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QUARTERLY ESSAY 65 The White Queen

 

Correspondence

Lachlan Harris

David Marr is at his best when he is delving deeply into the complex personalities of our political leaders, and charting the mysterious schematics of the movements they build. The White Queen is no exception to this. It’s tough, insightful, meticulously researched and beautifully written. I have seen at first hand just how influential David’s profile pieces can be both on his subjects and on the political zeitgeist in which they operate. I have no doubt The White Queen will continue this tradition and influence both the way we view Pauline Hanson and the way Pauline views herself. It matters not whether she has read the essay, because it’s not reading a Marr essay that changes you; it’s the realisation that in being the subject of such an essay you have, in fact, been accurately read. 

My response to The White Queen, therefore, is not to take issue with what has been written – it’s an excellent profile of an important figure – but rather to provide some context with which to read the essay. This context is an understanding that the structural shift in voting patterns towards the minor parties since at least the early 1990s is not simply a Pauline Hanson or One Nation phenomenon. One Nation and its seemingly indestructible leader are an important part of the shift, but they are not the only reason for a tectonic political change. 

In the most recent federal election, 3,145,200 people cast their primary vote in the lower house for a minor-­party or independent candidate. Only 175,020 of those votes were for One Nation. To put that modest result in perspective, the Nick Xenophon Team won 230,333 votes in eighteen lower-­house seats (One Nation contested fifteen seats), the Christian Democrats won 178,026 votes in fifty-­five seats, and 380,712 voters cast their primary vote for an independent candidate in the seventy-­two seats where at least one independent was on the ballot. 

In other words, even if Pauline had never graduated from frying flathead fillets at Marsden’s Seafood, the minor-­party vote in the 2016 federal election would have been extremely high. Indeed, a close examination of the lower-­house voting data over the last thirty-­odd years reveals that the shift away from the major parties always survives the implosions to which all minor parties are subject, especially One Nation. The minor-­party vote peaks as a particularly potent party rises, and falls after each significant implosion. But every time the peaks are higher, and the troughs not quite so low. This suggests that even if One Nation implodes yet again – a distinct possibility – or if its vote plateaus because of the stunted nature of its political offering, the shift to the minor parties will continue, unrestrained by the political passing, or peaking, of the White Queen. 

Why does understanding the structural integrity of the minor-­party vote matter for David’s essay? Because it will ensure readers avoid conflating the limited political potential of One Nation with the much more durable, and in some ways more ominous, broader appeal of minor parties. David is right to be sceptical about the capacity of One Nation to grow from a protest party to a “programmatic party that’s got a stable set of policy issues.” The racist, protectionist, exclusionary political philosophy that sits at the core of the One Nation fantasy is perfectly designed to generate headlines, clicks, likes and shares, but it is highly unlikely to scale beyond the minor-­party universe. It is too intellectually dishonest to become “programmatic,” and Australia has too many decent, middle-­of-­the-­road voters for the One Nation primary vote to ascend to the major leagues. But none of this means that the kind of populist political turmoil we have seen around the world – Brexit, Trump, the elimination of both establishment parties in the first round of the recent French presidential election – will not, or cannot, happen in Australia. 

Why? Because the broad-­based, enduring nature of the minor-­party vote, rather than the measly, capricious and unstable vote for any particular minor party, suggests that it is not the rusted-­on One Nation voters who will drive the next big unbundling of Australian politics. Rather, it is the voters at the periphery of One Nation (and on the periphery of all the other forty-­five minor parties) who will be the foot soldiers of political change. By weight of numbers alone, this groundswell of voters – who are sceptical, even dubious, about the political legitimacy of the minor parties they are voting for – is the real force to be reckoned with (or resource to be tapped, depending on your political inclination). These reluctant protest voters, driven to the minor parties by chronic dissatisfaction with the majors, could up-­end Australian politics and could well be corralled into a fully scaled-­up, savagely disruptive, programmatic political movement.

I also agree with Marr’s conclusion that the “standard explanation – that these are people left behind by globalisation” does not accurately describe the “decisive component of the Hanson vote.” Reduced to its philosophical core, One Nation is a party set up to take advantage of a xenophobic and racist current that has flowed through Australian politics since the first ballots were cast in our first colonial elections. As George Megalogenis has expertly charted in his book Australia’s Second Chance, this current has ebbed and flowed over the past 200 years, but it has always been part of our political biosphere. Hanson is just the latest in a long line of chancers, shysters and political hucksters to try their luck at fishing for votes in this disreputable stream. 

But what is not true of the One Nation vote may be true of the broader shift to the minor parties. In other words, the centrality of race (and racism) to One Nation is proof neither for nor against the importance of global economic forces in the prolonged structural shift towards the minor parties. 

Complementing David’s insightful analysis of the forces driving the One Nation vote with a matching analysis of the broader forces behind the shift to the minor parties is an essay-­length challenge, currently beyond the limits of this correspondence section, and this correspondent. However, as a starting point I would suggest that just as readers should observe closely the peripheral One Nation voters to get a sense of the major political shift of our time, they should also observe closely the peripheral economic issues now broadening the appeal of One Nation, not just its cancerous racist core. 

In her second coming, the White Queen has readily embraced localism, protectionism, economic nationalism and  hostility to globalisation (in particular, to skilled migration and free trade) as a useful, if secondary, string to her bow. Pauline Hanson doesn’t have the capacity to crystallise these economic discontents into a major national movement. But other, more adroit political leaders, including those currently within the major parties, do have this ability. Some form of protectionism is a recurring theme across almost all of the minor parties, even if it does not dominate One Nation’s rhetoric, and it seems to be gaining favour in both major parties at considerable speed.

Marr strips away much of the euphemistic claptrap we use to describe One Nation and calls it like it is. One Nation is a racist political party, with a racist mission, led by a racist leader. Deal with it. However, it is essential that readers do not confuse political vulnerability to the call of racism with the broader shift to minor parties. To do so would risk making two significant political mistakes. 

First, we risk failing to perceive an ominous, and imminent, threat to Australia’s stable political culture. Second, and more significantly, we risk absolving ourselves of the responsibility to radically reform today’s mainstream political offerings in order to re-­engage the growing army of voters willing to support Pauline Hanson and populist leaders like her. 

I agree with David’s conclusion that the White Queen will never get the chance to rule her kingdom, but if we are lulled into a sense of complacency by One Nation’s profound political flaws, another fallacious monarch from the Hanson side of the family may well get his or her chance.

 

Lachlan Harris is a co-­founder and the CEO of One Big Switch, and was senior press secretary to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

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This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 65, The White Queen. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 66, The Long Goodbye.


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