On September 10, 1996, newly elected MP Pauline Hanson delivered an infamous maiden speech in the House of Representatives. Hanson condemned the Aboriginal “industry”, which she said was responsible for “reverse racism” against white Australians:
Along with millions of Australians, I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia.
Hanson also demanded an end to multiculturalism and a “radical review” of immigration:
I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians. Between 1984 and 1995, 40% of all migrants coming into this country were of Asian origin. They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.
The then-prime minister, John Howard, said Hanson’s views bordered on the deranged. Regardless, his government implemented policies that mirrored key Hanson demands, by abolishing ATSIC, limiting native title rights and scrutinising Australia’s refugee intake.
What does Hanson stand for now?
Hanson has now been voted into the Senate and may be joined by at least one other One Nation senator. The rallying cry echoes past demands: “Australia for Australians”. The party retains its focus on “illegal” and unwanted immigrants:
Australians have the right to a cohesive society and deny immigration to anyone who does not abide by our law, culture, democracy, flag or Christian way of life… We don’t want or need migrants bringing their problems, laws, culture and opposing religious beliefs on us.
Yet One Nation’s policies reflect particularly 21st-century concerns. The targets of One Nation’s anti-multicultural message are now Muslims more than Asians. The party’s policy on “Islam” calls for:
an inquiry into whether Islam is a religion or an ideology;
an end to Muslim immigration;
a ban on the burqa or niqab in public;
surveillance in all mosques and Islamic schools;
a ban on mosque building and opposition to the imposition of Sharia law; and
a ban on halal certification.
One Nation is also concerned that the “climate-change agenda” gifts money to unaccountable scientists. The party calls for “an independent Australian science body” to replace the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
How will the major parties respond?
The Greens took an immediate and strong stand against Hanson’s return. Greens leader Richard Di Natale said there was no place in modern Australia for the racism and bigotry inherent in One Nation’s policies.
As we wait for an election outcome, the question is whether either potential government will respond similarly. Labor leader Bill Shorten has blamed the Coalition’s Senate voting reforms for One Nation’s rise. It may be easier for a centre-left leader to reject any alliance with Hanson, because her supporters are from the right wing of the conservative vote.
Turnbull has said that Hanson is not a welcome presence in Australian politics. Hanson has replied that he “must have lost my number”, as she has not yet been approached in anticipation of a hung parliament. She expects the government to work with her as an elected senator.
For a weakened Turnbull, Hanson has re-emerged as a “wrecker of conservative politics”. Abbott loyalists and arch-conservatives will try to pull the Coalition to the right and many of Hanson’s policy positions could find a place at the cabinet table.
If Turnbull can retain leadership and government, he faces the unenviable task of winning back One Nation voters while rejecting many of the principles they voted for. This may be impossible for Turnbull, particularly considering the history of conservative appeasement of right-wing voters.
During Hanson’s first term in parliament, independent senator Brian Harradine held a crucial balance-of-power position. Howard gained Harradine’s support on measures crucial to his agenda, including the post-Wik native title amendments and the partial sale of Telstra. In return, Harradine bartered on social issues, demanding bans on the abortion drug RU486, stem-cell research and foreign aid for family planning.
Could Hanson exploit a similar negotiating position if, as seems likely, this election produces a hung parliament?
Driving the swing to the right
Hanson’s views are extreme and abhorrent to many Australians. Yet her election may indicate a strain of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics in regional communities suffering from the mining downturn.
Attacks on Hanson and those who voted for her may amplify that frustration and confirm perceptions of patronising “elites” disconnected from the concerns of “ordinary” people. Hanson’s voters – like all others – will claim their right to have a voice in Australia’s democracy.
One Nation gained 9% of the Queensland Senate vote. Hanson’s success has been attributed to disillusionment with mainstream politics, particularly Turnbull’s message of innovation in a new economy. Hanson has attracted voters whose lived experience does not bear out establishment wisdom on the benefits of globalisation.
In this context, mavericks like Hanson can persuade voters that immigrants and “illegal” asylum seekers present unacceptable risks to “enduring values and ways of life already severely shaken by decades of social upheaval”.
Finding opportunity in Hanson’s return
Hanson’s electoral success and the likely hung parliament may, however, present an opportunity to recast public debates of key relevance to minority communities.
At this stage, the major parties’ rejections of Hanson ring fairly hollow when measured against their own policy settings. Both the government and opposition have invested in a top-down constitutional reform process without a clear agenda. Meanwhile, Indigenous voices are asserting an alternative treaty agenda more focused on key demands of rights, sovereignty and self-determination.
On refugees, Labor and the Coalition have engaged in a demeaning race to the bottom. Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s efforts to link asylum seekers and terrorism parallel Hanson’s extremist views. Turnbull has continued to back Dutton, despite the racism inherent in his recent appeals to the hard right.
Both major parties remain wedded to the policy of mandatory offshore immigration detention, despite its inhumanity and widespread international condemnation. They have shaped a policy environment in which the dehumanisation of asylum seekers is tolerated and even welcomed.
Political leaders must contribute to the formation of public opinion, rather than simply respond to whatever emerges around them. Hanson’s return to national politics should push mainstream politicians to principled stands that value humanity over intolerance.
Our leaders have a responsibility to persuade disaffected voters that fear and prejudice are greater threats to our democracy than diversity and inclusion. Whichever government emerges must choose whether to maintain the course of short-term focus, three-word slogans and poll-driven policy, or to take a more courageous and untested path towards deeper engagement with the pressing dilemmas of our age.
Amy will be online for an Author Q&A between noon and 1pm AEST on Wednesday, July 6, 2016. Post any questions you have in the comments below.