One afternoon last November, Pauline Hanson stood under threatening Canberra skies and cracked a bottle of bubbles to celebrate the victory of Donald Trump. She was beside herself with excitement. Words tumbled out of her:
Hi, everyone. We’re out the front of Parliament House, Canberra, Australia, and why we are here – well, I’m so excited that Donald Trump looks like he’s just over the line and I’m so happy about it because this is putting out a clear message to everyone around the world that the people power is now happening and it’s happened in Australia.
Emotions cross Hanson’s face like storms over a desert. The prevailing weather is petulance but she shows delight vividly. Her eyes flash and that tight red mouth breaks into a winning grin. Love or loathe this woman, you can always tell what she’s thinking. On the afternoon of Trump’s victory, Hanson’s face registered vindication, glee and such breathless pleasure she seemed to be claiming a hand in his triumph. Flanked by one of her senators, she toasted the president to be, the American people (“Good on you, guys”), Brexit and the triumphant return of One Nation to Canberra. “It’s all about people power,” she declared, raising her glass of Black Pig. “And I’m so happy.”
The return of Pauline Hanson calls for national reflection. A strange gap has opened between the mood of this country and the temper of its politics. The decent Australia revealed in poll after poll seems not to be the country our politicians are representing. Most Australians reject everything Hanson stands for, but politics in this country has been orbiting around One Nation since the day she returned to Canberra. The lesson from her poor showing in Western Australia is that this doesn’t have to be. Yet politicians are showing little more enthusiasm in its aftermath for doing what needs to be done: tackling Hanson head-on. They know it’s a risky strategy: she’s durable and Turnbull can barely govern without her block of senators behind him.
This woman went to prison, danced the cha-cha on national television for a couple of years, and failed so often at the ballot box she became a running joke. But the truth is she never left us. She was always knocking on the door. Most of those defeats at the polls were close-run things. For twenty years political leaders appeased Hanson’s followers while working to keep her out of office. The first strategy tainted Australian politics. The second eventually failed. So she’s with us again – the Kabuki make-up, that mop of red hair and the voice telling us what we already know: “I’m fed up.” The years show. So does the determination etched into her face. She doesn’t rant as much these days. “She’s got the art of the soundbite down,” says Simon Hunt, who dogged her last time as the monstrous Pauline Pantsdown. He’s watching and waiting to see if he will pounce again. He rates her better with the camera now, better at laughing off hostile questions, better at switching the topic, better at filling the gaps when her sentences break down. “She’s just another politician.” But six or seven years on Sunrise haven’t touched her voice. “It says ‘You’re just like us, Pauline.’” And the damage of the years? Hunt hesitates. “Remember back then when she said one time: ‘I am the mother of the nation’? Maybe she is now.”
This is an Australian story. Positioning herself as the local leader of an international uprising is a wild boast. She commands nothing like the numbers backing Trump and the Brexit leader Nigel Farage and the daughter of the French far right Marine Le Pen. Compared to them, Hanson is a bit player. And this is a better country. No swathe of Australia was destroyed by the global financial crisis. Most of us don’t share the toxic fears of immigration driving the United Kingdom out of Europe. Even so, public discourse has focused since her return on globalisation, the death of manufacturing, wages growth, inequality, grim prospects in little towns and the nation’s exasperation with politics. Those issues aren’t irrelevant, but we are not facing the facts about Hanson and One Nation. What’s driving them is the same as last time: race.
Aborigines are forgotten. Asians are old hat. These days Hanson targets Muslims, and that brought her over the line in 2016. She was on the hustings in Western Australia in January this year when a crazed man drove his car into an afternoon crowd in Melbourne. The bodies were still being cleared away when her adviser, James Ashby, whispered a couple of words into her ear and she turned to the camera with a look of a woman whose point had been proved. “I’ve just been told there’s a terrorist attack that’s just happened in Melbourne,” she said, before venting her fury on Muslims. “People don’t look right. That they are not going to assimilate into our society. How they have different ideology, different beliefs, don’t abide by our laws, our culture, our way of life. Don’t let them in! Make this country safe for its future generations!” But there was no terrorist link. The accused driver is from a Greek-Australian family. Hanson’s words were deplored on television that night as hasty and clumsy and hard. But no one said bluntly what she was up to: race-baiting.
