CANBERRA OBSERVED News Weekly
Splintering of support gets under PM's skin
, February 25, 2017
The continuing fracturing of Australian politics is symptomatic of an international phenomenon, the only difference being that Australia is coming relatively late to the party.
Australia is not like Italy or France, but the situation here is increasingly reflecting an electorate that is no longer rusted on to Labor or the Coalition, which have dominated post-World War II politics.
In recent months we have seen the re-emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation as a major force in Australian politics, just as Cory Bernardi decided finally to split from the Liberal Party to form his own Australian Conservatives group.
South Australia-based Senator Bernardi’s national support is yet to be tested and there is undoubtedly some crossover among his supporters and One Nation supporters, particularly from Australians concerned about radical Islam. However, Bernardi is likely to hold a higher proportion of the conservative Christian vote.
Other splinter groups include (Bob) Katter’s Australian Party, based in Queensland, and NXT, the Nick Xenophon Team, based in South Australia.
Jacqui Lambie is the sole remaining former member of the Palmer United Party (itself a splinter group from the Queensland LNP) but is now an independent senator in Tasmania, with strong links to the CMFEU and who votes almost always with Labor.
This summary does not include the full panoply (there are other groupings including Shooters, Fishers and Farmers and the Liberal Democrats) but it serves to demonstrate the sudden complexity of the Australian political landscape and the difficulty of either of the major political groupings – the ALP on one side, the Liberals and the Nationals on the other – being able to govern in its own right.
Whereas the Labor Party has been in a loose alliance with the Greens for more than three decades, the Coalition (Liberals and Nationals) has watched its vote be eaten away by the new parties.
The rise and legitimacy of One Nation as a force in Australian politics poses an existential threat to the Nationals, who are most vulnerable to its success.
But not all One Nation voters are conservative Coalition voters. A large cohort of conservative Labor voters will be attracted to One Nation as well.
This is why the Liberals are now seeing the value in exchanging preferences with One Nation in Western Australia, where the Liberals are facing an electoral massacre.
And to complicate things further, the WA Nationals is an entirely different beast to its eastern-states counterpart, refusing to enter into a coalition with the Liberals and running a much harder independent agenda.
John Howard flirted with a similar preference deal when One Nation first burst on to the political scene, but the media and his political opponents turned on him for it.
This time it is different. One Nation is a much more savvy political machine, Senator Hanson has matured and is more considered, and the Liberals no longer have the luxury of being able to snub her.
Even Senator Hanson’s political opponents in the media are having a much harder time demonising her completely.
Some may consider her views on halal certification and the winding back of multiculturalism in Australia reactionary. But, on an international spectrum, her views are far from the being at the extreme end.
The problem for the Coalition is that for the Nationals, One Nation is direct competition; whereas, for the Liberals, they are no competition, but potentially can draw back in votes from its disenchanted conservative base.
The conservative vote has not been in this much turmoil since Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s “Joh for Canberra” campaign in 1985, and the complexity of politics is placing new strains on the Coalition, while making good policy decisions agonisingly slow and painful.
Prime Minister Turnbull himself faces a monumental task because he has somehow to keep his junior Coalition partner close to him, while also reaching out to One Nation and other crossbenchers. All this while at the same time fighting off an opportunistic Opposition that wants to suffocate him.
It requires an adroit and politically savvy PM to manage this unprecedented political environment.