“I blame Tony Abbott [and] John Howard for my imprisonment and no one will ever change my opinion about that.”
A virus of populism, as it has come to be called, has rattled established classes across the countries of Europe, the United States, and, to a lesser extent, Australia. The latter case remains striking for the return of the reactionary Pauline Hanson to office last month in the July 2 elections. Much of this was the subject of the documentary Pauline Hanson: Please Explain!, which aired on the SBS network on July 31.
There she was, always targeted for being that whine from the provinces, a provincial red head and owner of a fish and chip shop in Ipswich, Queensland. She became the target for a class-based compendium of denigration, suggesting the extent she threatened to undermine the voting base of the major parties.
Her words, spoken shrilly when she was first elected to the lower house in 1996, were to make her famous. Her targets were immigration, multiculturalism and aboriginals. “I and most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed and that of multiculturalism abolished.” As for any statements of indigenousness, she was “fed up of being told: ‘This is our land.’ Well, where the hell do I go?” The game against her was afoot.
In time, some commentators would realise that Hanson was being misread. Michael Duffy suggested in the Weekend Australian that doing so had become a national pastime. Millions in Australia (Duffy’s figure out of a hat then was an exaggerated 6 million) had become subsumed by the meaningless term of “battler”, insecure in employment, concerned by changes. “The most important single thing about Pauline Hanson is that she has given many of these 6 million a public voice, and the employed class don’t like what it’s hearing.”
This was an Australia before the Pacific Solution, before the formal acceptance of carceral solutions to the victims of war and famine. It was an Australia before the bug of Islamic fundamentalism had driven such prime ministers as Tony Abbott potty with reactionary fear, a pre-security state.
Having seen Hanson in operation is much like seeing the hum drum person of ordinary opinions indifferent, if not incapable, of a world view. This is ordinary, and bland home cooking. When she was attacked in a combined front from internal rivals and the Liberal Party, one spearheaded by future prime minister Tony Abbott, she was made the cunning and devious ogress. Registering her One Nation Party fraudulently along with her adviser David Ettridge to access $500,000 in electoral funding, it was argued, was what she intended all along.
Her time in Wacol women’s prison for those corruption charges in 2003 regaled her in the saintly aura of martyrdom. Her conviction was subsequently quashed after serving 11 weeks of her three-year sentence, and enabled her to suggest, not without cause, that a “political witch-hunt” had been staged against her.
The backbiting vicious hysteria that accompanies her political activities, for that reason, assumes a disturbing demonology, with Hanson as prime target. Within such criticism lies an unsavoury tendency towards intolerance, one ironically fashioned as pure and necessary against an intolerance that is not. University campuses are covered in myopic campaign gatherings against “that Hanson woman”. The time she therefore receives in terms of interest and coverage tends to be out of all proportion to her actual relevance.
There is much to be concerned about Hanson’s views, which have merely gravitated from a fear of the “Asian” presence and moved towards Islam. For her, it is a case of making do with a slogan, a label that would sell if only she could be convinced it would.
She would not actually know what Halal food was, let alone the varieties of sects in the Muslim faith. In much of this, she shares ground with the conservatives in the governing Liberal and National coalition.
More to the point, her simple body of views has been entirely assimilated into the centrist position of Australian politics. Be it taking the heavy hand to refugees by turning back boats, often illegally, the niggling fear of around-the-corner terrorism and indefinite detention, or a suspicion that the cultural gears aren’t quite right, her internal suspicions became manifest in policy. Modern Australian politics is Hanson to the core, Hanson writ large across the Australian political party platforms.
It has been incumbent on such figures as former prime minister Howard to deny her influence, and his role behind attempting to remove her from a position of power. “That’s a ludicrous conspiracy theory because Tony Abbott was acting off his own bat.” Never ludicrous to blame mad Tony, of course.
Hanson, like Donald Trump in the United States, is quintessentially the figure of her background, rust and irritation made voice, a political opportunist able to garner endlessly free advertising time. Little wonder that she has her followers, fearful yet hopeful that she can find solutions to the insoluble. Her opponents will continue to misread her symbolism, hoping in vain that shouting her down, regarding her as a crank, and treating her as floating scum, will somehow make her go away. Again, they will be sorely mistaken.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org