The New Face of Politics

The success of the One Nation party in Queensland augurs a shake-up in Australia's political status quo


Hope is a rare commodity in rural Queensland, where drought and downsizing have taken a heavy toll of late. In the once wealthy goldmining town of Gympie, 170 km north of the state capital, Brisbane, unemployment is almost twice the national average. Says Lutheran pastor August Fricke: "Most people have given up on the future." Many of his parishioners, he says, feel disenfranchised: "They feel they belong to the world's losers."

At Saturday's state election, those voters --like thousands of others across the state--were baying for political blood. The race between Labor and the governing National- Liberal coalition was always going to be close--each side held 44 seats in an 89-seat parliament--but this time almost a quarter of voters rejected the major parties in favor of One Nation, a party barely a year old. Led by Pauline Hanson, who won the federal parliamentary seat of Oxley as an Independent in 1996, One Nation--which advocates trade tariffs and a halt to immigration--captured at least 10 seats. By close of counting on Sunday, it looked as though the party could even win the balance of power and consolidate as a third force in Australian politics. Says University of Queensland politics lecturer Ian Ward: "There is no parallel for this kind of phenomenon in recent times."

Though it had just 5% support six months ago, Hanson's party dominated media coverage throughout the campaign, making the front pages in every city in the country, including Perth--4,650 km from Brisbane. Said election analyst Malcolm Mackerras last week: "There is a single issue, and that's Pauline Hanson." The coverage was mostly negative--One Nation's Noosa candidate hit the headlines when he was expelled over his assertion that Pope John Paul II sold cyanide gas to the Nazis--but the mud throwing seemed only to boost the new party's popularity. Labor and the Coalition were left touting their employment, health and crime policies to those who would listen.

For the electorate it was payback time. One Nation's victorious candidate in Gympie, 54-year-old auctioneer Ian Petersen, says "regional Queensland has never had such a bashing"--and governments' obsession with economic rationalism is to blame. According to Petersen, slick city-based theorists have ruled by decree, ignoring their constituents. "People out here are hurting," he says. "Those galoots in Brisbane and Canberra bung on an Akubra hat and go to the country, but they have no idea." In depressed rural areas Hanson's economic platform--which includes subsidies, import bans and foreign ownership restrictions--has found an eager audience. "People want a change," says gold miner Horst Wilfert. "We've tried Labor, we've tried Liberal, and this is a brand new thing."

But critics argue that there is nothing new about Hanson's policies. Bill Nunn, the former Labor member for Hervey Bay, 100 km from Gympie, who lost his seat to One Nation after nine years, says Hanson's ideas appeal to those who want "the certainty of a bygone age, when there was plenty of work and everybody had a quid." Her supporters don't care when academics call her simplistic: "We've got to get back to simplicity and start again," says Hervey Bay shopkeeper Gay Reeve. Hanson speaks about their concerns in down-to-earth language. "She's a straight shooter," says Gympie receptionist Maureen Thomas. "A lot of people think along the same lines but they're not game to say it." Says Hervey Bay childcare worker Teresa Mitchell: "Everyone is trying to put her down. They all have tactics but it's not going to work." Ross Fitzgerald, professor of politics at Griffith University, says: "Hanson is a symbol, a repository for rage and resentment, so the lack of substance doesn't really matter."

Politicians may complain that One Nation threatens Australia's international credibility, but "that doesn't mean a thing to somebody who's about to be laid off," says Paul Reynolds, reader in government at the University of Queensland. "These people have nothing to lose by voting for One Nation." But the party's gains come with a warning, he says. Voters have invested hope in Hanson--the anti-politician--and they will be just as angry with her if she fails them. "The protest vote is fickle," says Reynolds. "People who vote for you today because they're voting against something else are just as likely to desert you next time around."

Queensland's established political parties will be counting on it. One Nation has clawed away the National Party's rural support base and snatched at least four seats from Labor. Nationally, the fallout may be even more damaging. Mackerras says that if Prime Minister John Howard carries out his vow to send both houses of the federal parliament to the polls soon, he will "press the self-destruct trigger": One Nation, he predicts, could win nine Senate seats.

It was Howard who capitalized on voter anger in 1996, when he won office with the promise that Australians would feel "relaxed and comfortable" again. Two years on, says Ward, "One Nation is appealing to a constituency Howard had marked out as his own." Last month Howard dismissed One Nation as mere "noise on the side." Perhaps it was a noise he and his Labor counterparts should have paid more attention to.