Australian Fabian Society.  

Douglas McDonald, ‘The One Nation Vote: Up for Grabs?’

In June 1998, the One Nation Party won 22.68% of the vote in the Queensland state election, the second largest total of any single party. In a de facto two-party system, such a result was an unprecedented triumph for a third party. Since 1910, Australian politics have been a contest of ‘Labor’ against ‘non-Labor’; even in Queensland, no party had so disturbed the two-party equilibrium. The party had no ‘name’ candidates, beyond Pauline Hanson (who did not stand); its policies were amorphous; its finances were limited; its advertising was largely restricted to the ‘free’ media. The scale of its vote was never hinted at in any poll.

Despite these disadvantages, a party opposed to economic rationalism, opposed to tariff reduction, supporting greater government intervention in the economy and whose leader praised Labor leader Arthur Calwell as ‘a great Australian’ enjoyed astonishing support. The consequences of this movement for conservative politics have become articles of faith, with John Howard’s socially conservative rhetoric and refugee policies attributed to his desire to attract the ‘Hanson vote’. However, the consequences of the Hanson movement for progressive politics have been little discussed. In many ways, Hanson’s party may be characterised in terms of the social-democratic tradition. There exists a substantial cohort of voters who agree with traditional Labor economic policies, yet are not represented by any major party.

Hanson’s supporters were disproportionately former supporters of the National Party, drawing greatest support in Queensland country seats. The Nationals, deriving their policies not from ideology but from the immediate practical needs of its constituency, cannot merely be characterised as an identical twin to the Liberal Party. Barnaby Joyce, who despite his ‘maverick’ image is more characteristic of Nationals tradition than Warren Truss or Mark Vaile, describes the party’s ideals as ‘agrarian, socialist principles’, that the market, ‘unguided...will walk over you’, and that ‘market power ultimately destroys market theory.’ His self-application of the term ‘agrarian socialism’, devised as a pejorative epithet, indicates a peculiar fusion of very conservative social policies with progressive economics, such as Joyce’s total or partial opposition to voluntary student unionism, workplace reform, and the sale of Telstra, which enjoys support from a significant constituency. This ideology derives from John McEwen’s decades-long support for tariff protection, industrial development and a regulated economy, and the National Party tradition of government subsidies for regional industries and the promotion of employment.

This Queensland political tradition was inherited by One Nation. Prior to the Queensland state election, the party released a paltry list of policies. Their primary industries policy is nearly 3000 words long, while their budget proposals comprise 666 words – evidence, if more were needed, of the party’s strong rural focus. Even if insubstantial, the rhetoric of these policies is premised in more explicitly anti-market terms than any major party. One Nation’s ‘budget savings’ are focused on the peculiar bugbears of the party – multiculturalism, Aboriginal affairs, political perks – but does not indicate any intent to abolish the expansion of state spending since 1989. The party declares that ‘economic rationalism has no place in the formation of an education policy’, plans for a $48 million wage subsidy scheme for training apprentices, criticises Rob Borbidge for ‘under-funding disability services, child care and child protection agencies’, and states that it will maintain ‘constant pressure on the federal government to resist economic rationalism and globalisation.’

Admittedly, these do not derive from a deep ideological attachment to social democracy; they are populist measures responding to problems of the moment. However, Hanson’s economic policies are inextricable from her social policies. Her attack upon ‘financial bankers...investment companies and big business people’ reflect genuine concern regarding income inequality, the effects of globalisation and an unregulated free market. The 1998 Queensland state election was not merely a right-wing revolt against bipartisan support for multiculturalism, reconciliation and the secular society, but a left-wing revolt against deregulation, privatisation and globalisation.
The political influence of this constituency – socially conservative yet supporting economic policies well to the left of Liberal or Labor – may already have been manifested in the election of Kevin Rudd. The greatest swings against the Coalition – in Dawson, Leichhardt, Forde, Flynn and Blair– were in regional Queensland, areas where One Nation enjoyed its strongest support. The magnitude of these swings far outweighed the over-stated effect of the Sydney suburban vote, home of the ‘Howard battlers’. John Howard, who won the support of much of Hanson’s disparate movement through his policies on refugees and multiculturalism, alienated this ‘agrarian socialist’ constituency through neoliberal economic policies. This suggests that there is far greater potential support for an economically progressive government in Australia than previously realised: that a significant portion of Coalition voters may be captured by Labor through populism on trade, corporations and service provision.

In light of this, Labor should make an aggressive play to capture country seats at the next election. There is precedent in the United States for this ‘150-electorate strategy’, with conservative Democrats such as Jim Webb, Heath Shuler, and Mark Warner winning ‘deep-red’ states through emphasis on a populist economic agenda, and distancing themselves from ‘liberal’ social policies. While the potential for ‘product differentiation’ in the United States is greater (due to less restrictive party discipline), this may suggest that Labor’s expansion into previously hostile regions of the country would be well-served by reforms to party-line voting and the operation of the House of Representatives. Bob Carr’s abortive idea to establish a Potemkin ‘Country Labor’ party reflects the same ideal: that country voters may be severed from the Coalition base through appeals to economic uncertainty, much as John Howard used social policies to divide the Labor base.

In conclusion, Labor cannot be restricted merely to competing in marginal suburban seats through a small-target strategy to minimise differences. Millions of Australians, who saw in Hanson a populist tribune against bipartisan consensus, are unrepresented and hostile to ‘politics as usual.’ Labor, a party with a long tradition of anti-establishment, redistributive policies, is best placed to capture this constituency.

© Australian Fabians Inc. 2016