Every country has something of which it is particularly proud. In Australia, it’s gun control.
After a terrible massacre in 1996, a conservative government reacted with laws so tough, they led to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of guns. The laws have proved popular, and, according to researchers, they have saved countless lives from both homicide and suicide.
Enter the United States' National Rifle Association. This week, a video emerged of senior officials from Australia’s far-right political party, One Nation, discussing a $20 million donation from the gun lobby group. The goal was to water down Australia’s gun laws and even its voting system.
In another video, One Nation officials meet with representatives from Koch Industries, known for funding conservative causes. “It’s going to get down to money at the end of the day,” one of the men says in the recording. “We can change the voting system in our country, the way people operate, if we’ve got the money to do it.”
The videos come just days after New Zealand moved to tighten its own gun laws in response to the Christchurch mass shooting.
One Nation, as a political party, is hard to shame. Its leader, Pauline Hanson, has spent decades being mocked for her racist views, her ignorance of policy, even her stumbles with language. As with President Trump, the mockery has often served to merely strengthen her popularity.
This time around, however, the criticism may be more dangerous.
One Nation, after all, is a party that uses nationalism as a rallying cry. How does that rub up against a desire to be funded by a foreign organization? How does it sit alongside a pledge to change Australia’s laws to better match those of a foreign power?
We want to be “in bed with the United States” was one the phrases used by One Nation representatives in the hidden-camera video, recorded by an undercover reporter for Al Jazeera news network. “If we could get that amount of money, imagine: We could change Australia,” says one of the men.
The story generated a wave of rage from Australia’s mainstream political parties. Prime Minister Scott Morrison accused One Nation of seeking “to sell Australia’s gun laws to the highest bidders, to a foreign buyer, and I find that abhorrent.” The opposition leader, Bill Shorten, agreed, saying he was horrified by the what he saw as a betrayal of Australia’s political system.
Morrison, in particular, can be forgiven for leaping on the revelations. He has an election to fight in May, and One Nation looks set to bleed votes from his Liberal-National Coalition, especially in the state of Queensland.
Ever since One Nation emerged in the mid-1990s, it has provided a dilemma for Morrison’s party. Do you move your own policies to the right to steal the party’s ground, as was arguably done in the “Tampa” election of 2001?
Or do you attack One Nation directly, criticizing both its policies and party structure, as was done when Hanson was accused of electoral fraud? In 2003, she was imprisoned for 11 weeks, before being released on appeal. But the imprisonment added to her reputation as a political outsider.
This time around, in the wake of Christchurch, Morrison is under pressure to make absolute his disavowal of One Nation. Under Australia’s system of preferential voting, political parties can advise voters on how to number their ballot papers.
It’s a tricky decision for Morrison. By placing One Nation last, he may deliver votes to his key rival, the Australian Labor Party. But failing to put One Nation last on how-to-vote cards will undercut his attack on a party he calls “abhorrent.”
The two party operatives in the video, James Ashby and Steve Dickson, said they sought advice from the NRA — they were told to emphasize how women could use guns for self-protection — but say no money was supplied. When the video was recorded, they had merely had too much to drink: “We’d arrived in America,” said Ashby, “we got on the sauce, we’d had a few drinks and that’s where those discussions took place.”
On Wednesday, Morrison responded tartly: “Being drunk is no excuse for trading away Australia’s gun laws to foreign bidders.”
Will that convince One Nation’s electoral cheer squad? It should. At very least, Hanson’s voters need to consider whether she is just a pretend patriot — since her staffers seem willing to trade influence for foreign money.
In November, parliament passed new laws banning foreign donations from Australian politics. Hanson was enthusiastic, telling the Senate: “Overseas money should not have an influence in our political scene … so I believe foreign donations should be stopped."
She was speaking just two months after her lieutenants, as we now know, were in the United States dreaming of accessing the NRA’s millions.