Pauline Hanson’s return to parliament is a sign of the increasing disconnect between the major parties and voters. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The return of Pauline Hanson and One Nation

The last time around: Pauline Hanson campaigning in Ipswich in 1998.
The last time around: Pauline Hanson campaigning in Ipswich in 1998.
Credit: Dean Sewell/Oculi
Pauline Hanson explained in May why she would contest this election, her 10th: “I keep going because our voting system is corrupt and I have been cheated.” This week, her political resurrection was complete, even if the extent of her success was yet to be formalised by the Australian Electoral Commission. Her election to the senate is the fulfilment of a 20-year desire that has survived prison, ridicule and serial losses at the ballot box.

Opposition to her success is varied. Hanson is either portent or anomaly; popular or loathed; the beneficiary of a double dissolution, or the inevitable result of rising Islamophobia; a phenomenon to be understood or furiously excoriated. Even believers in condemnation splinter into rivalrous schools – from fierce and unequivocal rejection, to a criticism that delicately avoids condescension.

Journalist Margo Kingston, then with The Sydney Morning Herald, followed Hanson’s bid for the seat of Oxley in 1998 and published a book about it called Off the Rails. Hanson had just been disendorsed by the Liberal Party for saying government assistance should not be granted to Indigenous Australians. She ran as an independent anyway. Among Hanson’s supporters, Kingston found another country, one far away in attitudes and prospects from the nation’s capitals. “Pauline’s people were rural poor and fringe city poor clinging to old cultural values they insisted were still central to Australia’s identity,” she wrote.

This week, Kingston published a piece calling for a change in how we treat Hanson. Her argument was that much of the criticism of Hanson in the ’90s was counterproductive, that it was often condescending and only served to encourage Hanson’s supporters in their belief that the city’s elites were conspiring against them. Kingston makes clear to me that this didn’t represent sympathy for Hanson’s policies, but a question about the tone with which she is challenged. “Hanson’s policies on Islam are beyond the pale, but I think the danger is intensified by running class-based ridicule. I mean, her policies are crackpot nonsense. But race policies are not the only reason people voted for her. It was an ‘up yours’ [to regular politics]. And I don’t want to relive the nightmare of the ’90s.”

A man who remembers the “nightmare” of the Hanson-inflected politics of the ’90s is Tim Soutphommasane, Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner. Dr Soutphommasane, the son of Chinese and Lao parents, was 14 when Hanson entered the house of representatives. “We should recognise that people are disillusioned and disaffected,” he tells me. “And they may have voted for a number of motives. They may have been left behind by economic reform, or they may feel affinity for her views on race. But we can’t apologise for repudiating bigotry. Free speech gives no excuse to hate speech. Her political views are repugnant, but elements of the media have boosted her popularity and profile… and helped normalise her views.”  

Everyone I spoke to this week viewed Hanson’s success – and the continued decline in confidence of both major parties – as a milder reflection of the populist, anti-authoritarian sentiment that birthed Brexit in Britain and the ascension of Donald Trump in the United States. As former premier of Western Australia Geoff Gallop says: “This appears to be a local version of a [broader] theme.”

Professor Gallop is the director of Sydney University’s School of Government. “It doesn’t compare in quantitative terms with the US, say, where Trump is leader of a party. Here, the two major parties are still in control, even if their authority is diminished. But that diminished authority makes governing much, much harder.” 

But Soutphommasane argues there is more to it. “There’s enough similarities with the rise of right-wing populism across the Anglosphere to be worried. We shouldn’t rush to conclusions, but many feel that the major political parties haven’t supported them. There’s clear similarities with supporters of Trump and UKIP.”

1 . Voters turning away from orthodoxy

Australians experienced a largely desultory campaign. Speech that was carefully scrubbed of eloquence, rawness, improvisation, authenticity, admission of fault, or the acceptance of complexity. The televised debate between Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten at the National Press Club was a dismal lesson in cowardice, in how our leaders largely define communicative success in the negative – the avoidance of a “gaffe”, a quirk, an inconsistency – for fear that its significance will be exaggerated and splashed on a front page, or inanely and reactively dissected on a televised chat panel. Thus the media helps disincentivise speech that is natural, challenging and demonstrably felt, and we arrive at a prisoner’s dilemma, each leader joined in a strategic paralysis. While the political advisers will privately declare loss or triumph in that 24-hour cycle, the accumulative effect upon voters is boredom, disgust or alienation. 

