September 2005

The Nation Reviewed

This is your afterlife

By Kerryn Goldsworthy

Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In the course of her political career Pauline Hanson endured a range of unpleasantnesses, including death threats, jail strip-searches and the hurling into her face of unspeakable substances in public places. But the sight of Channel Nine’s Mike Munro coming towards her with his big red This is Your Life book one night a few weeks ago was enough to make her burst into tears. Since Hanson’s vulnerability to events beyond her comprehension has always been part of her appeal to those who find her appealing, the tears came as no real surprise. The truly puzzling thing was that, at the time, she was standing onstage in a floor-length electric-blue dress with a split skirt and sequins, surrounded by people in Native American feather head-dresses, war paint and buckskins.

Hanson had just appeared in the finale of a stage show into which she was drafted by Todd McKenney after he met her last year on the set of Channel Seven’s Dancing with the Stars. McKenney, up in the judges’ box, had been trashing Hanson’s execution of the Viennese waltz when she threw the director and floor-crew into a panic, and the live-to-air schedule into disarray, by demanding that if McKenney thought she was as bad as all that he should come down onto the dance floor and show her how to do it properly. Later she pinched his mobile phone and rang his mother, whom she’d never met, to complain about him: “He’s a bugger of a kid, isn’t he?”

McKenney was sufficiently charmed by this behaviour to invite her to be part of his show, in which she wears a sailor suit and fronts a group of tap-dancing over-55s dressed up as the Retirement Village People – hence the feathers and buckskins. Hanson dances like a marionette and sings a consistent quarter-tone sharp, but then she’s not there for her stage skills. She’s there for her celebrity and for her physical presence, which has complex high-camp qualities. Her appearance is easily satirised and lampooned but at the same time oddly impressive. At 51, she looks like an exceptionally good drag queen: a fit, slender redhead with a straight back and good legs. You can see why McKenney thought she’d look the part.

Back in the early days of her One Nation party, the notion of Hanson competitively answering quiz-show questions or doing the rumba for the amusement of the populace would have been greeted with anything from blind rage to hysterical giggling. Over the past year, however, TV has been busily repackaging her as Australia’s sweetheart. She has appeared on Dancing with the Stars, Enough Rope, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire and, most recently, This is Your Life. In her new incarnation as a post-politics, post-jail celebrity, much of what she actually said and did in the early days of her public life has been forgotten, or even forgiven, and yet many people were appalled by the idea that she should be thought a suitable subject for This is Your Life. Appearance on such a show suggests that one’s career has been a matter for celebration and congratulations. Predictably the script air-brushed out the worst of Hanson’s words and deeds, describing her politics as “controversial” and constructing her as a victim of unnamed “enemies”.

The most interesting thing about the show, with its 1990s news footage, was the contrast it revealed between the nervy, quavering, badly made-up Hanson of her early career and the physically poised, cool, controlled and engaging media performer she has since become. It may not be too outlandishly Pollyanna-ish to hope that her views, like her appearance and behaviour, have been softened by eight or nine years of hard experience. Certainly she looks and sounds a lot less angry and a lot less confused, and nowadays her ire seems mainly directed at two individuals who each had a major effect on her political trajectory. Last year on Enough Rope, Andrew Denton asked her: “In a wrestle to the death between Tony Abbott and David Oldfield, who would you be going for?” Hanson hummed and hawed and then bit the bullet hard: “If they were both hit by a bus, I’d just make sure the job was done properly.”

The appeal of her Dancing with the Stars performances lay precisely in the limited nature of her talent. She wasn’t actually terrible. With intensive training and personalised choreography, she managed not to trip up her partner or embarrass herself. On the dance floor, as elsewhere, what is extraordinary about Hanson is the extreme theatricality of her ordinariness. This has always been her special thing. She introduced herself in her maiden speech to parliament “not as a polished politician but as a woman who has had her fair share of life’s knocks”. Forty years earlier, Patrick White identified what he called “the exaltation of the average” as the single most frightening thing about 1950s Australian society; it had its resurgence, if indeed it had ever really gone away, in Hanson’s popularity. She implied herself opposed to all forms of extraordinariness – the educated, the excellent, the exotic and the elite – while to her supporters she was Our Pauline, and they saw no paradox in the fact that, to them, her very ordinariness was the thing that made her special.

Perhaps one of the reasons more people are now warming to her in her harmless celebrity TV gigs is that the sting has been withdrawn from her public persona. Out of politics, presumably for good, she is no longer peddling muddled racist views, galvanising large swags of disaffected people and bringing out the worst in almost everybody. The frightening thing about her now is a different kind of ordinariness; over the last decade, the Australian political landscape and its public discourse have steadily shifted closer to some of her original positions. In 1996 when she first rose to national prominence, Pauline Hanson sounded scary. These days she just sounds normal.

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