, in which his Liberal-National team had been savaged, Mr. Borbidge tried cobbling together an alliance that would grant to One Nation most of what it wanted, while keeping the opposition Labor Party out of power. He failed, and Labor’s Peter Beattie—who, unlike Mr. Borbidge, had maintained before votes were cast that in no circumstances would he give One Nation coalition-partner status —now occupies the premiership, controlling Queensland’s unicameral legislature with an independent parliamentarian’s conditional support.
Two quotations summarize the situation after Mrs. Hanson’s Queensland triumph. One comes from the lady herself, milling around the tally-room floor as the nation’s cameras captured her delight at the outcome: Asked how she accounted for this success, she assured the Fourth Estate, “You just weren’t listening.” The other great phrase comes from a Brisbane-based, newly recruited One Nation supporter, explaining to the Sydney Morning Herald on June 12 the epiphany which had steeled him to vote for Pauline rather than for the prime minister’s associates: “I saw a politician’s lips move,” he said, “and they weren’t talking bulls–t.”
By law, there did not have to be an Australian federal election before March 1999; but after June 13, Mr. Howard could not have been thrust more obviously or desperately into electioneering mode—even if he were being preceded by a gaggle of drum majorettes. Nor could he have looked more like a loser. Whenever he obeyed his natural instincts of ignoring Mrs. Hanson, in the belief that she would wither once denied what Margaret Thatcher called “the oxygen of publicity,” he was assailed by colleagues as well as the mass media for not demonstrating “leadership.” Whenever he worked himself up into a denunciation of Mrs. Hanson, his efforts were condemned as being too little, too late. The dissipation of electoral and moral authority which it took Malcolm Eraser (who served as prime minister from 1975-1983) five years to achieve, Mr. Howard effected in two. In mid-1997, it was still possible to view Mr. Howard as the contemporary counterpart to Mr. Eraser after the latter’s 1980 near-defeat: on the ropes, true, yet not on the canvas, and perfectly capable of landing an uppercut upon an insufficiently deferential referee’s jaw. After the Queensland election result, however, the obvious comparison was with Cough Whitiam’s last shambolic months of office, during 1975, when the only question seriously concerning his intimates was how completely his government would be defeated. But at least Mr. Whitlam had managed to notch up two (narrow) electoral successes before his teeth hit the sidewalk. Mr. Howard looked set to become the first prime minister in almost 70 years to lose office after a single term. Moreover, the last figure to suffer this indignity, James Scullin in 1931, had—by Howard standards —a positively Rasputin-like survival instinct: He forfeited power only because a third of his Labor Party parliamentarians bolted to the opposition. No such schism extenuated Mr. Howard’s ineffectuality.
To the damage inflicted upon him by Mrs. Hanson, Mr. Howard appeared determined to add a cyanide cocktail of his very own devising: his insistence that, if re-elected, he and federal Treasurer Peter Costello would implement a ten percent across-the-board consumption tax. This occurred despite his answer in 1996 to the question of whether a consumption tax was back on his agenda: “Never, ever, ever.” The last Australian party official before Mr. Howard to advocate comprehensively taxing goods and services was Dr. John Hewson, a former Liberal Party leader. In the 1993 election, Dr. Hewson lumbered himself with the promise of just such a tax, and was trounced by incumbent Paul Keating. To Kim Beazley, who has led the Labor Party since Mr. Keating’s landslide defeat in March 1996, the Howard-Costello fixation upon conjuring up extra taxes was a godsend. Not that Mr. Beazley’s team had a conspicuous alternative on display; but then the Vision Thing’s absence neither disturbed Mr. Beazley nor antagonized his supporters, most of whom have understandably reckoned since Labor’s 1996 debacle that the Vision Thing was what finished Mr. Keating off. Mr. Beazley owes his very existence as opposition leader to the fact that more ideologically driven candidates lost their parliamentary seats in 1996, or else—in the case of former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans—remained stranded in the Senate. (Though no legislation exists to prevent a senator from leading the Liberal or Labor Parties, convention has forbidden it. The last senator to lead either party was the Liberals’ Sir John Gorton, who attained the prime ministry in 1968.) By the time Mr. Evans quit the Senate and bustled into the House of Representatives, he was in no position to challenge Mr. Beazley no matter how much he might have wanted to. Given the apparent Howard-Costello death wish, and the absence of a serious challenge from within his own party’s ranks, all VIr. Beazley needed to do was to do “nothing in particular,” and he “did it very well.”
Ultimately, even doing nothing did not quite suffice to propel his globose frame over the finish line first. On every issue except tax reform, the Howard Cabinet was already carrying out whatever Labor wanted, and more. A visitor to Australia, if forced to endure government spokesmen’s utterances, would conclude that Labor still ruled. The criminalization of gun-owners is enthusiastically defended; the babbling about the twin glories of multiculturalism and mass immigration continues; a renewed high-sounding, $185-million War on Drugs is waged, whatever cognitive dissonances occur between this policy and an unlimited intake of Asians; the endless provision—and, where necessary, judicial invention—of aboriginal “land rights” is still upheld, with not the faintest understanding that the aboriginal problem is primarily a medical rather than a legal or real-estate matter, and that any “aboriginal policy” which refuses to concentrate upon weaning aborigines from alcohol is a cruel hoax. Moreover, Labor and the Liberals had made an electoral pact by which every One Nation candidate would be placed last on each party’s voting ticket. In this, they benefited from aid by the left-wing Australian Democrats, represented in the Senate ever since its foundation in 1977 upon a policy platform that included, among other novel delights, legalizing bestiality. In October 1997, the Democrats had suffered a humiliating blow in the defection of their charismatic if meretricious leader, Cheryl Kernot, to Labor. Nevertheless, under Mrs. Kernot’s successor, Meg Lees, they overcame this tribulation, especially after Mrs. Lees distracted her party’s attention from tax issues (on which it was divided) to emphasizing Mrs. Hanson’s boundless Satanism (on which it was entirely united).
