Explaining Pauline

Artwork By Selena Repanis


David Marr’s essay on Pauline Hanson provides less insight into the forces behind the rebirth of One Nation than it does into how poorly equipped Australia’s political class is to deal with an insurgency.

In his most recent entry in the Quarterly Essay series, cheekily titled “The White Queen”, David Marr inquires: how has the crass spectacle of Hansonism been permitted to survive in this country? Marr, with his previous entries in the Quarterly Essay series, previously managed to capture some of the most incisive portraits on Australia’s most important political figures. From revealing emergent glimpses into Kevin Rudd’s unbridled sociopathy in “Power Trip” to exposing the unsettlingly brutish depths of Tony Abbott’s character in “Action Man”, each work felt as if it had an immediate significance. In his profile of Bill Shorten, “Faction Man”, he managed to even turn the ALP’s byzantine factional system into a digestible read. It’s an unfortunate surprise, then, that “The White Queen” turns out to be a largely stale affair. Rather than diagnosing the conditions giving rise to One Nation’s success, Marr’s look at what makes Hansonism attractive seems more concerned with providing reassurances to a polity in crisis. He might be one of the sharper writers in our crop of political journalists, but Marr’s observations into the dynamics underlying Hanson’s success remain markedly within the intellectual parameters laid down and followed by our political class.  

Hanson’s return, we’re told, calls for ‘national reflection’. What is it, crucially, that drives support for One Nation? It’s the scourge of racism. Thankfully, though, Marr says we can rest assured that most Australians don’t share Pauline’s foul character; her views, and those sharing them, are relegated to the fringe. Hanson is a moral pariah and her influence would, were it not for political cowardice, perish with bipartisan efforts. Instead, our major parties have sought to capitalise on and legitimise her success – a trend which we are allowed to blame on the enduring villainy of John Howard. Marr crunches the numbers to assure us of this country’s decency. We are, he writes, ‘a better country’ than the United Kingdom of Nigel Farage and the France of Marine Le Pen. By comparison, Australians are firmly comfortable with large-scale immigration and multiculturalism, and our relative prosperity – a streak of 26 years without a recession – gives us immunity to fascistic degradation.    

How very banal these conclusions are. 94 pages, and what are we left to ponder that we have not heard before? Marr is not incorrect, per se, to attribute racial division as a leading component of Hanson’s success – a point which would only be challenged by those with a deficient brain. But the broader background against which this former fish and chips shop owner sent shockwaves through our political life in 1996 is given only rudimentary exploration. Hanson, armed with her vicious petit bourgeois ideology, emerged as this continent’s maternal White supremacist only upon the fractures that surfaced in our political system over the preceding years. This context is critical to her appeal.

Much has already been written on the erosion of traditional political party divisions at the end of the post-war consensus, both in Australia and in the rest of the Western World. While the ALP today remains to a vision of social justice tied to the union apparatus and the Coalition committed to a careful balance of free-market economics and middle-class conservatism, neither can claim the authority of times past. This is most apparent in diminishing primary votes, despite the resilience of the two-party system. In the 1983 federal election, the combined ALP and Coalition primary votes were a combined total of 93.05%, but when Hanson burst her way into the Parliamentary Chambers in 1996, it was 85.65% (by the time of the 2016 Federal Election it had fallen to 76.77%). A changing electoral landscape, combined with declining membership and an increasing distaste for Canberra politics (and even democratic systems of governance) are the trends feeding each party’s existential woes.    

As Marr makes clear, Hanson’s initial success was on the back of the diminished Liberal Party (‘For every vote Beazley lost’, he writes, ‘Howard lost two’). But in the 2016 election, an equal amount of One Nation voters came from Labor and the Coalition. The voters of One Nation, he emphasises, are sometimes unexpected, other than in their expected hostility to asylum seekers and immigration. Their politics can otherwise be surprising, for they are: broadly secular; supportive of euthanasia; in favour of availability of marijuana’s availability; and sympathetic to the cause of unions in the workplace. Marr also correctly links Pauline’s political rebirth to the collapse of the Palmer United Party. But it is here that complication arises in the notion of Hanson’s voters being solely driven by a prejudicial mind. Palmer, after all, floated asylum seeker policies that were more humane than what was being offered by the ALP and Coalition – he rejected offshore processing, and once even suggested that asylum seekers be flown to Australia.

