The political resurrection of Pauline Hanson

The political resurrection of Pauline Hanson seemed humorously unlikely just a few years ago. There is no denying that her first foray into politics ended in complete disaster. She incited mass protests, lost her seat, was expelled from the party she created and jailed for election fraud. Now, after almost two decades in the political wilderness, she has re-entered parliament with a brand of right wing populism that has the potential do more damage and gain a broader following than ever before.

To her opponents she is an embarrassing joke. To her supporters she is a hero standing up to an arrogant and out-of-touch political elite. In reality, she is neither of these things. What she represents is part of a global trend of populist right wing figures riding a powerful wave of voter backlash against the impacts of neoliberalism. Her resurrection is a product of the inequalities and contradictions in capitalist society that would exist whether she did nor not.

Hanson angers and frustrates many because the content of what she says is difficult to engage with. Her speeches are riddled with factual errors, unrestrained bigotry and outlandish proposals. But far more important than what she says is who she is speaking to and the underlying frustrations she appeals to. Her supporters forgive her fumbles and mistakes because they identify with the sentiment she expresses. Simply ridiculing the lack of nuance and intellect she brings to political debate only further fuels her image as an outside agitator sticking it to the establishment. We need to understand the driving force behind Hansonism and the sentiment it captures if we are to successfully defeat it.

From political pariah to media darling

Hanson enjoys a celebrity status unique in Australian politics. From the moment she gave her first speech in parliament in 1996 she has been followed by a media circus. At times this has been to her detriment but is now very much to her benefit. When Hanson arrived on the scene in 1996, the brazenness with which she attacked Aboriginal and migrant communities, and her revival of the ideal of ‘White Australia’, stood in stark contrast with the previous two decades of bipartisan obsession with multiculturalism and Aboriginal reconciliation.

The shock value of Hanson’s return to White Australia rhetoric, coming from the mouth of an unpolished, rogue politician, enthralled the nation. She quickly became the most recognisable politician in the country. Constant media coverage followed her every move and cheap political stunts like her famous message from the grave (a recording she made to be broadcast in the event of her assassination) made her a household name far beyond the strength of her support base.

There is no doubt that Hanson’s success has been fuelled by media obsession. But she is not simply a media creation. Throughout her career opponents have continually and frustratingly demanded she simply be ignored. But at the height of her political influence, both in 1996 and again today, she can’t be ignored. Much to many people’s distaste she articulates a point of view that many hundreds of thousands of Australians think should be aired. A racist, anti-refugee, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim point of view that both the major parties laid the ground for. In this sense, Hansonism is a natural extension of the racial divisions carefully sown and cultivated by mainstream politicians and media commentators. 

Recognising the commercial value of such a polarising figure, the same media that once hounded and ridiculed her has now brought her well and truly into the fold. Stints on prime time reality TV, sympathetic personal profiles and paid gigs as a media “terrorism expert” have handed her an audience she could not have otherwise reached. Alongside the mainstreaming of Hanson as a media figure has come the mainstreaming of her political views.

The historical roots of Hanson’s racism

Nothing Hanson says is new. Much of what she claims is a rehashing of establishment ideas that have dominated throughout Australia’s history. In this sense the nostalgia she appeals to is not entirely manufactured. Australian history, post-colonisation, can be divided into two eras. The longest and most formative era is that of economic protectionism and assimilation, beginning from early colonisation until the dismantling of the White Australia policy in 1973. The second era, in which we remain, is that of neoliberalism and multiculturalism. Hansonism stems from the tension between, and inadequacies of, these economic and political ideologies.

Australia is an immigrant nation but a carefully socially engineered one. Immigration restrictions have played a far more important role in shaping Australia than other immigrant nations like the US or Canada. It is often claimed that Australia is the most “British” country outside Britain and the most “Irish” country outside Ireland. Throughout Australian history the English have always been the largest foreign born population, followed by the Irish in the 1800’s and the Scottish in the 1900’s. This was deliberately orchestrated by enticing British immigrants through assisted passages: payment to come to Australia and guaranteed employment and accommodation upon arrival. Contrary to popular belief, far more Australians are descendants of assisted migrants than of convicts.