Then there is Hanson. A woman consistently unadorned. “One on one she’s quite confronting,” Kingston tells me. “She’s authentic. There’s no barriers. I think that’s the secret to her success. She’s a genuine listener and her determination is undoubted. I asked her why did she get back into politics when she could coast on being a celebrity, and she gave me a very angry speech about how she wasn’t a celebrity, that she wanted to represent the people … Though there’s the trite observation, and that’s: once you’ve tasted political power, you want it back.”

Soutphommasane also wonders if the rise in anti-authoritarian right-wing groups is owing to a particular political orthodoxy. “It’s possible that we’re seeing a response to technocratic managerialism that’s been the political consensus for three decades,” he says. “Parties can’t connect with people’s lived experience in a way they should. When they talk about productivity, it’s music to the ears of economists and those in the Canberra bubble, but it’s anathema to most. There’s a structural disconnect. It’s jargon. Most people aren’t considering their lives via ‘marginal utility’.”

There are obvious, if imperfect, parallels with Donald Trump – a man who has found that disdain for party politics is so great that unscripted and vulgar communion with American anxiety can now place you very close to the White House. What’s imperfect about the comparison is the fact that the Australian economy – unlike its US analogue – is now experiencing a world-historic 25th year of consecutive growth, and unemployment is at 6 per cent.

In 1998, a young Liberal politician published an essay called “The Feral Right”, which reflected upon the causes and effects of the rise of One Nation. In that year’s Queensland election, Hanson’s party attracted almost a quarter of the primary vote. “Obviously, there is deep resentment at the widespread ‘downsizing’ of institutions (such as banks and the public service) which once offered virtual jobs-for-life,” he wrote. “Large sections of rural Australia seem fascinated by guns. [John Howard had just implemented gun restrictions.]

“To Australians brought up on the traditional ‘have a go’ ethos, the mood in the street is very hard to explain or even comprehend. Present-day Australians have less reason to complain than any previous generation. Yet there are vast numbers of people convinced that somewhere, somehow, someone is ripping them off. The complaints by small business that the market has never been worse; by pensioners that they are about to lose benefits; by publicly funded institutions that ‘the cuts’ are killing them; by farmers that they are constantly ignored (and so on) are symptoms of the rise of the feral right – politically active people convinced that change is about to overwhelm them and who would rather nourish a grievance than search for explanations. For these people, an unshakeable conviction that ‘we’ll all be rooned’ now substitutes for traditional Aussie stoicism.”

The author continued that, for this feral right, “facts don’t disturb its conviction that higher tariffs on imported cars and a ban on food imports are the only way to save the country. The world view of this ugly conservatism is distinguished by a complete absence of optimism, total lack of generosity of spirit and denial that politics always involves a process of give as well as take… The triumph of fear over hope is palpable.”

The author was the new member for Warringah, Tony Abbott.

2 . Hanson takes on the media

This week, Hanson posted a typically defiant video on her Facebook page, in which she derided “the media”. Hanson understands that technology now allows her to selectively avoid it in a way that wasn’t possible when she entered politics in 1996. She said the media “use me as a punching bag”. Referring to a broadcasting app, she warned: “We won’t need media at all. You guys will be out of a job.”

One wonders if the defiance is either cynical or ignorant. In her two-decade quest to reanimate her political career, it was “the media” that recruited her for the high-rating show Dancing With the Stars, that offered her a weekly spot on an even higher-rating breakfast program during this campaign, and which documented her history with mawkish deference in This is Your Life. It was “the media” that sustained her celebrity for 20 years, but is the very thing Hanson now decries as brutal, unfair and censorious.

As it is, Gallop says something needs to change. “The two major parties need to break out of their straitjackets,” he says. “What’s dismal is we’re locked in. Someone has to take a risk. One of the two sides needs to re-frame the social contract.” 

Undoubtedly Hanson appeals to a dark vein of xenophobia, but also to people buffeted by lowered tariffs, free trade deals, porous borders and automation, people for whom technological advances have been alienating rather than empowering. As it is with UKIP and Trump supporters, it seems Hanson also appeals to those whose frame for politics is a sickly nostalgia. What we haven’t had is a leadership that has adequately explained why a wistful longing for the 1950s isn’t going to work in 2016.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 9, 2016 as "Wan nation".

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