There was not a lot of love about in Queensland Liberal Party HQ on Valentine’s Day 1996. Quite the reverse.
The Liberals’ then state director, Jim Barron, a party moderate of a socially progressive bent, had decided it was time to separate the party from the hate speech of the candidate for Oxley, Pauline Hanson.
Barron had been informed – ahead of publication – of Hanson’s latest “vile, racist, hate-mongering” comments, given in an interview with Brisbane’s Courier-Mail. She had gone beyond her earlier complaints about the welfare entitlements paid to Aborigines, and condemned the first Australians as the main instigators of crime and violence in society.
Barron called her in and told her she was being disendorsed.
And there it might have ended. But Hanson was not so easily defeated. She and Barron reached a compromise whereby she could continue to use her election material, with the word “Liberal” blacked out.
It wasn’t Barron’s fault, but that Valentine’s Day meeting changed Australian public life dramatically. Hanson set free what opposition leader Kim Beazley later – in his concession speech after the 2001 “Tampa” federal election – termed the “dark angels in our nation”. She proved the formidable political power of racism and xenophobia.
Hanson came and went, but her influence lingered. And now, 20 years on, she’s back, and likely to be joined by two other members of her One Nation party in the senate. History repeats, with minor variations. The basic message is the same: “Be afraid.” But the object of the scare campaign has changed. Not Indigenous Australians or Asians this time, but Muslims.
Even as Jim Barron was giving Hanson her marching orders in 1996, he feared he was making a martyr. The sacking would feed into Hanson’s narrative of victimhood and gain her national prominence.
Confirmation came in the papers the next day, and in a call he received from a Brisbane radio station informing him that the views of talkback callers were 99 per cent favourable to Hanson.
A few weeks later, the voters threw Labor out of office and elected the Howard government. But the biggest winner on election night was Hanson. The Oxley electorate recorded the biggest swing of the election – 19.31 per cent.
Hanson’s maiden speech to parliament, on September 10 that year, was incendiary.
Citing her “common sense and … experience as a mother of four children, as a sole parent and as a businesswoman running a fish and chip shop” she claimed to speak for the majority of Australians.
“I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia,” she said.
Actually, she said, Indigenous Australians were the privileged ones, and she called for an end to land rights and to special programs for Aborigines.
Hanson advocated for the abolition of multiculturalism, the end of all foreign aid, and echoed Arthur Calwell’s objection to non-white immigration to Australia.
The most famous line of the speech was: “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.”
But perhaps the most resonant followed two sentences later: “Of course, I will be called racist but, if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country.”
A remarkably similar form of words was adopted by John Howard at the next election. “We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.”
For months Howard resolutely refused to condemn Hanson.
“I certainly believe in her right to say what she said,” he told ABC TV. “I thought some of the things she said were an accurate reflection of what people feel.”
Less than two weeks after her maiden speech, he told the state council of the Queensland Liberal Party he believed Australians had been freed from the constraints of political correctness and were able to “speak a little more freely and a little more openly about what they feel”.
The admiration was mutual. Hanson lauded Howard as a “strong leader.”
As a comprehensive recounting of the events in the academic journal The Australian Journal of Politics and History at the end of that year described it, Howard’s apparent endorsement had “the effect of unleashing a torrent of right-wing prejudice – often on talkback radio – of what the media mis-labelled a ‘debate’ about race and immigration”.
Around the country, protesters took to the streets. Ten thousand marched in Melbourne.
It was not until eight months after the election, the AJPH noted, when the National Party became concerned that Australian exports to Asia were being jeopardised, that Howard finally joined opposition leader Kim Beazley in supporting a motion reaffirming the nation’s commitment to a non-discriminatory immigration policy.
The cult of Hanson grew, nourished by vast, favourable media coverage from the shock jocks and tabloid press. She formed a party. At its height, in 1998, it won 22 per cent of the vote in the Queensland election – more than the Liberals – and returned 11 MPs. It took another three seats in Western Australia and one in New South Wales.
It didn’t last long, though. The party was beset by internal divisions. Hanson herself became a subject of ridicule and satire. Her response to an interviewer who asked if she was xenophobic – “Please explain?” – became a mocking catchcry.
And the Howard government began courting her base of disaffected voters, “dog-whistling” them back with its own, more subtle appeals to prejudice.
There would be no apology by Howard to the Aboriginal Stolen Generations. Asylum seekers threw their own children overboard from the people smugglers’ boats, we were told, and possibly had terrorists among their number.
Howard’s lieutenant, Tony Abbott, engaged in a secretive, well-funded operation to dig up dirt on Hanson, which eventually saw her charged with electoral fraud and jailed. She later successfully appealed.
The major parties became convinced they had seen off the Hanson challenge. In 2003, for example, Michael Gordon reported in The Age the shared views of the strategists for the two major parties that Hansonism had “fizzled out”. Lynton Crosby, then Liberal Party federal director, called her “the accidental tourist of Australian politics”.
Gary Gray, Labor’s national campaign director in the 1996 and 1998 elections, parroted the popular analysis that her success was not an expression of racism so much as a result of economic and political exclusion.
“Hansonism,” he said, “was a political reaction to the feeling among a very large voter demographic that they’d been ignored.”
But Hanson never really went away. She continued to enjoy a degree of celebrity status. She went on Celebrity Apprentice Australia, and flamed out spectacularly, complaining, typically, that she been treated unfairly. She was more successful on Dancing with the Stars in 2004, finishing runner-up.
She also made repeated attempts at election. She ran for the senate in NSW in 2013 and got little more than 1 per cent of the vote.
In 2015, at the Queensland state election, she did much better, coming within 0.2 per cent of winning the seat of Lockyer from the Liberals. Her near success was built on the old formula of fear and xenophobia. The focus was immigration again, but refined somewhat from days of yore. She was no longer calling for an end to all non-white immigration. Just Muslims.
“Bring in the right people that are culturally going to blend in to our society, that we have the same views and laws and we have the same beliefs,” she told one media conference.
“They state under Koran they don’t believe in democracy, freedom of the press and freedom of speech.
“The Labor Party opened up the floodgates. We had the refugees coming into Australia. We ended up with terrorists out of that. We ended up with people not loyal to the country, and now it’s up to the Abbott government to actually turn this around.”
Lest she appeared prejudiced, she added: “I know of some Muslim people that don’t wear the full burqa and they actually blend in to Australian society and are loyal to this country.”
Islam was her main focus, but there were other policies, too, directed at her disaffected, often male, often regional base. She would take a much harder line on foreign ownership of Australian land. She would abolish the Family Court.
The Nationals, in particular, took notice. They also propose tougher foreign investment rules. Some now are contemplating the future of the Family Court.
You can’t blame journalism for reporting news. But Hanson’s relationship with the media went rather deeper than that.
She became a paid commentator on the Seven Network’s Sunrise, opining on various subjects, including Islam and terrorism.
On the day of the Paris terrorist attacks last November, she appeared on the program, linking Muslim immigrants, particularly refugees, with terrorists.
Cells of terrorists had come to Australia as refugees, she said, referencing the Lindt cafe siege and Man Haron Monis.
“I don’t want to spread fear,” she told host David Koch. “I’m just trying to warn people and our government to take precautionary action so we live in a safe society … We need to look at the teachings of the Koran.”
The same day, she delivered similar “analysis” on the Nine Network’s competitor program, Today.
“People of Australia don’t want more Muslim refugees in Australia who may be ISIS plants,” she said.
Hanson also tweeted #9News: “Muslims, if you are opposed to this murder … then leave the religion.” And: “Let’s have a Royal Commission into Islam.”
As various commentators pointed out, Hanson has no credentials as an analyst, so why would the networks go to her? Why would they be complicit in her efforts to impugn an entire religion?
Earlier this month, John Howard encouraged politicians to work with Hanson. He said she was “articulating the concerns of people who felt left out” and should be negotiated with “issue by issue”.
He encouraged people not to scorn Hanson as racist. “We are not a racist country and I wish people would stop reaching for that adjective whenever they want to isolate somebody who they don’t agree with.”
On Today this week Sonia Kruger – another alumnus of Dancing with the Stars – joined Hanson in calling for a halt to Muslim immigration.
Hanson herself went on the ABC’s Q&A program, repeated her concerns about Muslim immigration and called for a royal commission into the faith.
She repeatedly denied accusations from Iranian-born Labor senator Sam Dastyari that she was a hate preacher.
No, she said, that was the other side. It was Islamic “ideology that has hatred towards the West or infidels”.
Outside the ABC studios, supporters and opponents of Hanson were being kept apart by police as they loudly voiced their mutual hatred.