By the time of Federation in 1901 the concept of building a White Australia had been well and truly established. In that year Prime Minister Alfred Deakin openly campaigned for “a White Australia, in which the absolute mastering and dominating element shall be British”. This did not mean that non-British immigration was banned, but that a tiered system operated with the clear intention of short term segregation for some, long term assimilation for others. British migrants were supported through many economic and social programs to help them build new lives as Australians. Non-British migrants entered Australia as labourers with lesser rights and non-permanent status. There were some exceptions for students and businessmen from non-British backgrounds who were expected to quickly assimilate. In times of labour shortages more non-British migrants were allowed in and in times of high unemployment entry was denied and many were deported. Those who wished to stay faced significant legal barriers while British migrants were still being paid to come. Australia is a nation was largely built by non-white and Aboriginal labour but dominated by a privileged British elite.

As the local labour movement developed it too was dominated by the ideology of White Australia. White workers often viewed non-British migrant workers as a threat to their wages and employment conditions as they often worked for lower wages and in far worse conditions. Rather than organise non-British migrant workers into trade unions, the strategy of many labour leaders was to agitate for stricter immigration controls and protectionist measures like heavy tariffs and taxpayer subsidies for local industries. There have been some exceptions to this, such as the numerous anti-racist labour struggles led by communists and other radicals. But for the most part the Australian labour movement has historically been hindered by its commitment to the economic protectionist and assimilationist policies of White Australia. 

While brazen racism was often used to justify and entrench the concept of White Australia, the persistent and overwhelming ideology was that of assimilation. National and ethnic groups were assessed and ranked on their ability to “fit in” to a British dominated society. The horrific social darwinism of the policies that led to the Stolen Generations was based on the idea that the surviving Aboriginal population could be slowly bred out of existence. This was considered a humane solution to the “Aboriginal problem” by those who advocated it.

The outbreak of World War Two heightened fears about Australia’s security and longevity as a severely underpopulated nation. The infamous slogan “populate or perish” was first employed by Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes in 1937 and later adopted by Labor politician Arthur Calwell. Prompted by fears of invasion and the weakening of the British Empire, Australia broadened its immigration programs to include Europeans and some post-war refugees. This shift in policy from above produced ethnic tensions on the ground. Racism against Southern and Eastern European migrants escalated as it challenged the established national identity of White Australia (in which “White” meant exclusively “British”). But the post-war boom alleviated these tensions over time as low unemployment due to growing manufacturing and extended social programs like public education, housing projects and public heath improved people’s lives dramatically. Many of these progressive reforms were won through social movements in which migrants participated heavily. The integration of European migrants into the labour movement helped shift the consciousness of Australian workers away from White Australia towards a more inclusive working class politics. This shift in Australian society, engineered from above out of necessity but prompting a new consciousness of Australian identity from below, brought about the beginning of the end of White Australia.

While immigration restrictions were loosened, assisted passages were still used to exclusively entice British migrants. The growing Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Singaporean, Burmese, Indian, Lebanese and Egyptian migrant communities were all self-funded and consequently suffered more poverty and social exclusion.

By the time Gough Whitlam’s Labor government abolished the legislative remnants of White Australia in 1973 social attitudes had largely changed. For those clinging to the ideal of White Australia, the ending of the policy had no immediate impact on immigration anyway. An economic downturn saw the Whitlam government to reduce immigration to its lowest level since 1948.

Over the course of the 20th century the economic interventionist policies of White Australia allowed governments to socially engineer Australian society through subsidies for British migrants. When White Australia was finally abolished and assisted passages became too expensive to continue (a decade later in 1982) a new ideology took hold. Multiculturalism, as policy, represented a new method of selection and exclusion based around economic rationalism rather than race and ethnicity. Migrants were selected on the basis of how their skillset could meet the needs of business. In this sense Australian multiculturalism, as it is practiced, is deeply tied to the economic ideology of neoliberalism.

Has multiculturalism failed?

Multiculturalism as political ideology and practice arose out of an economic and political necessity faced by the Australian ruling class. The shift from a largely agricultural economy to an advanced capitalist economy made the skillset of a prospective migrant more important than their race or ethnicity. The involvement of migrants in trade unions and progressive social movements, and the subsequent growth of non-British migrant communities as significant percentages of certain electorates, created new challenges for the major political parties.

Multiculturalism was in part a strategy to stunt the growth of an increasingly militant labour movement. Instead of allowing migrants to find a social and political home amongst other workers in increasingly diverse unions, they were instead represented by well-funded, government supported, ethnic community associations. From a political standpoint it is far easier for the major parties to appeal to growing ethnic communities by building relationships with ethnic elites than to address the social and economic concerns of working class migrants. Hundreds of ethnic community associations existed before the 1970’s but under the policies of multiculturalism these institutions gained more funding, power and prestige than ever before. For the first time an “ethnic lobby” had the capacity to influence policy in Australia.

