While Queensland Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls dithers on the question of preferencing One Nation, others appear to be making the decision for him.
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Enter George Christensen
It began with a few words and the words were to George Christensen. Prior to the July 2 federal election, the Queensland Liberal National Party MP for Dawson took a phone call from One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson. In his famous 2016 expose on Christensen, (the Good Weekend one with multiple images of him brandishing a cane knife while lurking in sugarcane), Fairfax journalist Matthew Knott revealed the deal for PHON not to run a candidate in Dawson against him.
Before the election, Christensen was told during a phone call with Pauline Hanson that she wouldn’t run a candidate in Dawson, despite One Nation being assured of a strong result there. Christensen himself voted for One Nation at the 1998 Queensland election at a time of disillusionment with the National Party. “Why would I run someone against you?” Christensen remembers Hanson telling him. “You’re saying all the things I say.”
Months after his re-election, Christensen returned the favour by espousing the common virtues of PHON and the LNP. He declared to Sky News viewers, “One flag, one set of values , one nation”.
Enter Steve Dickson
Another LNP member was also working away in the background to secure a similar deal. State MP for Buderim Steve Dickson revealed in October that he would have a PHON free run at the next election. Sunshine Coast Daily editor Jenna Cairney reported, “One Nation won’t run candidate in Buderim”.
On a visit to the Coast yesterday Ms Hanson hailed Member for Buderim Steve Dickson for being the first MP to invite her to his electorate.
“My attitude is when you’ve got a good member of parliament who is representing the people and who is there for the people, you don’t try to get rid of them,” she said.
Dickson and Hanson had appeared together in Facebook and news reports. One on the roadside on October 6, 2016.
Another on medicinal cannabis on November 5, 2016.
A third appearance together on December 8, 2015, discussing the future of Buderim’s “Urban Food Street”.
Dickson took things a step further than his colleague Christensen by defecting to PHON on January 13, 2017. He joined former Newman Government LNP MP, Neil Symes, who had quietly defected in time for Hanson to announce her Queensland line-up. Two more former Newman Government MPs followed in Sam Cox on January 28 and Michael Pucci on January 30.
Premier says ‘No’
Labor Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk had categorically ruled out any coalition or preference deal with PHON. She went as far as recommending voters place the party last on the ballot paper and stated that she would rather go back into opposition than form an unworkable government with them.
Enter Tim Nicholls
Meanwhile, Tim Nicholls had been dithering. In August 2016, at his first state party conference as leader, he’d joined with LNP President Gary Spence in championing the preferencing of PHON ahead of Labor and the Greens. Yet, in the months to follow, he meandered between ‘not ruling in or out preferences’, ‘deciding closer to the election on individual seats’ and stating there were ‘no deals’.
With the LNP bleeding members, rumours of a fifth defection began to circulate. Hanson called a press conference for Friday, February 10, 2017. Just hours before this appointment and without explanation, it was cancelled.
Enter Mark Robinson
Speculation had been circling for weeks that LNP MP for Cleveland Mark Robinson would defect. A rumour he’d continually quashed after being spotted dining with Hanson, her adviser James Ashby and Dickson in December.
Now Queensland’s decriminalisation of abortion bills were due for a vote in the parliament. Robinson, being a staunch Christian conservative, was vehemently opposed to them. He was part of the six member parliamentary committee that couldn’t deliver a for or against recommendation to the house.
Nicholls announced a dramatic change of policy. He reneged on an earlier commitment to give all of his MPs a conscience vote on the issue. Officially, the LNP was now opposed to the decriminalisation of abortion. With no support from the committee or the opposition, the bill’s creator independent Rob Pyne, withdrew it. Rumours circulated that this sudden change in the LNP’s position was to satisfy Robinson and prevent him from becoming the fifth to defect to PHON. The theory was soundly rejected by the LNP.
Prior to announcing his retirement, LNP stalwart Jeff Seeney lobbed another preference bomb suggesting that head office should allow regional LNP MPs to preference PHON. Convinced of being able to form a coalition with the LNP, Dickson began audaciously pushing for cabinet positions. Nicholls, becoming frustrated with the constant media questions, labeled the ‘ridiculous speculation as ridiculous’.
4 Corners revelations
Just as speculation began to die down, Caro Meldrum-Hanna’s 4 Corners report on One Nation hit the headlines. It revealed a secret recording of Ashby telling Queensland PHON candidates of an agreement he’d reached with the LNP ‘not to slag each other off in the media’. If the agreement was broken, he’d release dirt files on LNP members. Initially, it was thought that Ashby had dealt with Nicholls’ Chief of Staff, Gerard Benedet. The accusation was promptly denied in a Tweet.
However within twenty-four hours, ABC journalist Leonie Mellor had re-examined the recording and found that a deal had been struck with Nicholls’ senior policy adviser, Peter Coulson.
Nicholls was forced to admit there had been a deal made by his staffer but that it had been unauthorised. In the same breath, he reiterated that there were no deals with One Nation.
Peppered with further questions yesterday, Nicholls ruled out sacking Coulson. While the contact had been unauthorised, he hinted that conversations with political parties were a constant.
“I’m not going to get into the ins and outs of every time I’ve had contact- my office has had contact with other political parties,” he said.
Election date speculation continues in Queensland’s final parliament of flexible three year terms. The decision when to go to the polls remains firmly with Palaszczuk. She’s most likely to deliver her third, final June budget and use the remainder of the term to sell it.
If Ashby’s claims of dirt files are true, the long path to the poll date is better for Palaszczuk. The chaos created from the release of dossiers on state or federal LNP members would grant her more breathing space to sell her election message.
(April 12, 2017) Update 1 – Tim Nicholls appears on Sky News
Opposition leader Tim Nicholls has given an extraordinary interview on Sky News claiming that voting for One Nation will lead to a vote for Labor. It raised the interest of Caro Meldrum-Hanna who followed up the interview with a number of questions.