Rise of the outsiders

In 2002, Mark Latham delivered the Menzies Lecture at London’s Kings College, canvassing the rise of Pauline Hanson, among other things.

Pointing to the growing divide in our politics, he sought to explain her accumulation of power.

“I would argue that the political spectrum is best understood as a struggle between insiders and outsiders,” he said, “the abstract values of the powerful centre versus the pragmatic beliefs of those who feel disenfranchised by social change.”

No one could have predicted what the intervening years would hold for Latham, the wild cycle of political death and reinvention. He was then the alternative prime minister, the rebellious upstart who might topple John Howard.

Now Hanson’s lieutenant, the leader of One Nation in New South Wales and its most likely representative in the state’s upper house, Latham was called on this week to explain her again. The topic had shifted slightly, to whether she had raised with him a view that the Port Arthur massacre was a government plot. She hadn’t, he told Channel Seven.

And yet there it was in secret footage released by Al Jazeera, the workings of her party’s aberrant mind. “Those shots, they were precision shots…” Hanson says in a slow, nodding discursion. “I’ve read a lot and I have read the book on it, Port Arthur. A lot of questions there.”

These are not the pragmatic beliefs of those who feel disenfranchised by social change. Nor the airing of controversial issues kept out of the mainstream by political correctness. Too lazy to seek relevance through actual policy, these are political operators who cling to the cruellest of conspiracies.

In this, of course, One Nation is not alone.

Latham’s fall from major party leader to fringe party representative has traced a wide arc through Australia’s own political realignment. Issues once seen as Canberra’s bread and butter are now rarely mentioned, or relegated to state politics.

We approach a federal election with little discussion of education. Major health announcements from both the government and opposition were completely pushed aside by the One Nation scandal.

And though the spending spree is yet to kick off in earnest, it’s becoming clear the currency of this election will once again be fear – the laziest of political tools. One Nation may well be weakened by this week’s revelations, but playing to the darkest corners of the nation’s mind is the game for which it was born.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 30, 2019 as "Rise of the outsiders".

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