In 2015 journalist Margo Kingston asked Pauline Hanson why she had James Ashby – someone with a chequered political history - working for her.
Kingston was the author of a 1999 book about Hanson and had also closely followed the story of Ashby, a key player in the sordid political downfall of Peter Slipper, the Liberal defector who became Julia Gillard’s speaker.
“I don’t want to hear anything against him,” Hanson said very defensively of the man who has now become her trusted confidant in a close and powerful partnership.
But this week things turned sour for Ashby – and thus for Hanson - when he was caught, via a leaked recording, suggesting a scam on taxpayers. He proposed PHON make money out of the Queensland election by presenting inflated receipts to the authorities. The idea wasn’t taken up, but this was a serious “please explain” moment for Ashby and his leader.
In a double blow to the party a staffer of Malcolm Roberts, its second Queensland senator, on Wednesday was arrested on multiple assault charges going back years. But it’s the Ashby affair - now being considered by the Australian Federal Police after a referral by Labor - that has the big potential implications.
Mostly, political staffers are known only to those within the beltway. Occasionally, however, they become public figures in their own right, because of their influence with their boss - Peta Credlin’s role with Tony Abbott obviously springs to mind.
In her first political iteration, Hanson’s right hand man David Oldfield was mired in controversy. This time it’s Ashby. He calls a lot of the shots in the party, and has generated resentment at the grassroots. He is the gatekeeper to her office. One observer of the party’s Senate operation says: “Pauline is the boss, but James keeps things moving on”.
In the current Senate, two parties based on high profile “names” – Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON) and the Nick Xenophon Team (NXT) – are in pivotal positions on legislation when it is opposed by Labor and the Greens. Both parties are populist, though the NXT is centrist while PHON is on the right, and promotes anti-Muslim sentiment.
So far they have operated very differently. Xenophon is the ultimate horse trader, exacting concessions of all sorts in return for support. The government often finds itself with little choice but to say yes to demands that in other circumstances it would not countenance.
PHON for the most part doesn’t have a “trading” approach and frequently tells the government early on its attitude to a particular piece of legislation. Fortunately for the Coalition it is more often than not one of support. It’s not surprising the government prefers dealing with PHON than the NXT.
But it’s another matter out in the electorate, where PHON presents a threat when voters are looking for opportunities to kick the major parties. With the Queensland election approaching, what’s happening to the One Nation vote is being keenly watched by Liberals and Nationals, and Labor too.
The Western Australian election was a setback for PHON. It won three seats in the state’s upper house and its vote, looked at in the context of seats contested, was reasonable. But expectations had been raised too high, Hanson made gaffes, the campaign was shambolic, and she mismanaged her post-election narrative.
Given that Hanson’s base is Queensland, where populism is very strong in the regions, the state poll is regarded as a seminal test. It’s due early next year but is likely before that. Depending to whom one speaks, that election could see the return of the ALP government or a change, with the PHON winning no seats or several. At present PHON has one seat, held by a defector from the Liberal National Party (LNP).
There is general agreement that One Nation won’t get a swag of seats, as happened in the 1998 Queensland election when it won 11, with nearly 23% of the vote.
A Galaxy Queensland poll in April had PHON on 17%, down from 23% three months before. Other political players believe PHON has come off the boil, but how it will trend from here remains to be seen. (Nationally, it is on 9% in Newspoll.)
Paul Williams, senior lecturer in politics at Griffith University, says there is no doubt PHON’s support is dwindling but he still expects it will poll in double digits in the state election and predicts it will get two or three state seats, although it could be as few as one. There could be another hung parliament, he says, and PHON could share the balance of power. (As Queensland’s is a unicameral parliament, there is no upper house for PHON to have a shot at.)
A significant difference between this Queensland election and 1998 is that there will be compulsory preferential voting, rather than optional preferential, which will make it harder for One Nation.
Federal Labor is pushing hard on Ashby. A prime motive is embarrassing the Coalition over preferences, ahead of the Queensland election, and the later federal one. The question of preferencing One Nation is always a delicate one for the conservatives. A preference deal with PHON caused the WA Liberals more grief than gain.
The Queensland LNP has said it will decide its position on preferences closer to the election; it will take a pragmatic, seat-by-seat approach.
The horror stories related by disgruntled former PHON members, including about candidates being bullied and forced to buy expensive campaign material, and the issues about Ashby’s behaviour are damaging for Hanson and her party. The depth of the Ashby problem will depend on what the AFP says.
The extent to which supporters will be alienated by the divisions and the talk of rorting is hard to judge. On the one hand, they may be repelled by the revelations. On the other hand, voters attracted to PHON are often people simply wanting to hit out at the major parties, and so may take little notice of the scandals. They might just be listening to the woman who articulates their anger and grievances.
But if things go badly, Hanson could find herself asking the question that Kingston put to her.
Authors: Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra