Let’s talk about preferences

It’s a rule worth remembering in politics that what appear to be disputes about tactics are often disputes about ideology in disguise. Preference deals are a prime example, and especially the debate within Australia’s Coalition parties about giving preferences to the far right.

The Liberal and National parties have been arguing about this for more than twenty years. Their members will cite reams of figures and analysis to show whether or not One Nation preferences will help them in marginal seats, or whether they’ll gain or lose votes in particular areas as a result.

But most of the time, what they’re really arguing about is how close they feel, ideologically, to One Nation.

The issue first came up in the Queensland state election of 1998, when One Nation won eleven seats – eight of them on the back of Liberal and National preferences. The Liberals’ urban voters were furious, and prime minister John Howard shut down the debate, as far as the Liberals were concerned, by directing that One Nation would in future be put last on their how-to-vote cards.

That deprived One Nation of a New South Wales Senate seat at that year’s federal election. But the National Party continued to dally with the far right, with uniformly bad results, until One Nation faded to irrelevance.

Then, in 2016, it returned to the scene, with (briefly) four seats in the Senate and  apparent reservoirs of goodwill from the Coalition parties, which had shifted noticeably to the right in the meantime. And sure enough, the following year in Western Australia the Liberals did a preference deal with it, even shafting their Coalition partner in the process.

It was a disaster: the Coalition lost the election in a landslide. But it still didn’t learn; later that year it preferenced One Nation in most seats in Queensland (although this time it shied away from a formal deal), and of course it lost again.

Which brings us to the upcoming federal election. With the government in dire straits in the polls, and last week’s massacre in Christchurch having drawn attention to the horrific effects of far-right politics, prime minister Scott Morrison felt the need to address this particular bugbear. So in recent days he has repeatedly stated “We won’t be doing any preference deals with One Nation.”

But that, of course, doesn’t answer the question. What matters is not whether or not a formal agreement is reached with One Nation, but whether or not it will be placed on Liberal or National how-to-vote-cards above other parties that might win seats, especially Labor and the Greens.

And while the thought of doing so horrifies Liberal MPs defending middle-class suburban seats, some Queenslanders have had a quite different reaction. Two Liberal National Party MPs and a senator were willing to go on the record this morning arguing that One Nation should be preferenced ahead of the Greens.

This isn’t tactics; it’s ideology. Closeness to One Nation is electoral poison, but the ideologues in the LNP don’t care about that. They want the party in One Nation’s corner because they believe that philosophically that is where it belongs.

The two MPs named in the article were Llew O’Brien (from the Nationals side) in Wide Bay and Scott Buchholz (from the Liberal side) in Wright; they sit on margins of 8.3% and 9.6% respectively. Their seats are not in the firing line. But it’s not about seats; it’s about keeping control of the party and setting its ideological direction.

Peter Dutton, whose seat (Dickson, 2.0%) is much more precarious, was a bit more circumspect, but still drew an explicit moral equivalence between One Nation and the Greens: between, in effect, a slightly more liberal drugs policy on one hand and support for white supremacism on the other.

Make no mistake, the battle is on for the soul of the Liberal Party. And if Dutton and his like are victorious there will be barely a seat anywhere in Australia’s major cities that it can count as safe.

Sometimes ideology does give way to expediency. Howard himself stopped his party from preferencing One Nation not because he had a problem with white supremacism, but because he feared the electoral damage that it was doing. But none of his successors have had the same grip on reality and the standing to enforce it.

Morrison won the leadership by defeating Dutton with “moderate” support; the One Nation groupies are not on his team anyway. He has nothing to lose, internally or electorally, by slapping them down. But the Liberal Party has reached a point where even that obvious conclusion cannot get a hearing.

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