She’s back, in all her tub-thumping, hyperventilating glory.
For Canberra’s political class, as well as many mainstream Australian voters, it’s yet another jarring shock delivered by last weekend’s election. In all the talk of third party threats, most pundits had their eyes on the Greens and a rampant Nick Xenophon in South Australia. If Pauline Hanson figured in pre-election talk at all, it was on the basis of landing a Senate spot in Queensland but remaining a bit player. That frame no longer fits.
ABC election analyst Antony Green predicts that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is on track to win three senate seats–in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia. Should he prove correct, it could put her on a footing to rival Xenophon, whose “Team” is near certain to command a bloc of three to four senate places.
“Hanson and her two likely co-senators are now, potentially, a nationwide force,” says David Oldfield, who, along with Hanson and David Ettridge, founded the original One Nation back in 1997. “If they were to get properly organised, then this is the beginning–not the end.”
The dilemma for Malcolm Turnbull, should he retain the prime ministership, is exquisite. Before the election he’d declared the likes of Hanson “not welcome” in the parliament. But if her Senate numbers build, he may have no option but to deal her into the main game. Hanson herself warned on Sky TV at the end of May that Turnbull was in for a “rude awakening”, threatening: “I’m going to be a thorn in their bloody side.”
Asked about Turnbull’s “not welcome” stance in Sydney on Thursday, former Liberal Prime Minister John Howard responded with words of caution. “Anybody who is elected by the Australian people should be respected for that fact,” he said. “I think in relation to Pauline Hanson, the government should do what I did and that is you deal with her issue by issue.” Putting her in a “special corner” and making her a “scorned species” was “stupid”, he added. “All it does is enhance her position. I watched this debate back in 1998 and 1999 and the more she was attacked, the more popular she became. Those attacks enhanced her Australian battler image and she plays off that.”
Yet there are huge risks for Turnbull too, in according her deference.
Griffith University’s Dr Duncan McDonnell a specialist in the rise of right-wing parties in western democracies, warns that “if you do legitimise these types of figures just to get the numbers, the problem afterwards is that you can never go back. You can never claim in two to three years’ time that they are not a proper democratic force, because people will turn around and say, ‘well you relied on them’.”
Party’s early days
When Hanson first arrived in Canberra as a lower house MP from Queensland in 1996 the political establishment recoiled. Her maiden speech, excoriating Asian immigration and benefits for Aborigines, went off like a rhetorical bomb, seeming to expose all that was most unattractive in the Australian psyche. She was a throwback to the dark days when politicians warned Australians of the Yellow Peril.
It was as though “an alien had entered the citadel”, wrote journalist Margo Kingston, who subsequently documented Hanson’s chaotic failed 1998 re-election bid in a book aptly titled Off The Rails.
After initially treating Hanson with kid gloves, the Liberals joined the other parties in circling the wagons. They constructed preference deals to block the former fish and chip shop-owner’s re-entry to the house of representatives in 1998 and kept her at bay for another 18 years.
Hanson kept fighting. In the late 1990s, One Nation triumphed at the Queensland state election, winning 11 seats. But internal feuding and and incompetence began unravelling her organisation federally. She lost control of the party, fell out with key lieutenants, went to jail for nearly three months in 2003 for electoral fraud before being exonerated and freed on appeal, set up a new party, and ultimately reclaimed One Nation.
She never really went away, trying repeatedly to climb back into parliament, mounting several Senate campaigns as well as attempts to enter the legislatures of New South Wales and Queensland. She was the wraith that kept floating up from the darker recesses of the national subconscious.
All those attempts failed–until now.
What has carried Hanson back into the citadel this time? Half a dozen factors.
The new Senate voting system helped. The abolition of group voting tickets took control of preference flows away from parties in the upper house and gave it back to voters. One Nation could no longer be shoved by its rivals to the back of the preference queue.
A second factor has been Hanson’s ability to capitalise on the anti-major party vote, a large share of which seemed to flow One Nation’s way in Queensland after the demise of the Palmer United Party.
“Hanson has reaped the harvest, just like Palmer did, of anti-elite sentiment,” says McDonnell.
Unlike Palmer but like Brexit leader Nigel Farage in the UK, Hanson has also tapped shamelessly into anti-immigration fears, tying these to anxieties in regional areas about job security (the “not enough jobs to go around” argument), housing and pressures on health and Centrelink services.
The currency of fear
Watch videos of her speaking at the Reclaim rally in Brisbane last year, and see what a powerful, toxic cocktail this can be for people feeling deeply insecure about their futures. She throws other anxiety-provoking ingredients into the mix: food security, loss of sovereignty over land and water, and terrorism. Foreign investment is “making our housing the most expensive in the world”, she told cheering supporters at the rally.
