One Nation under Pauline
Media heat obscures weak support for the played-out Pauline Hanson
In the aftermath of the Brexit vote, a Financial Times journalist noted that it was a “rather strange day. The Prime Minister resigning is only our third most important story”. By that metric, it’s been a rather strange week over here. On Monday, Malcolm Turnbull was sworn in again as prime minister, on Tuesday, a new cabinet was announced, and somehow these felt like mere footnotes to the real political news: the resurrection of Pauline Hanson. The first serious outbreak of Hanson’s disease was on Monday night’s Q&A, where she showed she’s one of the very few media personalities paid for an inability to talk on TV.
So where did this retro craze for poorly articulated nativism come from? The narrative, embraced with special keenness among Tony Abbott supporters, is that Malcolm Turnbull’s fancy talk and liberality pushed disaffected LNP voters towards One Nation. No-one could call her policies no-nonsense, but they’re at least the kind of strident, tough-talking nonsense that’s been lacking since the days of the death-cult press conference. For both supporters and opponents, it seems self-evident that Hanson’s rise and the rise of the harder right are the same thing.
But, curiously, other spoils of the delcons’ revenge seem to have gone missing. Take, for example, the fate of the anti-Islam Australian Liberty Alliance, which received plenty of sympathetic media attention (including an Angry Anderson endorsement and a Geert Wilders launch party). The ALA got just 0.73% of the Senate vote nationally, a dismal showing that even its idioticised leadership had trouble trumpeting as anything other than a disaster. Inside the Coalition, there was no sign that base voters protected the loyal right. Peter “Bordermaster” Dutton, for one, suffered a swing against the LNP in Dickson that was deeper than the national average.
There’s another explanation for this muddled picture – that Hanson has picked up the discarded protest votes of Clive Palmer supporters. Unless millions of Australians have undergone a dramatic change in their beliefs on multiculturalism in the past few months, and rediscovered an enthusiasm for Hanson they failed to display electorally for two decades, this seems more likely. Palmer’s policy for refugees was to go pick them up in planes, suggesting that when Queensland wants to say something provocative to Canberra, the style is more important than the message.
That’s not to diminish the real harm that Hanson does. In some ways, the fact voters will breezily endorse racism they may not see as mission critical might, in fact, be worse. But it’s significant that even Hanson herself suggested the media was paying too much attention to her views on Islam and immigration in the lead-up to the election, while, say, her youth apprenticeship scheme fell by the wayside. Still, if she is the chosen voice of the economically disenfranchised and angry, they have selected a poor advocate. One Nation’s taxation policy, for example, doesn’t go much further than this: “Our background facts and data on the economy (coming soon) list some traits of a fair tax system.”
It’s not just Hanson herself, but the debate she carries with her that’s a re-tread, the Howard years redux. Is it best to take her to task, or listen to her and her supporters and soothe their anxieties? Howard himself has suggested this latter approach. But in office he only gave her rhetorical cover, mainly in the form of silence. He waited for her support to waver (it took barely a year), then passed a bipartisan endorsement of non-discriminatory immigration, pushed immigration to record highs, and began the behind-the-scenes dealings which would end with her party in tatters and its leader in gaol. So much for the cup of tea.
Perhaps we’re reluctant now to examine the lessons of Hanson 1.0, when it would involve a reckoning with anti-Asian rhetoric so widespread and so cooked it’s almost unbelievable. Hanson’s ghost-written book The Truth, with its vision of a lesbian cyborg Malay-Australian president lording it over white slaves, wasn’t even the height of the fever dream. But it’s also worth looking back to see what prompted the cool-down. Hanson is silent on Asian migration now, except when prompted, and her reiteration that Sydney had been “swamped” was treated as laughable, instead of worthy of serious rebuttal.
Where did that volume of poison go? Some anti-Asian racists were won over by reasoned debate, some by sympathetic listening. Some simply died off. But many others were persuaded or strong-armed by the kind of mockery and censure currently painted as a bad idea. The broadcaster Ron Casey even came to agree with the Broadcasting Tribunal’s decision to punishing him for vilification: “That rotten business was the biggest mistake of my life … I don’t for a second deny [the tribunal] were quite right in reprimanding me … Look, the Asians who are here are as much Australian as I am.” After reprimand, there were many more penitents than martyrs.
Above all, the mood changed. It became increasingly silly and unacceptable to talk about the “authoritarian character” of Asian culture when people realised they were now talking about their local GP. For all its faults, the model of Australian multiculturalism turned out to be not too bad at ameliorating problems presented as intractable or innate. Perhaps things will be more difficult this time around. But before breaking out the Bushells with those who, let’s face it, have likely already encountered the idea that discrimination might be bad, we should give ridicule a chance.