She’s no fool, but it’s not a big intelligence. She’s learnt hard lessons along the way that make her a more formidable politician now than she was in the late 1990s. But only a prime minister desperate for her Senate votes would say of One Nation as Malcolm Turnbull has: “It is not a single issue party or a single personality party.” He’s dead wrong on both counts. Hanson is what she’s always been: a white woman speaking for old white Australia. She hasn’t changed. Nor has her party. But Australia has: we have come to accommodate her. When the Member for Oxley appeared in Canberra twenty years ago, the headlines were tough:
RACIST JIBES NO STUMBLING BLOCK
RACISM THE WORST PART OF ELECTION
RACISM IN POLITICS
RACISM THE UGLY EXPRESSION OF HUMANITY’S TRIBAL URGE
HANSON STANDS BY RACE VIEWS
We don’t see such headlines now. Back in those days she was seen as an aberration. Not anymore. A great part of her allure then was the figure she cut before angry crowds: a slight woman, often rattled, finding the courage to speak her mind in the face of hostile demonstrations. The angry crowds have gone. These days she seems hardly even a surprise. She was such big news in Asia the first time around that the Foreign Press Association declared her the most famous Australian in the world. These days she makes no headlines offshore. In the late 1990s she had a life expectancy on the national stage of no more than a couple of years. This time she’s won a place in the Senate for six and brought a knot of senators with her. Old enemies are now all smiles. Tony Abbott calls her “a voice of responsibility.” Forgotten these days are the words of Liberal grandees led by Malcolm Fraser, who denounced her at her debut:
Racist politics are evil. Through the centuries men and women have suffered because they were presumed to be different from other people in their communities. Such people have been exploited, they have been killed, they have been “ethnically cleansed.” Such barbarism continues even today in the Balkans. No decent community can compromise with racist policies. There is only one honourable option: absolute rejection, refusal to cooperate, refusal to lend credibility to those promoting the evil of racism.
Fraser was a figure from another time, already in parliament when it became clear in the early 1960s that unless we ditched the White Australia policy this country would become an international pariah. Most Australians wanted this done. Even so, dismantling the old race-based immigration scheme was politically hazardous and took time. At each step of the way it was understood on both sides of politics that they would not play to the minority angry – often bitterly angry – at the prospect of Australia being opened to other races and other faiths. The votes out there would not be exploited. 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 politics of race in Canberra.
Howard has a maxim: “Politics is relentlessly driven by the laws of arithmetic.” It sounds so simple, as if democracy ticks over almost of its own accord. But in the hands of a master like Howard, electoral mathematics is no simple exercise. What set him apart in the late 1990s was his eagerness to hunt for small pockets of votes out on the fringe where Hanson had her following. Many Australians look on the fears that drive those votes as an embarrassment, but for ruthlessly professional politicians they are a valuable resource. Gathering them took subtlety once. Howard was the great dog-whistler, the politician who could send a signal to the bush that went almost unheard in town. And Australia’s voting system – we have to turn up and tick every box on ballots for the lower house – means national elections can be won or lost on tiny swings in marginal seats. Hanson stormed Canberra last year with a national Senate vote of 4.3 per cent. Though her support has seesawed in the states, her national following as this essay goes to press is holding at 9 per cent. With the two-party system fraying at its edges and a great brawl for votes out on the right, this has been enough for Hanson to have an extraordinary impact on this country: an outlier skewing national politics her way. The arithmetic that entangles Australia in the race fears of country towns and the outer suburbs in 2017 is the struggle on both sides of politics for Hanson’s few per cent.
Hanson didn’t create her constituency but when she is around, contest for these votes is fierce. That’s what makes her a political star: she breaks down allegiances. She shifts votes around the map. If One Nation flames out again in bickering and feuds as it did the last time, parties big and little will be there to hoover up her vote. They are already positioning themselves. The Coalition is after them. Ditto Labor. The Nationals will fight as they did twenty years ago for every last vote Hanson has filched from them. She is, after all, what the bush most deplores: competition.