With Laborites, Liberals, the Democrats, and a new ethnic lobby called “Unity: Say No To Hanson” having formed an anti-One-Nation Popular Front, with only a handful of Nationals opposing this front (and with even those Nationals acting primarily through fear of a pro-Hanson rural backlash), the federal election could never be the pushover for One Nation that the Queensland poll had been. Particular attention fell upon Mrs. Hanson’s own Queensland electorate of Blair, less demographically sympathetic to her appeal than was her original seat of Oxley. Her door-knocking campaigns proved a disappointment, adding to the problems she had already incurred from the dismissal of her confidante, Barbara Hazelton, in June. Mrs. Hazelton had spectacularly fallen out with Mrs. Hanson’s friend, and alleged Svengali, David Oldfield, who had helped restructure One Nation to ensure unchallenged rule of the party by a triumvirate consisting of Mr. Oldfield, Mrs. Hanson, and Brisbane businessman David Ettridge. This led to protests by the party’s rank-and-file against so “undemocratic” an arrangement, though it was uncertain how One Nation could prosper as merely one more social club for believers in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, self-declared UFO kidnap victims, conspiracy theorists aflame with news of the Pope invading Sydney Harbor in a submarine, and other such heterodox scholars already over-represented in One Nation’s membership.
So when the election results began trickling in on the evening of October 3, certain factors were predictable, even if Mr. Howard’s own success was not. Mrs. Hanson did badly in Blair, and within days, she had conceded defeat. Less predictably, Mr. Oldfield’s bid for a Senate position had been thwarted by preferences from the Democrats as well as from the three biggest parties. (Parties’ official preference decisions play, if anything, a stronger part in the Senate’s composition than in that of the House of Representatives. Only six percent of the Australian electorate bothers, when filling out a Senate ballot form, to indicate preferences at all. The other 94 percent merely mark one box to indicate one part}’.) Heather Hill, the One Nation candidate whose failure to gain a state seat had been among the Queensland election’s surprises, succeeded in entering the Senate; but after the party’s long-standing dreams of obtaining enough Senate strength to block or geld whatever pro-immigration, pro-multiculturalism, and pro-U.N. bills the House of Representatives served up, it was a singularly discouraging performance.
While Labor won more than half of the popular vote, it wasted most of its ballot-box success by scoring big swings in seats which it already controlled, rather than by prizing away marginal seats which it needed to acquire. This disparity enabled Mr. Howard to astonish himself and almost everyone else by clinging to office, with a majority that at first was predicted to be only five seats, but later emerged as 12. Labor offset its gains in Western Australia (Mr. Beazley’s home state), Tasmania, Queensland, and South Australia by its failure to make a significant impact in Victoria and, in particular. New South Wales. Gareth Evans, himself from Victoria, greeted this loss with the announcement that, rather than endure another period in opposition, he would leave Parliament and, as he elegantly put it, “get a life.” Only the public outcry at the $2.4 million retirement package to which Mr. Evans would thereby entitle himself, however much he earned subsequently in the private sector, made him relent.
Meanwhile, amid Mr. Howard’s euphoria—he now hyperventilates about having been supplied with a “mandate” for his tax reform, much as a death-row inmate handed the governor’s pardon might suppose himself immortal —and Mr. Beazley’s appropriate confidence of winning the next election in 2001, One Nation retains the status it had before October 3: as the only parliamentary vehicle left for mobilizing Middle Australian Radicals, hi this respect, the recent poll changed nothing. Those commentators who imagine that One Nation without Mrs. Hanson will resemble a headless chicken fail to comprehend the simple statistic which drove the Economist, in its October 10-16 issue, to squeaks of editorial horror: Of the 12 million Australians who cast their ballots in October, one million voted for Hanson-endorsed candidates. Despite daily abuse of their beliefs in radio and television bulletins, despite Labor-Liberal sweetheart deals for which no one ever had an opportunity to vote, one million Australians still wanted “a choice, not an echo.”
The brutal truth of what this means to the big parties—the National Party above all—was acerbically expressed by Bill Gossage, a farmer of western New South Wales who recently emerged as a Hansonite after having campaigned for decades on the Nationals’ behalf hi the Sydney Morning Herald on July 1, Mr. Gossage excoriated Primary Industry Minister John Anderson, within whose electorate he lives. “People in the bush,” he observed,
are angrier [with Anderson and his fellow Nationals] than they ever were with Labor. This is because in the minds of bush voters Labor was always expected to be the baddie. . . . When I went to see Anderson to complain about the guns issue, he asked me: “Who else would you vote for?” By Christ, he wouldn’t ask us that now.