The employment minister, Michaelia Cash, organised a “secret meeting” with the One Nation leader, Pauline Hanson, before the controversial Western Australian election preference deal, the former WA One Nation secretary has said.
The revelation suggests the senior Turnbull government minister may have been aware of or involved in negotiations between One Nation and fellow WA Liberal senator Mathias Cormann, one of the architects of the preference deal.
The former WA One Nation secretary Marye Daniels told Four Corners that, on 21 December, Cash and her husband came to her house to pick up Hanson and her chief of staff, James Ashby, for a “secret meeting”. The meeting reportedly included Cormann.
The preference deal caused numerous WA One Nation candidates to quit or be disendorsed for complaining the party had misled them about its intentions to do a deal, including Sandy Baraiolo, Margaret Dodd, Dane Sorensen and Ray Gould.
Cormann has defended the preference deal after the landslide Liberal loss in the state election, arguing it had been designed “to minimise losses” and maximise the party’s chance of re-election.
Malcolm Turnbull and Cormann have not ruled out striking a preference deal with One Nation at the federal level, although Hanson has said the WA deal damaged her party.
A spokeswoman for Cormann said the WA powerbroker had “consistently pointed out preference arrangements are entirely a matter for the WA Liberal party organisation”.
“However, as part of his job as deputy leader of the government in the Senate, seeking to negotiate outcomes through the Senate, Senator Cormann meets on a regular basis with key senators from all parties.”
In comments to Four Corners, Daniels and her husband, Ron McLean, the former WA One Nation president, estimated they had donated a total of $100,000 to the party including $70,000 in legal fees before Hanson dumped McLean as a candidate.
The episode featured Daniels singing cabaret at fundraisers for the party in the 1990s, attended by Hanson, to demonstrate the length of their friendship.
Four Corners depicted Daniels delighting in exacting revenge on Hanson by speaking out about the party, at one stage singing “you shouldn’t have got rid of Mary and Ron” and “goodbye, thank goodness you’re gone” when Hanson left the state after the election.
Dodd, who quit on the eve of the WA election, said she was “relieved at not being part of One Nation” because it was “not what I thought it was”.
“I thought Pauline was this ordinary person, fighting for the battlers,” she said. “She is a populist, she goes on things that will get her the attention that she wants, to be in the power position that she wants. That’s all it is about, power for Pauline. They can’t be trusted.”
After reports alleging that the plane in which Ashby flies Hanson is registered in his, not the party’s name, Four Corners confirmed that in 2015 the plane was insured in Ashby’s name.
Nelson said the primary purpose of the plane “to ferry Pauline Hanson around” despite being listed on the insurance form as for “business”.
Nelson said that, in March 2015, Ashby told the One Nation donor Bill McNee that, since he was a pilot, he needed a plane to fly Hanson around, and McNee agreed.
“As it turns out, Bill McNee didn’t buy the plane but, as I understand, he transferred the money to James Ashby, not the party, not Pauline, but James Ashby.”
McNee denied funding the purchase of the plane, saying he had not funded the party beyond what was publicly disclosed.
Ashby told Guardian Australia the hours flown for party business on his aircraft had been declared in accordance with the AEC rules.
“The AEC are welcome to review the party’s returns whenever they see fit,” he said.
Responding to the program, Queensland leader Steve Dickson told Sky News on Tuesday that One Nation “declares everything we have to to the Queensland Electoral Commission, we all play by the rules”.
“I can’t give you all the details about how James [Ashby] has come by his plane, if he’s bought it personally or if it’s been part of some sort of a donation.”
Four Corners featured complaints revealed by Guardian Australia including:
- that the One Nation agreement only reimburses candidates for 75% of their costs and included a $250,000 fee for successful candidates that abandon the party; and
- and those from candidate Elise Cottam, who was disendorsed for failing to pay candidate fees to pay for campaign material printing packages.
Four Corners also revealed documents that showed Culleton had told Hanson’s lawyers about his legal battles during the vetting process, despite her suggestion that he had not been upfront about his larceny conviction, which would eventually see him ruled ineligible to stand after his election.
Dickson labelled the program a “stitch-up”, which featured “disgruntled former employees and candidates” who were intent on attacking Hanson.
Dickson ruled out a preference deal in Queensland for the upcoming state election.
Guardian Australia contacted Cash to ask if she had a role in the WA preference deal.