Free trade with China and 457 visas would erode jobs. Oppressed farmers were committing suicide and being driven off the land. Australians would be “forced to eat contaminated and unregulated food as we have just seen, with imported frozen berries containing hepatitis A.” In place of Asian immigrants, she’s swung round to target Islam. “It makes me sick to look out amongst this crowd and think each one of us has a potential target on our heads by extreme individuals and terrorist groups,” she declaims.
For an incoming government trying to maintain delicate relationships with Islamic communities in Sydney and Melbourne, it’s the stuff of nightmares.
McDonnell identifies a fourth factor in Hanson’s storming of the Senate–a grass-roots backlash against the replacement of Tony Abbott by Malcolm Turnbull among more conservative elements of the Liberal party.
As former Queensland Liberal vice-president Graham Young warned this week, the leadership change from “more conservative to more cosmopolitan” was “not the sort of territory these voters are comfortable with”.
On top of its Senate count, One Nation did strikingly well in some of the lower house seats it contested in Queensland and New South Wales. In the NSW seat of Paterson, which takes in Maitland and Port Stephens, the party got nearly 13 per cent of first preference votes. In several Queensland seats (Flynn, Hinkler, Maranoa and Wright) it polled between 15 and 20 per cent. The party is on track to reap well over $1 million in public funding from the Australian Electoral Commission.
“Since One Nation imploded the first time around 20 years ago, Australia has not had a radical right grouping to speak of, in the way that other major democracies–France, Scandinavia, the UK–have had,” says McDonnell. “In that sense, there has been a gap in the market and Hanson has come back to exploit that.”
The ease with which she can get messages to supporters directly via the internet and social media has been yet another factor in her resurrection. She got an easy run on some mainstream media outlets in the run-up to the election, particularly with regular appearances on Channel 7’s breakfast TV show Sunrise (the program that propelled Kevin Rudd to glory).
Shying away from interrogation
But this week she turned her back on more rigorous media interrogation, taking to Facebook to complain that journalists were “up to their old tricks again”, treating her as a “punching bag”.
“So I’m telling people now, unless you see me live on TV or hear me live on radio, don’t believe a thing you read in the newspapers,” she told supporters, looking down the barrel of the camera. Fairfax’s request for an interview was flatly turned down by her current media minder, James Ashby (a man not averse to the limelight himself, having been a key figure in the downfall of disgraced former Speaker Peter Slipper). Ashby told Fairfax: “You guys are on the sidelines for a while; maybe you will learn your lessons and we will see what goes on from there.”
The final factor in Hanson’s rise is her own extraordinary tenacity, fuelled by anger, says David Oldfield. “She is angry because she feels that she has been robbed a number of times down the line when it comes to elections. She feels robbed by the way everyone ganged up on her.”
She exploits her sense of victimhood, yet seems genuinely convinced of it. So do her supporters. They do not see her as a career politician. “Pauline’s audience is a different audience, it looks at her and is filled with loyalty and devotion … she is the icon,” says Oldfield.
He knows her better than most. The pair have a complex history. He was working as a staffer for Tony Abbott when he first befriended her after her incendiary 1996 maiden speech. Still working from Abbott’s office, he and Hanson covertly drew up the blueprint for One Nation and he became her svengali, some alleged her puppet master. (Kingston painted an unflattering portrait of him in her book, describing him as a “manipulative genius”.) Abbott was so outraged by the cuckoo he’d hatched in his nest that he nearly derailed his own career by secretly backing a disgruntled One Nation ex-candidate, Terry Sharples, to pursue the party through the courts over alleged electoral funding irregularities–a quest that would ultimately lead to her stint in jail.
Years later Hanson would write of a brief affair she’d had with Oldfield in the early days of their political partnership, though he would never confirm it. They didn’t speak for years after a spectacular falling out but he succeeded in becoming a One Nation MP in the NSW upper house before retiring to a radio career.
Having fought for her re-election in 1998, he later decided it would not be in the “country’s interest” for her to get back to parliament. Lately, he has changed his mind again. “I came to the view that I was too hard on her, and that she would be better than a lot of other people who are already there.”
He insists she is not racist, though he offers a decidedly technical defence: “She does not have something against someone because they are black or purple.”
Her views, he argues, are based on “cultural concerns that any person of western origin would have”.
What could bring Hanson redux unstuck, he says, is disorganisation and vulnerability to poor-quality advisers. “One of the critical issues for Pauline will be finding genuine talented people to work for her. Sadly, it’s unlikely.”
Should Hanson’s operation implode again, there might be another movement waiting in the wings if South Australian senator Cory Bernadi’s Australian Conservatives moves onto a more formal footing.
“She has not been able to organise the party in the way that radical right politicians like Le Pen in France have done,” says Duncan McDonnell. “Will she now be able to consolidate the party in places outside Queensland? Will she be able to organise a party that can stick or last? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if those thoughts were going through Cory Bernardi’s head.”