The Maleficent Seven: Why Minor Parties Will Troll The Next Election
"His only chance of being re-elected is appealing to radicals"
When Fraser Anning got up in the Senate to praise the White Australia policy and call for a "final solution" on Muslim immigration, most wrote him off as a standard deplorable racist. Leaked audio would later reveal the provocative speech was intentional in its stoking of outrage, to be used as a tool to boost the barely-known senator's public profile.
"When you make your maiden speech Fraser, you gotta get up there and say something really controversial," One Nation president Jim Savage said in a tape obtained by Sky News.
"Otherwise you’ll be forgotten, no one will know who you are."
The next federal election is due by May, and unlike the 2016 double dissolution election that saw four One Nation senators and a motley crew of independents swept into the upper house, the bar to be elected to the Senate this time will be much higher. Only half the Senate will be up for election, meaning the threshold to be elected is twice as high as last time, and the likes of David Leyonhjelm, Peter Georgiou, Brian Burston and Anning are all up for re-election.
READ MORE: When Is The Next Federal Election?
In a crowded right-wing of federal politics, where many of the splintering micro-parties are hustling for essentially the same small bloc of voters who want a more conservative option than the Liberal party, Australian political experts say we might be in for more "final solution"-style stunts as these endangered senators fight for their jobs.
There is a group of parliamentarians we reckon will have an explosive campaign in coming months: One Nation's Pauline Hanson and Peter Georgiou; Anning and Bob Katter, of the Katter's Australia Party; conservative senator Cory Bernardi, who will be hoping to get more of his team in parliament; Leyonhjelm; and Burston, under the banner of Clive Palmer's new United Australia Party.
We've dubbed them The Maleficent Seven.
"Anning is up for re-election. The only chance he has it to out-radical the radicals. No point going to the middle ground," election strategist Glenn Druery told ten daily.
"Anning was there to grab headlines. Prior to his speech, it was 'senator who?' His only chance of being re-elected is appealing to radicals."
Dr Zareh Ghazarian, a lecturer in politics at Monash University, agreed.
"They use the public forum to get public recognition and brand attention, that's what they need to survive."
Druery is known as 'the preference whisperer', who has for years cobbled together preference deals and loose alliances to help minor parties get elected to parliament. He now works as an advisor to centre-right senator Derryn Hinch, who will also be up for election at the next poll. Druery said if he was running campaigns for members of the Maleficent Seven, he'd be pushing them to continue trying stunts, such as Leyonhjelm refusing to apologise for -- indeed, even doubling down on -- his sexualised remarks about Greens senator Sarah Hanson-Young.
"The stoush is manna from heaven for both of them. They keep pissing petrol on the fire and it’ll go on and on," Druery said.
Elsewhere, former One Nation man Brian Burston will rely on Clive Palmer's millions, and his Donald Trump-copying 'Make Australia Great' slogan, to keep him in parliament. Bob Katter, while an MP and not running in the Senate, has his man Anning up for re-election and may hope to grab more seats.
Bernardi's Conservatives party will run as a true conservative alternative to the government, no doubt playing off marriage equality and pro-LGBTQ policy to fire up their religious base. Cory has a six-year term but would hope to drag a colleague into parliament with him, while Hanson will hope One Nation's strong Queensland polling will give her another seat there.
Despite wide condemnation of both Anning's vile speech and Leyonhjelm's remarks, both events sparked discussion about the topics the men wanted to raise -- immigration for Anning, political correctness and gender for Leyonhjelm. While most people were rightly outraged, Druery claimed the stunts could spark fierce support among a small hardcore group of voters, which could be enough to carry a little-known senator into office.
"If I was advising them, I'd tell them to pull some kind of stunt to get noticed. They probably only have to outpoll the third member of the Coalition ticket to get elected. On recent polls, that primary vote is getting smaller and smaller, and it could be as low as four or five percent of the vote," Druery said.
Professor Gregory Melleuish, from the University of Wollongong, focuses much of his research on conservative politics and the Liberal party. He said the right-wing of Australian politics was "fractious", with former One Nation members Burston and Anning joining new parties, Bernardi splitting from the Liberals to start his own movement, several Nationals threatening to sit as independents, and even Katter starting his life as a National.
Melleuish said in such a crowded field, those senators up for re-election needed to differentiate themselves, and running cheap stunts was an effective way of boosting their profile.
"They have to do something to attract attention, particularly ones like Anning who got there by accident," he told ten daily, referencing Anning's election to parliament as Malcolm Roberts' replacement after the climate sceptic senator was booted over section 44 issues.
"He’s not like Pauline Hanson, she got there because people knew who she was. But some of the other ones, how will they attract attention? 2016 was a double dissolution so the quotas to be elected were smaller. The ones who got three-year terms will need to do something to encourage people to vote for them."
Ghazarian, who researches minor parties, said it was not a new thing for such small players to stoke media outrage as a campaigning ploy.
"These are the tactics minor party candidates tend to use," he told ten daily.
"They need to build a narrative or brand. Just like any market place out there, there are competing providers of a service, and they need to build a story. They do that by being controversial, pushing the envelope, dominating the airwaves, throwing things out there on issues they want to talk about."
Ghazarian tipped the minor party trend to continue and grow further.
"We are in for more of these parties to emerge, more candidates to be contesting. They'll be emboldened by what they see. Minor parties are looking at the Fraser Annings of the world thinking 'if they can get in, so can we'," he told ten daily.
Druery, the minor party preference whisperer, agreed.
"I wouldn't be surprised to see the combined minor party vote be higher than one of the major parties in some part of the country," he said.
"The conservative right is doing more damage to the Liberal party than Labor is."