Please explain: Did we just hear the echoes of Pauline Hanson in our local elections?

Nativist sentiment is stirring in Council election results, especially in rural and regional Queensland, reports Greg Hallam

Apr 03, 2024, updated Apr 03, 2024
The ghost of Pauline Hanson was evident in recent Queensland local council elections. Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The ghost of Pauline Hanson was evident in recent Queensland local council elections. Photo: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas)

The faint echoes of One Nation’s emergence in the late 1990s were on show at the 24 March Queensland Council elections.

There’s no mistaking the same pattern of big change in rural and regional Queensland that first occurred 27 years ago. The Katter brand was also prominent.

The depth of electoral change outstripped the anti-amalgamation sentiment expressed at the 2012 council elections, upending three consecutive elections of relative calm.

Now, former Townsville Mayor Jenny Hill was the ultimate example of that resurgent spirit, having been defeated by former disendorsed One Nation state candidate Troy Thompson.

Hill was previously unassailable for over a decade and Thompson was a former bankrupt, banned from entering the Queensland Parliament and with other political baggage who had also changed their name by deed poll.

He was deemed persona non grata by One Nation in withdrawing his candidacy for the last state election. But it was a much wider upending of the old order than just Townsville; add the Cassowary Coast, Burdekin, Central Highlands, Charters Towers, Flinders (Hughenden), Livingstone (Capricorn Coast), Winton, Bundaberg, Southern Downs, Scenic Rim, Maranoa and very close run outcomes in Cunnamulla and Mackay.

The South East Queensland election results stood apart from the rural and regional upheaval. No sitting mayor was defeated.

Delving into the entrails of the council election results, the underlying pattern was hidden by the fact that 17 sitting Mayors didn’t re-contest the election, and a further 15 were elected unopposed – that’s 40% of all the class of 2020 Mayors who weren’t defeated for one reason or other.

Women did extremely well, whilst incumbent mayors that did re-contest had a very tough time of it – roughly half were defeated. Yes, incumbency was a negative, but deeper lying forces were at work.

It’s the electoral geography that stands out for me . The One Nation and Katter factor mirrored their 1998 (and subsequent) state seat success, Wide Bay aside .

To my mind, beyond the obvious youth crime and hip pocket cost-of -living nerves, voters were unsettled and looking outside the square for their new civic leaders – they were prepared to try someone else.

Back in 1997 I didn’t know what One Nation was;  it was only subsequently at the 1998 state election that any of us could put a name to it and properly understand the 1997 council election result.

But make no mistake, the 1997 result was a harbinger to One Nation’s emergence.

There are silent currents that are running strongly outside SEQ, beyond the previously mentioned factors – the Olympics loom large in that regard.

Envy is a virus that only ever lies dormant in regional Queensland, until the time is right for it re-emerge . All state government spending is seen through that lens.

I would add housing shortages and high rents, population growth – yes – even in those areas – certainly a factor in some bush mayors’ defeat.

Whilst not entirely analogous it’s migration issues, especially illegal immigrants, that are upending both US and European politics, ushering in a marked shift to the right.

It was only 10 days ago that Pauline Hanson, sensing the moment, called for a halt to migration. She is still a canny reader of community sentiment.

MP for Traeger Robbie Katter threw down the gauntlet last Thursday when he warned the Opposition Shadow Cabinet not to start measuring up curtains in the Ministerial wing.

He said” there’s a lot of people shaking their fists at the world and governments.

“When I say governments that includes both major parties.”

Add the multiplier of online conspiracy theorists and fringe ultra right wing groups who significantly influence social media and sentiment in the regions. The unease is palpable

I rarely attribute state implications to council elections, but the pattern is so strong the major political parties need to think hard about their prospects in rural and regional Queensland.

Seats that might have seemingly transferred from red to blue columns come October, might have a One Nation, Katter or Independent in front of them. The prospect of a hung parliament becomes greater.

Far right or nativist sentiment has always been a factor in Queensland politics, there has been a “ contrarian streak” for generations – well before the advent of One Nation or the Katters.

It’s said to be as high as 15% of the state vote at its peak, or at least equal to the Greens in SEQ in other times.

It just requires the match to be dropped on what’s currently, metaphorically, a very combustible paddock.

Watch this space.

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