As the shift in votes from Hanson to Palmer makes clear, a vote for change can withstand the threat of a diversity injection. But to consider the indeterminate nature which hostility towards asylum seekers has on voting intention would undercut the narrative of a public with a fixed and dominating prejudice. Marr also mentions the Essential poll taken in September 2016, indicating 49% of Australians would like to see Muslims banned from the country – an awkward inclusion given Marr’s repeatedly stressing the ‘decency’ of this country. That such sentiments are so widespread is alarming – yet, if such an extreme position is held by so many, why haven’t more of these people turned to One Nation as a vehicle for their grievances?

Marr shares the grim view of asylum seekers being determinative of recent election outcomes. It is here that Hanson’s legacy is most acutely felt. These increasingly punitive policies towards asylum seekers, we’re told, were adopted in response to Hanson’s success. Marr indicts John Howard of tapping into this nation’s latent racism and breaking a bipartisan consensus since the 1960s to eradicate the nation’s racism:  

That political truce survived seven prime ministers, from Holt to Hawke, two or three recessions and the arrival of 100,000 refugees from Vietnam before it was repudiated by John Howard. So began the modern politic of race in Canberra.

Howard’s victory with racial division is presented as being depressingly clear with the rise in his political fortunes following his conduct in the Tampa affair, in which a Norwegian vessel carrying asylum seekers was rejected entry into Australian waters. This was a tainted victory, we are to believe. The former MP for Bennelong, Marr writes, ‘had made Hanson redundant’. Not mentioned here is that mandatory detention was introduced by Paul Keating. This is essential to remember, particularly as Marr seems to be of the view that Hanson’s election in 1996 unleashed racism that political consensus had kept at bay.

Amongst commentators (a rare exception can be found in Peter Brent), Howard’s 2001 election has been treated as impenetrable evidence of the capacity to win an election solely on asylum seeker issues. An unpleasant rule, but one that gives a sense of certainty to: recklessly opportunistic Liberals looking to wedge their opponents; and the hard-headed ‘realists’ of the Labor Party, able to blame their political failures on the vices of the general public; and that subset of the Greens sustained by their moral superiority. This rule, however, is not written in hard evidence. It also ought to be problematised for the way in which it eludes a structural analysis of why such policies are made.

Writing in Inside Story, Peter Browne’s (Boats and Votes, 2010) look at the 2001 election polls shows the reversal of the Howard’s government’s fortunes began much earlier than the Tampa affair, beginning with the Howard government’s pissing off the Liberal’s economic purists with the 2001 budget. Tampa was a boost, but of far lesser significance to the party’s electoral support than the September 11 attacks. The importance of Kevin Rudd winning federal Labor’s sole majority in the last 24 years, despite promising an end to the ‘Pacific Solution’, also cannot be understated. Indeed, despite the notion of the 2001 being won off the Tampa ugliness, data collected by the Australian National University on Australian voting patterns indicates that refugees and asylum seekers were seen as more important in 2007 (21%) than they were in 2001 (16%).

Marr’s essay should be critiqued for its laziness in the above matter; however, his lack of engagement with the crisis of political authority is his work’s eminent flaw. For it is in these conditions that we see a resurgent Hanson. Even if she has desperately sought to retain her sad position in public life over the past two decades, Hanson is once again our foremost anti-politician. Her success, we must understand, depends on her difference. We can then see how Hanson’s support for cutting penalty rates, which saw her aligning with an unelected body making an unpopular decision, contributed to One Nation’s poor result in the 2017 Western Australian election.

Marr does not believe Hanson will simply vanish, but he is a believer that her influence will wane if she is rightfully ignored and labelled a racist. But a mere shift to bipartisan consensus on the matters Hanson capitalises on, and a maturation political culture – which has certainly fallen to depths of unbelievable stupidity – will not put a halt to Canberra’s decaying political authority.  

The Bedlamesque nature of One Nation, perhaps even more so than her personal failings, will always be an anchor on Hanson’s political prospects – in this respect, her challenge is similar to that of Marine Le Pen, who must neutralise the effects of being associated with the National Front’s ugly history. Yet, if Hanson were to vanish, the threat of a political insurgency would not be banished; the environment in which she finds her success might still provide more fertile ground for a substitute. Most obviously, the United States has shown how alienation from political structures can give rise to an authoritarian leader. But the opportunities for outsiders to thrive in a political order in decay has proved to cross ideological lines – one can see this in Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of the British Labour Party, the election of Syriza in Greece, and the rise of Podemos in Spain.  

In his concluding comments, David Marr writes: ‘The far right where politicians are spending so much energy harvesting votes these days is not Australia.’ It may be the case that, if a rebellion against Australia’s political order were to break out, it would differ in form – and even be of lesser ugliness – than elsewhere; but a spectator of recent history should be wary of such proclamations and the complacency they can inspire.

Raymond Field

The author Raymond Field

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