But Hanson’s people can’t be easily bought off. I’ll come to the fine detail later but, in broad brush, One Nation voters in 2016 were absolutely Australian: the Aussie children of Aussie parents. They identify as proudly working class. They aren’t dying out: roughly a third of those who voted for Hanson last year were under forty-five. Despite its reputation as a bush party, half One Nation’s strength lies in big cities. Almost all Hanson’s voters left school early but went on to make a good fist of their lives. She is typical of her kind: out at fifteen and a prosperous woman by forty. Her followers aren’t poor or unemployed. One Nation was very much a man’s party in the early days but now many more women are backing Hanson. There’s not a whiff of faith-based moralising about One Nation. It’s a rare Hanson voter who ever darkens the doors of a church. These people are secular, working-class conservatives who see eye to eye on a short list of big issues.
First is their affection for her. It’s not uncritical. Hanson’s voters can see she’s often outlandish, indeed way out of line, yet brave and speaking for them. One Nation is her following. Without Hanson there is no party.
Second is their deep disenchantment with politics. Australians are disgruntled with government. The figures are alarming. The 2016 Australian Election Study found 74 per cent of us believe governments look after themselves rather than doing the right thing by all of us. (Much more of the AES later.) While most Australians are disgruntled, the One Nation constituency is furious. Among Hanson’s people it is an article of faith that government isn’t delivering for them. The system is set against them. No one is speaking for them. No one is listening.
Third is their fierce nostalgia. Many of us wish Australia was still the country of our childhoods. We don’t long for lost greatness. That’s an American thing. But most of us at some time have wished this was still the familiar country we first knew. What sets One Nation voters apart is their wish to go back there, even if it meant living a poorer life. The money doesn’t matter. They want to go back to a country that had factories and tariffs and a sure place for them – a country that was white. And they feel the loss of this Australia fiercely.
Fourth is their profound hostility to that great agent of change, immigration. Other articles of faith for Hanson voters are that the intake must be cut dramatically; that immigrants bring crime and take our jobs; and that immigration does this country little good. Australians are uniquely hostile to boat people, but One Nation voters are twice as likely as the rest of us to demand that every last refugee boat be sent back out to sea.
Fifth is the driver of race. Ever since Hanson first appeared on the scene, analysts have wondered whether she runs a party of protest or a party of policy. I’ll get to that illuminating dispute later. But on whatever reading of Hanson, race is strongly in the mix. Yet neither Coalition nor Labor leader will bluntly call Hanson on race as she demands an end to Muslim immigration; surveillance cameras in mosques; halal certification and all face coverings to be banned; and a royal commission into the truth behind the masquerade of Islam posing as a religion. This is heavy-duty stuff, but the tactical impulse of the major parties is to flinch from naming her for what she is. In the face of her rants they make formal declarations deploring attacks on Muslims. They boast the great success of multiculturalism in this country. Turnbull can hold an Iftar dinner at Kirribilli House – he may not hold another – but both Liberal and Labor leaders are reluctant to call her directly on race. They both balk at the task. “People in politics cannot say, ‘Madam, you are a racist,’ because too many swinging voters are racist,” a Labor insider in Queensland told me. “We need their votes. If you’re calling Pauline a racist, what those people are hearing is, you’re calling me a racist.”
We can’t go back to the White Australia policy. It’s impossible to ban Muslim immigration. We can’t rebuild tariff walls. Much of the time all government can offer Hanson’s voters are consolation prizes. That’s happening now: more pork for bush electorates; stiffer citizenship tests; new cruelties for boat people; fresh barriers for Chinese investment; the prospect of more coal-fired power stations dotting the landscape; and giving at least a sympathetic ear to calls for hate speech to be let loose by gutting the Racial Discrimination Act. Turnbull is being held to the pact he made with the National Party when he overthrew Abbott: bush pork (again), a promise never to introduce carbon pricing or emissions trading while he remains prime minister, and a pledge to hold a plebiscite before legalising equal marriage. It’s hardly the agenda of modern Australia. The pact is pure One Nation.
This is an extract from David Marr's Quarterly Essay, The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race. To read the full essay subscribe or buy the book.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY