Pauline Hanson is struggling to contain an "implosion" of her political movement as One Nation rebel Brian Burston attacks her unfettered power and refuses her demand to give up his Senate seat, sparking predictions of a voter backlash at the "histrionics" that are splitting the party.
The spectacular divisions led to an impasse late on Friday when Senator Hanson issued a written directive to Senator Burston to remove him as a party officer while he insisted he would remain loyal to the party and keep his place in federal parliament.
The split adds to the uncertainty in the Senate ahead of two crucial votes on income tax cuts worth $140 billion and company tax cuts worth $35.6 billion over a decade, with the government facing a bigger challenge in getting Senator Hanson to back its agenda.
Former One Nation members blamed Senator Hanson for the political strife while observers said the events proved again that she had poor judgment in choosing candidates and a history of driving away her own allies.
Queensland independent senator Fraser Anning, who was forced out of One Nation last year, said voters would judge the party for the "histrionics" and "false accusations" in the treatment of Senator Burston, saying it echoed his experience.
"Any party that regularly discards loyal, long-term supporters cannot be expected to survive the judgment of the Australian people," Senator Anning told Fairfax Media.
Liberal Democratic Party senator David Leyonhjelm said he liked Senator Hanson but she had fallen out with a string of allies.
"She has a good heart and she has good political instincts but that's about where it ends - her solutions are often terrible and her judgment with people has a history of being bad as well," Senator Leyonhjelm said.
The developments follow the pattern set almost two decades ago when Senator Hanson won a seat in federal parliament in 1996 but became estranged from advisers and state MPs.
The party's internal woes could weaken its performance at the "super Saturday" byelections on July 28 in a way that helps the Liberals and Nationals attract conservative voters, but government sources said the divisions would make it more difficult to get Senate deals on legislation.
Senator Burston told Fairfax Media he was being wrongly accused of deserting One Nation and he criticised Senator Hanson for making herself "president for life" and running a "dictatorship" that ignored party allies and members.
Senator Hanson moved on Friday afternoon to force Senator Burston out, telling him by letter that she had lost confidence in him and had removed him as a deputy registered officer in NSW and at a federal level.
"Please consider resigning from the Senate seat and handing it back to the party," Senator Hanson wrote.
Senator Burston told Fairfax Media that any attempt to sack him out would backfire on Senator Hanson and One Nation.
“If Pauline Hanson wants me to go she can sack me if she likes. I’m not sure what benefit that would be to the party,” he said in an interview.
“I think it’d be a move that might lead to One Nation’s demise, politically.”
In a sequence of events that sparked a crisis, a friend of Senator Burston contacted the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party at about 3.20pm on Thursday and raised the idea that the NSW Senator would like to meet.
The intermediary, whose identity has been verified by Fairfax Media but spoke on condition he was not named, said he did this without Senator Burston’s knowledge.
An agreement was reached to hold a meeting on Friday, June 8, and the intermediary passed this on to Senator Burston at about 4.10pm on Thursday.
“All I want to do is be accurate so people know it is not right to say Brian Burston reached out to the Shooters,” the man said. “He didn’t ask me to do it.”
While only a handful of people knew of the conversation, word reached Senator Hanson and soon after 7pm on Thursday, shortly before a live inteview on Sky News where she broke down in tears over being "stabbed in the back" by colleagues.
Senator Burston said he was being wrongly blamed for approaching the Shooters Party when he had not asked his constituent to contact the party's NSW director, Filip Despotoski.
Shooter's Party NSW MP Robert Borsak told Fairfax Media the approach was not a formal application.
“It took us about five minutes to say there’s nothing to talk about,” Mr Borsak said on Thursday night. “There’s no common ground in relation to him. We said thank you but no thanks.”
In a warning over One Nation’s future, Senator Burston said that out of 29 or 30 of the party’s elected MPs since it was formed, 23 have been sacked or have quit under Senator Hanson's leadership.
“That’s not to say I’ve got any high profile like she has, but the fact that One Nation would be seen as imploding, from four senators down to two, well, it’s not a good record.
“I don’t think letting me go would add to One Nation’s reputation at all, it would diminish it substantially and the media would have a field day.”
Senator Burston was doing an interview with 2GB on Friday afternoon when he was told of Senator Hanson’s letter to him asking for his resignation, but he said he had not received the letter.
He said he would not resign his Senate seat, would not resign from One Nation and would sit as an independent if she proceeded to remove him from the party.