Is One Nation really a threat to the two-party system?

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Unlike 1998, One Nation won't threaten the two-party system again, says Patrick Keane.

AFTER LAST WEEK'S consecutive releases of recordings of One Nation leader Pauline Hanson and her chief of staff/director James Ashby, one might be forgiven for thinking this is the last of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation. (See 'What’s wrong inside One Nation?')

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation has risen from deregistration before.

But since Pauline Hanson’s One Nation’s spectacular birth almost 20 years ago, its influence is better measured in its influence on the policy of governments than in electoral wins. Since Pauline Hanson’s One Nation’s success at the 1998 Queensland State election the mercurial party has only a small foothold in our parliamentary system. And like the Palmer United Party showed the future of minor parties is tenuous. The Australian Greens, on the other hand, have not had the same electoral impact, but have built a constituency that is growing. Instability in the political landscape is how minor parties can get their foot in the door. Change is working for the Australian Greens not One Nation.

The Rise of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is an event now shrouded by its consequences. When commentators or politicians discuss Hanson and One Nation today, it is as if some spectre continues to rise from the dead to terrify the living.

Even as One Nation fell apart after the failure at the 1998 Federal election, its influence was powerful.

After the 1998 federal election that saw Hanson lose her seat of Oxley, the returned Prime Minister John Howard and the Liberal-National Party Coalition Government he led, pursued a more populist and overtly nationalistic agenda.

Howard tried to extinguish native title, abolished the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) and officially rejected multiculturalism.  

The grassroots support that created the Hanson phenomenon turned to Howard's Coalition and, as the economy improved, he made sure to reward the outer suburban and working class support that had shifted from Hanson.

After 1998, One Nation didn’t pick up any seats in any Australian Parliament, except for the Queensland Legislative Assembly (QLA). The last member of One Nation in the QLA was Rosa Lee Long for Tablelands who lost her seat in 2009.

Has the spectre returned after 20 years since One Nation’s 1998 success?

Pauline Hanson’s return to the Federal parliament along with three other One Nation senators led many to believe it had.

Shortly after the Federal election, polling indicated that One Nation quadrupled its primary vote and support in Queensland was reaching 25%.

Since One Nations failure at the Western Australia election earlier this year, the spectre has lost some substance.

Hanson and One Nation were confident they would pick up enough seats to win the balance of power in WA, but on the day before the election One Nation's primary vote had dropped to 4.7%.

Subsequently, One Nation won only three upper house seats.

One Nation's success at the 1998 Queensland State election was the result of the combined efforts and resources of a grassroots movement married to a charismatic leader and organisational capacities. But it was also because of institutional factors that ordinarily thwart minor parties. The factors influencing the success or failure of minor parties at elections in Australia are institutional, political and internal. Institutional factors are concerned with the electoral laws or system. Compulsory voting or optional preferential voting are examples of institutional factors. The political factors are concerned with the social climate. For example, a split in a major party or a new issue may indicate an unstable political climate. Minor parties rise and fall with the stability of the Australian political landscape. The internal factors that influence a political party’s success are the presence of charismatic leadership, organisational capacity and grassroots support.

Usually, the challenges facing a minor party are overwhelming. From 1910 to 1997, at least 388 minor parties contested one or more elections in Australia.

There were 144 others registered with the Australian Electoral Commission but did not field a candidate. So, when One Nation was registered in December 1997, the media and mainstream parties were quick to dismiss their chances.

Peter Charlton in The Courier Mail ridiculed One Nation's policy as "Conspiratorial". (21/3/1998)

Dennis Shanahan writing for The Weekend Australian doubted "superficial attraction" would "override traditional party support.” (2-3/5/1998)

The day before the election, Andrew Bolt, columnist for the Herald Sun, declared One Nation "Simply Not Up to It." (12/6/1998)

Over a little more than six months, from December 1997 to June 1998, One Nation nominated 79 candidates, released policies on direct democracy, the abolition of native title and even a “Peoples bank”. It raised funds and a membership about half the size of the major parties and twice as large as any other minor party. 

More than a quarter of Queenslanders voted for One Nation and 11 candidates successfully contested their seats.

As a consequence, One Nation became the third largest parliamentary party in the Queensland Legislative Assembly.

Since the emergence of major parties in the early 20th Century, at least 66 minor parties contested elections in Queensland and none won a seat at a State election since the Democratic Labor Party in 1969.

But In both 1998 and 2016, institutional factors facilitated One Nation's success.

The most common method of translating votes into seats in Australia is a unique preferential voting system in single member electorates (PV). Before 1998, preferences in Queensland were mandatory. That is, you had to tick every box in the order of your preference. But at the 1998 State election, Queensland had introduced the optional preferential voting system, which meant that One Nation supporters weren’t required to preference the other parties.

Queensland Premier Rob Borbidge underestimated the threat One Nation posed to his Government in Queensland and so chose to preference One Nation ahead of the Queensland Labor Party. One Nation won all of its 11 seats at the 1998 Queensland State election on the allocation of preferences and seven of those seats were won from Borbidge’s National Party. Labor formed a minority government under Premier Peter Beattie after the election.

One Nation won 4 senate spots at the 2016 Federal election because of the lower thresholds for spots at a double dissolution election. One Nation won four Senate spots, but only a few more votes than it received in 2004, when it won no seats in the Australian Senate. In 2004, One Nation won 1.19% of the popular vote or 139,956 primary votes and won no seats. In 2016, One Nation won 1.29% of the popular vote and 175,020 primary votes and four spots in the Senate.

Before One Nation, minor parties were only just present in Australian parliaments. In 1997, the Australian Democrats had a presence in the Australian Senate. The Greens had a small presence. There was no minor party presence in Queensland. The 1998 Queensland State Election was One Nation’s apex, as it was the apex for minor parties in the contemporary period, but the landscape is changing.

Although no other minor party has had the same electoral impact or influence since, some minor parties like the Australian Greens appear to have won long-term constituencies.

The Australian Greens' primary vote has risen steadily from 2.14% of the electorate in 1998 to 10.23% in 2016. The Australian Green have also cracked the lower house of the Federal Parliament. So has the Nick Xenophon Team. There are other minor parties that appear to be shrinking the two-party system. The Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party has seats in In the New South Wales and Victorian Legislative Councils. In Queensland, Katter’s Australia Party has two seats in the QLA and one seat federally. 

One Nation won’t threaten the two-party system again, but the two-party system appears to be diminishing apace.

Patrick Keane completed an honours thesis on Pauline Hanson's One Nation and the 1998 Queensland State Election in 2010 and was an advisor to a Labor Senator. You can follow Patrick on Twitter @pckeane2014.

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