At first the "Vote for Me" contest being conducted by Channel Seven’s Sunrise program seemed vaguely distasteful but too trivial to warrant comment. Contestants were required to submit a three-minute policy speech on VHS from which a panel of "political" equivalents of Mark, Marsha and Dicko were to select 18 finalists. One winner would be chosen for each state after a series of Idol-type public auditions and staged media appearances, to be rewarded with $10,000 on the understanding that they would go on to run for the Senate. Shannon Noll may have been able to top the pop charts with a cover of Moving Pictures’ What About Me, but surely the public weren’t silly enough to fall for this one, at least not in numbers sufficient to put Channel Seven candidates in contention for a Senate quota. The impact seemed likely to be further subdued by the fact that these would be "ungrouped" candidates for whom voters could not place a single number above the line, thereby providing wholesale transfusions of preferences to whichever parties or candidates they happened to strike a deal with (as discussed by Antony Green yesterday on ABC Radio’s PM program).
However, all of that changed this week with the news that a high-profile independent who was already campaigning and already a chance of winning a seat in her own right had been nominated as one of the three Queensland finalists. Hetty Johnston is a former Cheryl Kernot staffer and one-time Australian Democrats candidate who came to national fame as the zealous child sex abuse victim advocate who pursued former Governor-General Peter Hollingworth over his failure to act over abuse in church institutions during his time as Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane. During her crusade Johnston showed a conviction that the rightness of her cause justified her in levelling shocking charges against public figures on the basis of easily discredited evidence, specifically when she helped publicise flimsy rape allegations against Hollingworth. It does not require too much of an imagination to think what an MP with such a record might produce with the protection of parliamentary privilege.
With the decline of One Nation, Queensland has a substantial population of voters who remain cynical about the political process and susceptible to conspiracy theories about rogues in high places, particularly if those promoting them receive enough exposure on television. Even if Johnston does not succeed she will dramatically affect the dynamics of the Queensland Senate election, as she unlike her other competition hopefuls is almost certain to run at the head of a multiple candidate grouped ticket with an above-the-line voting option. With Labor, Liberal, the Nationals, the Greens and the Democrats all manoeuvring for the state’s final two Senate seats, all will be sorely tempted by the prospect of getting a piece of the action through a preference deal. If she does succeed, the Senate will have a member in a crucial balance of power position who will face all sorts of questions about her partiality when voting on media legislation.