There are few Australian politicians who receive as much critical commentary scrutiny as the One Nation senator from Queensland, Ms Pauline Hanson. A case could certainly be made that media obsession with Ms Hanson tends to be way out of proportion to the share of the vote her party won at the last federal election (a national vote for the House of Representatives of 1.3 and a national Senate vote of  4.3 percent). There are no One Nation members in the House of Representatives. There were four One Nation senators elected in 2016, but, since then, the number has fallen thanks to disqualifications and defections.

To put it bluntly, One Nation is a fringe player in Australian politics. Recent events however have led to the emergence of a different narrative about One Nation that gives the party and its leader credit for a lot more power and influence in Australia than they actually do have. A recent Al Jazeera documentary that entrapped One Nation officials in to discussing the possibility of securing donations from the NRA has been the latest manifestation of this approach. The piquancy of this documentary was doubtlessly enhanced by recent events in New Zealand, and the rather vulgar exchanges between One Nation and the NRA on the question of how to influence gun laws in Australia looked even worse in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre.

Given his behaviour and the hyperbole of his claims, antics of Pauline Hanson’s chief of staff, James Ashby, as exposed by Al Jazeera would have looked vaguely amusing had the Christchurch massacre not happened. But even in the aftermath of this truly terrible event, and even if the claim that someone like Pauline Hanson has to take some of the responsibility for Christchurch (which, by the way, is an outrageous imputation), the commentary community should try to maintain a sense of perspective about One Nation.

The reality is that One Nation is but one of a very large number of recently formed political parties seeking to exploit a sense of growing dissatisfaction with the Liberal and National parties amongst conservative voters. This dissatisfaction is most noticeable in the Senate where the Coalition primary vote has now fallen to levels commensurate with the ALP which, of course, has also been losing ground not to One Nation but to the Greens. The national vote for minor parties of the right of centre has been growing to between 15 to 20 percent! This vote tends to be spread over as many as 20 to 30 parties, however.

One Nation is but one of a number of parties trying to win as large a share of this vote as possible. It has very limited success in this endeavour. One Nation is primarily a Queensland phenomenon. In the 2016 Senate contest, One Nation polled 9 percent of the vote. With favourable preference flows from all the other right wing minor parties, One Nation secured two seats in Queensland. This was made possible by the fact that the 2016 Senate election was for all of the Senate rather than for half of the Senate – and this was due to the then prime minister Malcolm Turnbull calling a double dissolution election. Thus we have Mr Turnbull to thank for there being more One Nation senators than just Pauline Hanson.

One Nation has far less appeal beyond Queensland. In New South Wales, One Nation competes with the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party for the vote of disillusioned regional and rural voters. One Nation has had a presence in Western Australian state politics and the party polls well there in federal elections. In Tasmania, however, Jackie Lambie has displaced One Nation, whilst more centrist parties such as Centre Alliance (the old Nick Xenophon Team) and the Derryn Hinch Justice Party have greater appeal in South Australia and Victoria respectively.

It will be very difficult for One Nation to increase its representation at the next election. The next Senate contest will be a half-Senate election and candidates will need to secure 14.4 percent of the vote to win a seat. At 9 percent, One Nation will be a long way short even in the stronghold of Queensland and will have to rely on doing preference deals with other parties including Bob Katter’s party. Senator Hanson was one of these senators elected last time who obtained a 6 year term, and does not have to contest the 2019 election. Without its leader seeking re-election, the One Nation vote may be even lower than the last election.

The question of preference dealing also arises here. In 2016, the Then Turnbull government abolished the regulation whereby a full allocation of preferences would occur where an elector opted to vote above the line on the Senate ballot. This reform was undertaken to impede the ability of parties such as One Nation to enjoy a full flow of preferences from the large number of electors voting for other right wing minor parties. One Nation and all those other minor parties that lack the resources to issue how to vote cards at every polling station will find it difficult to instruct their voters on how to direct their preferences.

In short, One Nation is a minor political participant with a dysfunctional organisation and an over-developed sense of its influence – a situation assisted by the often hyperbolic reaction many in the commentary community have to the party and its leader. Senator Hanson will be in the next Senate, but she may have few, if any, party colleagues with her. One Nation is nowhere near as influential as some have tried to imply.

  • by Nick Economou

Dr Nicholas Economou teaches politics at Monash University’s Clayton campus in Melbourne, Australia.

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