From the 1970’s until today multiculturalism (as it relates to neoliberalism) has been a bipartisan policy advocated and implemented by both of the major parties. There was little mainstream political opposition to multiculturalism until Hanson arrived on the scene in 1996.

But that did not mean everyone had been sold on multiculturalism. At the same time as non-British migrant communities gained confidence to openly express and celebrate their languages and cultures, the economic security of working class Australians diminished. In a world where the gap between rich and poor has exploded under the policies of neoliberalism, the new norm for workers from all ethnic backgrounds is one of job insecurity, reduced wages and crushing debt.

For British migrants originally enticed to Australia for a better life, the new norm came as a shock. The safety net of guaranteed employment, accessible social services and public housing was suddenly no longer available to them, their children or grandchildren. Non-British migrants no longer only take the lowest paid jobs as they often arrive with higher qualifications than many local-born Australians. In Australia today many of the most disadvantaged communities are in rural areas that have a relatively small number of non-British migrants. The perceived impact of non-British immigration on the lives of “white” Australians is more significant now than anytime during the White Australia policy.

These realities, of course, are the product of neoliberalism not immigration or individual migrant communities. Social and economic policies that favour the rich at the expense of the poor, by privatising social services and undermining workers’ bargaining power, are to blame. But for many the temporal connection between multiculturalism and their own diminishing economic and political power is strong and fuels the backlash against immigration, refugees and certain migrant communities we see today.

When people like Pauline Hanson claim that “multiculturalism has failed” they are almost never criticising the neoliberal character of multiculturalism policy. They are, however, either consciously or unconsciously linking the small social gains made by non-British migrants and Aboriginal people with the overall devastating impacts of neoliberalism. To simply defend multiculturalism as morally correct without addressing both its real and imagined relationship to neoliberalism is completely inadequate. What they label the “failure of multiculturalism” we must redefine as the failure of neoliberalism.

Hanson’s election

Hanson planned to contest the 1996 federal election as the Liberal Party candidate for the safe Labor seat of Oxley in Queensland. Had she remained a Liberal she probably would never have won the seat and history would never have known her name.

Hanson was deselected prior to the election following anti-Aboriginal comments she made in a local paper. However, she was already registered on the ballot and continued to campaign for the seat as an independent. It is a tragic irony that her new status as an independant made it easier for disaffected Labor voters to vote for her, despite still being labelled as a Liberal on the ballot paper. In a shock result she won the seat with a massive 19.3% swing in what was previously the safest Labor seat in Queensland.

Massive swings occurred across the country due to the anger directed against the Hawke/Keating Labor governments. Unemployment had risen to almost 9% nationally and Labor’s open adoption of pro-business policies angered its working class voter base. Neoliberal ideology had been adopted by Labor just as enthusiastically as it was by the Liberals. A 25% reduction in trade tariffs, introduced by Labor and supported by Liberals, saw the destruction of many mining and manufacturing jobs in Labor’s heartland.

Some of the biggest swings at the 1996 election occurred in previously “safe” Labor seats. In Hanson’s electorate 70% of the mines had closed as well as steel factories, wool mills and railway workshops. Thousands of workers found themselves unemployed. As these communities were suffering the impoverishment forced upon them by the policies of neoliberalism, the region also diversified with migrants from Vietnam, China and Tonga, as well as a large Aboriginal population. The apparent correlation between the effects neoliberalism and the rhetoric of multiculturalism gave Hanson an audience for her right wing populism.

Her maiden speech in parliament gave her a national audience. It was broadcast in full on TV and printed in major newspapers around the country. Not even the Prime Minister enjoyed this level of media saturation.

In a shaky voice she proclaimed that she was “not a polished politician” but “a woman who has had her fair share of life’s knocks”. She claimed “mainstream Australians” had become victims of “a type of reverse racism…by those who promote political correctness and those who control the various taxpayer funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society servicing Aboriginals, multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups”.

She spoke of the millions of dollars spent on Native Title claims that had “gone into the pockets of grateful lawyers and consultants”. She said “those who feed off the Aboriginal industry do not want to see things changed”.

She claimed billions of taxpayer dollars could be saved by abolishing multiculturalism, and that “most Australians want our immigration policy radically reviewed”. She famously said “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians…They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate”.

