When David Marr called to tell me he was writing a Quarterly Essay on One Nation and the politics of race, I was excited for two reasons. First, because I’ve always deeply admired Marr’s capacity to capture in lyrical prose even the most mundane details of Australian politics. Second, because – like many of my parliamentary colleagues – I am uneasy about the appeal of Pauline Hanson and One Nation for some Australian voters. But I’m not prepared to ascribe that appeal solely to the worldwide populist trend captured by the terms “Trumpism” and “Brexit.” In his astute analysis, Marr isn’t willing to do this either. Like him, I’m more inclined to ask questions about our Australian character and what makes us as a nation vulnerable to the politics of race.
Several years ago I visited Pakistan as a scholar of counter-terrorism and counter-radicalisation. I participated in a roundtable discussion with politicians, activists, journalists and academics about Pakistan’s struggle to contain its domestic brand of terrorism and its increasing intolerance of religious diversity. In other countries, I had already heard about the growing Wahhabi influence coming out of Saudi Arabia, and I listened as several people at the roundtable lamented that influence. But then one participant, a journalist, asked a question I had not heard before: “We can talk all we like about the influence of outside forces and their impact. But we have to ask, what is it about us? What makes us so vulnerable?” Indeed. Australians might ask the same question. What makes Australia so vulnerable to that “something grubby,” as Marr puts it: the divisive rhetoric and dog-whistling that not only accommodates the politics of race, but also gives it a tacit nod of approval?
When the federal industry minister, Arthur Sinodinos, was questioned about the preference deal between One Nation and the WA Liberals at the March 2017 state election, he argued that One Nation was a new party, one that had “evolved” and was “a lot more sophisticated.” Like so many, I was sceptical of this claim. In a sense, all that’s changed is that the Muslim “other” has now replaced the Asian “other” as Hanson’s target – “People [who] don’t look right.” But that is not the whole story. What has evolved is not One Nation or Pauline Hanson, but our response to them. Politics and the media respond differently now than when Pauline Hanson first appeared on the national scene. Politicians especially are much less likely to call out her racism – or even to use the word “racist” when referring to her or her voters.
In his essay, Marr attributes Hanson’s support in part to nostalgia. We discussed this when David rang me, as I’m not so sure I completely agree. Nostalgia by definition involves a wistful longing for something that once existed. Did white Australia ever really exist other than in our imagination?
I have never known a white Australia. On the streets of Sydney’s western suburbs where I grew up, Australia was inherently multi-ethnic, multicultural and multi-religious. If a white Australia has ever existed, it was only in the minds of the community of white settlers searching for cultural anchorage in a strange and often unforgiving land.
Anxiety about our porous borders dates back to the early days of settlement, when Australia was imagined to be vulnerable to invasion by the “Oriental races” of an overpopulated Asia, who were poised to flood in and take over our land.
When white settlers first set foot here, they had to define their relationship with an unfamiliar and unpredictable landscape. The tyranny of distance from their closest cultural kin in the United Kingdom meant they also had to define their identity as a white satellite in a predominantly Asian region.
The uncertainty of the landscape in which white settlers found themselves – tropical and desert, wet and dry – when coupled with its vast empty expanses, underscored settler fears about whether they could create a culturally and racially homogenous future. Their fraught relationship with the landscape also gave rise to a lexicon of tidal images to depict invasion. Since the nineteenth century, the “other” in Australia has been described variously as a peril, a menace, an evil, a wave, a tide or an influx ready to invade, inundate, swamp or flood Australia and annihilate, oppress, obliterate or penetrate the invisible rabbit-proof fences of racial and cultural homogeneity.
Hanson’s imagery of “waves” of immigrants swamping Australia’s shores and inundating our land thus expresses a persistent anxiety. This anxiety is not so much about the infiltration of physical borders, but the erasure of imagined cultural boundaries by visibly different others – “People [who] don’t look right” – whose very presence in Australia threatens to undermine the racial and cultural purity that was once the vision of White Australia.
Her secret has been to tap into the regenerative capacity of fear about our borders: to insert into contemporary Australia the imaginary old, better way of life where Australians were unified by race and by culture – one nation.
Hanson’s political success raises some inevitable questions about who we are and how we see ourselves today. Do we live in a new social order, where blatant bigotry, racism and aggression towards “others” are not only considered acceptable, but even sanctioned by social, economic and political structures? No. I don’t think Australia or Australians in general are racist. But I do think the insecurity that continues to plague our concept of who we are – the legacy of a persistent cultural anxiety – is like a sleeping but volatile volcano that occasionally threatens to erupt. Hanson provides the occasion.
Anne Aly is the Labor MP for Cowan. She was formerly a professor at Edith Cowan University, researching counter-terrorism and radicalisation.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 66, The Long Goodbye.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY