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Anna Broinowski
Please Explain

Fly-on-the-wall footage of outlying social groups – alt-right political parties, bikies, squatters – is a staple of documentary film. It requires a lot of straight-faced swallowing of preposterous notions, in the hope the resulting film is seen as relevant as well as bizarre. Please Explain is the book of Anna Broinowski’s doco of the same name, screened by SBS in July last year. She’d spent seven years, off and on, trailing Pauline Hanson through the political wilderness (following her high point of 1996-98 when she’d won a house of representatives seat and her new One Nation party a government-changing bloc in Queensland’s parliament).

Broinowski struck lucky. The same month her film showed, Hanson made her great comeback, winning seats in the senate for herself and three others. The British had just voted for Brexit, the United States Republicans were about to endorse Donald Trump. Marine Le Pen and counterparts were on the rise in Europe. Was Hanson about to capture a new populist wave in Australia?

Political scientists are hard at work trying to answer Hanson’s trademark question. Broinowski doesn’t get into psephology. Her main analytical point is that, as with Trump, Hanson’s deft use of social media now allows her to bypass conventional mediators of politics. Her supporters like Hanson because she says what she thinks without embarrassment at being thought ignorant or racist – what they themselves think. She’s riveting to watch, Broinowski says: “Her bloody-minded refusal to be fettered by either accuracy or spin is as breathtaking as it is eerily absolute.”

For her core support group of “older Anglo-Australian men” in regional Australia, Hanson exerts a feral sexuality, recalling the lizard-woman of Wake in Fright. Her mail includes earnest proposals of marriage from strangers, her inbox replete with explicit sexual propositions. They later hated another redhead, Julia Gillard, with the same sexualised intensity because she embodied mainstream correctness.   

Broinowski’s strength is her portrayal of this mass relationship, from access the filmmaker won in 2009, when, with cards laid down at a meeting in Sydney’s Sylvania Waters – nouveau riche locale of the ABC-BBC’s early example of reality TV – Broinowski declared herself “a pro-refugee, pro-environment, pro-reconciliation leftie who had grown up in Asia and disagreed with almost everything she said”. Hanson appreciated the directness. Maybe she thought she could convert the city filmmaker. At times in the coming years − during testy encounters over rounds of Hanson’s favourite tipple, the Bundy and dry known as a “ginger bitch” − Broinowski thought she could convert Hanson, persuading her to drop the racial scapegoating and concentrate on the genuine pain of those hit by globalisation, market-based reform and environmental degradation.

The former Fairfax journalist Margo Kingston also thought this when she tracked Hanson for her 1999 book Off the Rails. “She’s not evil,” Kingston wrote. “She’s ignorant.” A succession of male manipulators strove to keep her this way, notably the smooth former dive shop owner from Manly, David Oldfield, who advised her covertly from 1996-97 from his position on Tony Abbott’s staff and as her secret lover (though he denies a sexual relationship).

The Liberals and Nationals also took a Machiavellian approach. John Howard, whom Broinowski regards as Hanson’s “chief enabler”, refused to attack her or her ideas directly. In her maiden speech Hanson declared in her now-familiar quaver that “ ’Straya” was in danger of being “swamped by Asians” and that “if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to say who comes into my country”. Not long after, Howard said he was glad the “pall of censorship” had been lifted and Australians could “now talk about certain things without living in fear of being branded as a bigot or a racist”. In 2001, he was famously declaring: “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”

Tony Abbott took it on himself, Howard swears to Broinowski, to nobble Hanson. As Kingston teased out, Abbott supported a disgruntled One Nation candidate, Terry Sharples, in his legal challenge to One Nation’s registration as a political party in Queensland and its right to some $500,000 in refunded campaign expenses. “You have my personal guarantee you will not be further out of pocket as a result of this action,” Abbott wrote to Sharples, before assisting him with pro bono lawyers and a slush fund called “Australians for Honest Politics”. Then Queensland premier Peter Beattie extended the maximum penalty for electoral fraud from six months to seven years, so that Hanson might be hit with the one year or more jail term that would disbar her from parliament. She got three years, and served 11 weeks in Brisbane’s Wacol prison before her charges were quashed on appeal. Among followers, it made her a martyr.

Howard now argues he didn’t want to exaggerate Hanson’s threat or label her supporters as racist. He disputes Broinowski’s assessment that with her election in 1996 “multicultural Australia was plunged into a state of pseudo civil war”. This has some validity (compare Hillary Clinton’s “deplorables” gaff), though Howard’s later dog-whistling is less admirable.

Now we have Abbott picking up Hanson’s theme of “political correctness” run rampant. He’s not racist, but showed himself an assimilationist when he cut support for “lifestyle choices” in remote Aboriginal settlements. Hanson is “a better person today than she was 20 years ago”, he says.

As for Hanson, everyone’s given up trying to change her. Aboriginals and Asians no longer turn out to demonstrate outside her meetings. Former mentor John Pasquarelli calls her “intellectually indolent”. Broinowski tries vainly to get her to mingle at Lakemba, then hears her say: “Where are the good Muslims leading quiet lives – why aren’t they standing up saying something?”

How far she can take her wilful ignorance remains to be seen. She likes One Nation candidates to “have a bit of the mongrel in them” and is thus constantly let down. And anti-establishment populism can go the Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn way as well.  JF

Viking, 272pp, $34.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 26, 2017 as "Anna Broinowski, Please Explain". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JF