She insisted that she was not a racist but rather a proponent of assimilation and lower immigration saying “I do not consider those people from ethnic backgrounds currently living in Australia anything but first-class citizens, provided of course that they give this country their full, undivided loyalty”.

She also spoke about growing unemployment and wage stagnation: “In real dollar terms, our standard of living has dropped over the past 10 years. In the 1960s, our wages increase ran at three per cent and unemployment at two per cent. Today, not only is there no wage increase, we have gone backwards and unemployment is officially 8.6 per cent. The real figure must be close to 12 to 13 per cent.”

She decried the privatisation of national assets: “We have lost all our big Australian industries and icons, including Qantas when it sold 25 per cent of its shares and a controlling interest to British Airways. Now this government want to sell Telstra, a company that made a $1.2 billion profit last year and will make a $2 billion profit this year. But, first, they want to sack 54,000 employees to show better profits and share prices.”

And she took aim at the priorities of business and political elites: “There is light at the end of the tunnel and there are solutions. If this government wants to be fair dinkum, then it must stop kowtowing to financial markets, international organisations, world bankers, investment companies and big business people.”

She also outlined the need for government initiated “job creating projects that will help establish the foundation for a resurgence of national development and enterprise.” These projects could include “railway lines, new roads and ports, water conservation, reforestation and other sensible and practical environmental projects” she said.

Her speech was not particularly radical. It was a mixture of classic White Australia assimilationist rhetoric, longstanding conservative attacks on Aboriginal people and the kind of economic protectionism the Labor Party had abandoned much to the disappointment of its supporters. But what it represented was something much more.

Hanson was speaking to and for a section of the Australian working and middle classes who had felt the pain of neoliberalism and turned their anger towards some of society’s most vulnerable groups. Hanson’s right wing populism became a lightning rod for people who felt the major parties no longer represented them. With no other significant political force opposing the neoliberal consensus, Hanson caught their ear.

One Nation and a growing opposition

Once elected Hanson quickly attracted various right wing ideologues who saw her as a vehicle to pursue their own ends. She took on David Oldfield as her political adviser, a former staffer to Tony Abbott and member of the Sydney elite. Under his influence Hanson doubled down on the racist rhetoric and garnered constant media attention for her outlandish stunts and remarks. She also became a beacon for the racist far right, welcoming the Citizens’ Electoral Alliance and Australian League of Rights into her ranks. Together they launched One Nation, a new nationwide political party.

As Hanson focused on consolidating her support base, the impact of her words were already being felt across Australia. Following her election there was a doubling of reports of physical and verbal attacks against Asians and a dramatic increase in migrants being spat at on the street.

But there was also a rapidly growing opposition to her right wing nationalism and racist rhetoric. In Melbourne tens of thousands of people marched in a rally organised by trade unions. By the time Hanson was ready to launch One Nation she was met with protests almost everywhere she went. Thousands came out to oppose the launch of One Nation in Dandenong, Melbourne, with many migrant organisations and socialist groups protesting the event. While most of these events were not blockaded, the constant protests and accusations of racism demoralised Hanson and her supporters. While the media mostly denounced the protests, there was a shift in way they covered Hanson. She could no longer do an interview without having to defend herself against accusations of racism.

Years later David Oldfield admitted the protests led to Hanson refusing to organise public events and to retreat from the media limelight. Her subsequent absence from the papers and the airways coincided with One Nation’s dramatic drop in the polls. In early 1997 One Nation was polling 13% nationally and up to 27% in regional and rural areas. By the end of 1997 One Nation was polling just 4% nationally. But, according to One Nation, within 18 months it had established 350 branches across Australia and signed up 18,000 members. The threat of a growing right wing movement remained real.

As she was being protested in the streets she was also struggling to articulate a coherent political platform. She was at her strongest when she was criticising the policies of government. But when Howard’s Coalition government took a leaf out of her book and adopted a harsher stance on Native Title and immigration, she lost her edge. By this time her criticisms of neoliberalism had melted away to nothing.

The height of One Nation’s popularity came in the 1998 Queensland state election. The party received 22.7% of the vote, more than both the Liberals and Nationals. This equated to 11 seats and gave a party struggling with internal divisions and scandal new life. 

In October 1998 Hanson was up for re-election. The boundaries of her seat had been redrawn and she would no longer receive preferences from other candidates. She won the most primary votes at 36% but lost her seat to the Liberal candidate on preferences.

