Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party has launched an internal investigation into claims Brian Burston had attempted to jump ship, as it lurches its way through a crisis that could make it lose the balance of power in the Senate.
Hanson’s chief of staff, James Ashby, said any suggestion the party was investigating whether its New South Wales senator had attempted to defect to another party was “an internal matter”, after a furious Hanson broke down on Sky News, declaring that Burston, a longtime friend, would not “finish her”.
On Thursday night, Burston denied he had approached the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers party, while others suggested a third party had been used to approach the Shooters party executive, which roundly rejected the offer.
The falling out between Hanson and her long-time loyalist appears irreparable – Burston confided to friends last week about his concerns the relationship had broken down.
However, expelling Burston from the party will leave Hanson with just two votes in the Senate, giving more power to the two remaining Centre Alliance senators, and independents Tim Storer and Derryn Hinch.
The Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm said Burston was “quite upset” during a dinner between the pair about “where things were going with his relationship with Pauline” and had raised the idea of a forming a crossbench party.
“I provided a sympathetic ear as he was raising all sorts of ideas about the future,” Leyonhjelm said. “But there was nothing concrete and all he did was canvass ‘do you think it would be possible to...’, but it never went past a discussion over a glass of wine.”
At the same time, Hanson and Ashby were canvassing for what has been described as a “conservative crossbench super bloc” with allied senators, as the party began to look at its future relevance.
Mark Latham was reportedly the party’s No 1 pick. The former Labor leader told Channel Nine he would not not detail any private conversations, but had been approached by “four different parties” to join the Senate.
Leyonhjelm said he had not been approached and Cory Bernardi told Guardian Australia he “would not confirm or deny” any approach having been made and that “private conversations remain private”.
But he ruled out joining or merging with the party, in any case. “I have zero interest in joining any other political party,” he said.
“The Australian Conservatives are providing a credible, principled and stable alternative on the crossbench and that is what I intend to keep doing.”
Bob Katter, who had at one stage flirted with the idea of joining the two parties in Queensland, also ruled out any merger, while his son Robbie, who leads the party in the Katters’ home state, said he had not been “formally approached” but discussions with other parties “happened all the time”.
“We are pretty confident within ourselves as a party,” he said.
“We’ll always try and work constructively with other crossbenchers to try and reduce the influence of the major parties, but we’re pretty happy with what we are doing.”
Some crossbenchers reported a “real turnaround” in One Nation’s attitude after Hanson’s April trip to Afghanistan failed to create the predicted media storm.
The breakdown in the relationship between Hanson and Burston can be traced back to February, when Hanson announced that the former senator Malcolm Roberts would be the party’s lead Senate candidate in Queensland, but Burston and the Western Australia senator Peter Georgiou would need to “submit their papers like all the other candidates”.
“Brian was very affronted by that,” one source close to Burston said.
“He felt that was very unfair, he took offence at the whole thing, that Malcolm was annointed for Queensland, but he, who was still in the Senate representing the party, would have to apply, with the idea they were looking for someone better.”
Hanson is understood to have found out Burston had reportedly made an approach to the Shooters party “just minutes” before she appeared on Sky News on Thursday night and was “still processing the news” as the interview began.
But she was understood to also be weighing up Burston’s future, after the “preference whisperer” Glenn Druery, who has long stiched up deals with minor parties ensuring their electoral future, told her the other parties would not work with Burston.
“In the past he has made and broken deals,” Druery told Guardian Australia. “His dealings have been less than honest.”
On Friday, Hanson said on Twitter she would “continue to work hard in the Senate”, but shed no light on the internal party hostilities.
Burston and Hanson fell out for the first time after the disintegration of One Nation in the late 1990s, and he was sacked from the party in 2000 following “internal disputes”.
The pair mended their relationship in the following years, and Burston has said it was his idea for Hanson to take back the One Nation name, leading up to her 2016 election win, which, after years of false starts, successfully catapulted her back into parliament.
Arriving with another three senators, Hanson held a decisive vote in the Senate, which was weakened after a fallout with Rod Culleton, who was later found to have been ineligible for election.
A second blow was dealt after her Queensland stablemate Roberts was found to have been a dual citizen, and also ineligible to sit in parliament, and his replacement, Fraser Anning, left the party moments after being sworn into the Senate.
Hanson is due to fly to the UK on Saturday as part of a parliamentary delegation. She has said she will try to visit Tommy Robinson, founder of the far-right English Defence League, who was jailed last week for contempt of court after broadcasting live video from outside a court in Leeds that threatened to cause a trial to collapse. The case of Robinson, real name Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, has become a touchstone for the international extreme right.
Burston did not return multiple requests for comment.