Pauline is no friend of the workers
One Nation’s leader claims to champion the working class, but her actions tell a different story
Pauline Hanson is fond of styling herself as a plain-speaking, truth-telling anti-politician. Salt of the earth. Standing up for ordinary, so-called battler Australians. Sticking it to the “elites”. The latest opinion polls appear to indicate that a sizeable chunk of the electorate, particularly in regional and outer-suburban seats, are attracted to her anti–mainstream party message. One Nation attracted 1.3% of the vote at the 2016 federal election; now some 10% of Australians indicate that they would give the party their first preference vote at the next federal election, according to Newspoll. A ReachTEL poll conducted in the northern Queensland seat of Dawson, currently held by the Liberal National Party’s George Christensen, suggests Hanson’s party is attracting a third of the vote. It is also expected to poll strongly at the Western Australian state election on 11 March and may win up to 20 seats in Queensland’s next state election. Contrary to perceptions, One Nation is drawing support from Labor as much as from the Coalition.
The longer Hanson’s latest parliamentary incarnation lasts, however, the greater the likelihood that her populist far-right siren song will wobble off-key.
Disaffected Australians are turning to One Nation on the basis of a weak economy, sluggish wages growth, increasing casualisation of an already precarious labour force, and growing inequality. Yet Hanson has very little of substance to say on these issues. Her politics is an exercise in crude symbolism, from popping champagne corks to mark Donald Trump’s election (as your typical Aussie battler presumably did) to making incendiary comments on cultural issues. Where she once warned of Australia being “swamped by Asians”, Hanson now calls for bans on Muslim immigration, halal products and the burqa, and desires a royal commission into whether Islam is a religion. Could there be a more scandalous use of scarce taxpayer funds? This is to say nothing of her seeming support for anti-vaccination campaigners. Such are the disastrous public-policy outcomes that await any Coalition administration that jumps into bed with her party for electoral gain, such as the preference deal entered into by WA’s Liberal premier, Colin Barnett.
Even when Hanson addresses legitimate hip-pocket grievances, it is through the prism of cultural politics. Take her criticism of Australia Post CEO Ahmed Fahour’s $5.6 million salary. It is entirely reasonable to critique Fahour’s remuneration without recourse to his religion or whether he is a “fundamentalist” Muslim.
Hanson is no champion of working people, far from it. In the context of tossing up support for the Turnbull government’s “omnibus” welfare bill, she reportedly claimed that women will get pregnant to access paid parental leave. This is arrant nonsense and a snobbish insult to working women. Then there is her call to abolish the Family Court, an act that could only hurt the material interests of working-class women.
Hanson possesses no serious economic policy prescriptions. If anything, we are likely to see a potpourri of trickledown right-wing, anti-worker economics. One Nation’s new adviser Darren Nelson has been employed by radical free-market think tanks in the US and is a devotee of the economist Milton Friedman. So much for Hanson’s opposition to free trade and push to tax multinational companies. Her proposal to scratch the GST and replace it with a flat 2% tax is shockingly regressive. It would disproportionately affect working people.
Nor is Hanson a friend of battlers in our workplaces. Her salary and career mark her out as an elite, but it’s her policies that bell the cat on “Pauline the worker’s mate”. Hanson voted with the Turnbull government on laws that open the way for the unscrupulous use of overseas temporary workers and prevent building workers from insisting on Australian-made safety gear. Despite her recent efforts to distance herself from the Fair Work Commission’s decision to reduce Sunday pay, in 2014 she called for penalty rates to be scrapped “right across the board”. She is plainly out of touch with mainstream opinion. A recent Essential poll found that 82% of respondents believed “people who work outside of normal hours [should] receive a higher hourly rate of pay”, compared to just 12% opposed. One Nation is feeding off chronic job insecurity, which is hurting workers, their families and communities, but the party has nothing of substance to say on the issue. Nothing to say about dodgy franchisees ripping off workers. Nothing to say about manufacturing policy or nation-building infrastructure.
Hanson’s cynical appeal to working-class, typically older blue-collar males is just that. It’s where her opponents, especially those on the Labor side, need to focus their efforts, in what ex-treasurer Wayne Swan last Wednesday called an “unrelenting” defence of the “economic interests of working people”. This is not to ignore Hanson’s culture war missives but to recognise that defeating her brand of politics necessitates addressing bread-and-butter concerns and highlighting the contradictions at the heart of her policy stances.
A commentator last week argued, “People don’t vote for One Nation because they agree with everything it stands for. They vote for it because at least they know what it stands for.” True enough for the former proposition. The latter should be exposed for the fraud it is.
Nick Dyrenfurth is the executive director of the John Curtin Research Centre. He is the author or editor of seven books, including A Little History of the Australian Labor Party, Mateship: A Very Australian History, A New History of the AWU and All That’s Left. Nick is an adjunct research fellow in the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University.