Hanson losing her seat was the beginning of the end for One Nation and things unravelled quickly. By 1999 all of the Queensland MPs had defected and by 2002 Hanson herself was expelled from One Nation. While Hanson had found a popular voice by focusing on the ravages of neoliberalism and reviving a right wing, assimilationist nationalism, One Nation was never politically coherent. While many of her supporters were sceptical of multiculturalism and fearful of immigration, what they really wanted were solutions to the economic problems of unemployment and deindustrialisation. One Nation, as it became characterised more and more by its outright racism, failed to deliver real solutions.

The legacy of One Nation

Prime Minister John Howard successfully played Hanson’s popularity to his own advantage. He later said of his approach to Hanson: “When she was wrong I said so and when she wasn’t wrong I didn’t say anything”. When Hanson criticised neoliberal policy Howard ridiculed and dismissed her. When she attacked Asian immigration and Native Title, Howard stayed largely silent and at times fuelled the fire.

The lasting influence of Hansonism on Australian politics can be seen in Howard’s infamous statement: “We will decide who comes into this country and the circumstances in which they come”. This statement was far more incendiary than his earlier criticism of Asian immigration that saw him demoted to the backbenches years earlier.

Howard neutralised Hanson and One Nation by adopting their ability to scapegoat migrant communities, refugees and Aboriginal people all while leaving the interests of big business unchallenged. By rebalancing the rhetoric of multiculturalism with the reintroduction of some assimilationist concepts of Australian nationalism, Howard found a political strategy that served him well over the next decade. This had real world policy implications like the abolition of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC), the hollowing out of Native Title, the expansion of mandatory detention and offshore processing of refugees, and the intense scapegoating of Muslim communities. Effectively, Howard adopted the aspects of Hansonism that served the interests of the ruling class while dismissing those that did not.

Hanson’s Revival

Hanson’s defeat created a vacuum in Australian politics itching to be filled by an anti-capitalist critique of neoliberalism. But the failure of such politics to enter the mainstream has set the stage for her revival. For much of the 21st Century Australia’s mining boom papered over many of the impacts of neoliberalism. As money flowed into the country and government coffers were filled, privatised services could still be funded and a booming housing market gave people a sense of financial security. Following the economic downturn that began in 2008, this has changed. Brutal cuts have been made to social services and soaring house prices have undermined housing security. Entire industries have been lost, particularly in manufacturing, throwing many hundreds of thousands of workers on the scrapheap.

Now Australians are again looking for a political alternative. In the absence of a strong socialist left, many have turned to Hanson as an alternative to the Canberra consensus of cuts for the poor and tax breaks for the rich. And again, many are open to her critiques of neoliberalism and attacks on immigration in their search for an alternative. In reality Hanson has no new answers to the questions she failed to answer last time. More importantly the right wing political establishment has learned how to direct her populism to serve its own agenda.

The label of “racist” has followed Hanson through her ups and downs, a legacy of the grassroots movement and mass protests against her the first time around. But simply pointing out her racism will not be enough to defeat her again. All around the world right wing populists are being propelled into power on the back of the anger of working and middle class people. In every case these figures are pointing the finger at the both political establishment that has overseen the destruction of people’s standards of living, while at the same time scapegoating migrant communities and refugees who have the most to lose. But the solutions they propose are fantasy, like the closing of borders and reintroduction of trade tariffs.

The world we live in today is even more interconnected than the world Hanson rose to prominence in. There is no going back to the era of economic protectionism and engineered cultural homogeneity through assimilation. Neither the capitalists or the migrant communities under attack will allow this to happen. Instead, we must articulate the real causes of the growing gap between rich and poor and the winding back of living standards. It is not open borders that rob nations of their wealth but monopolised private industries that reap profit from land and labour all while paying little to no tax. The solution to this is to collectivise wealth and industry in the hands of all working class people to be run in the interests of the many, not the few. The anti-racist critique of neoliberalism that we so desperately need is democratic socialism. Left wing leaders like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have demonstrated just how open millions of people are to these ideas. In Australia we will defeat Hanson not by simply beating her back to rise again sometime in the future but by exposing the inadequacy of her critique of establishment politics and providing real, anti-racist, socialist solutions to the problems created by neoliberalism.

As Hanson recently told the Sydney Morning Herald “People are really just really fed up with the major parties and screaming out for change.” We need to offer real change.

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