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Here she comes again – how do we handle Pauline Hanson?

AAP/Mick Tsikas

Game on, it would seem, in Australia’s version of the new politics of populism.

It’s reported that Pauline Hanson has employed a former adviser to Donald Trump in her search to replicate his success here in Australia.

A few days after her warnings of being “swamped” by the Chinese in the morning, and by Muslims in the afternoon, One Nation, like Trump in the US, is hoovering up media coverage and hitting well above its weight in publicity terms by issuing a steady stream of provocative statements and policy proposals.

Hanson’s party has four Senate seats, but is already driving the media and political agenda in ways that would have been inconceivable just three months ago.

And if you think it equally inconceivable that Ms Hanson and her entourage of deplorables could come to exert real governmental power in this country, you haven’t been reading the memos.

Anti-immigration, white-pride, anti-Muslim rhetoric is leading the polls and winning elections and referendums in the US, the UK, France, Germany, Hungary, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, indeed almost everywhere in the liberal democratic societies of the northern hemisphere to which Australians have traditionally looked for models of governance and social norms.

The political mainstream has shifted sharply to the (alt-) right there, and the same thing is now happening here. How far that trend will go, and with what outcomes for social cohesion, multiculturalism and the tone of public debate remains to be seen, with the forthcoming marriage equality plebiscite likely to be an early test.

While we wait, what can we – that is, those of us who have lived our civic lives on the assumption that democracy is a good thing, and the more of it the better, but now see it bringing to the fore reactionary monsters of the type who, using the same electoral means and ill-informed arguments as used by One Nation and its overseas equivalents today, brought us fascism and world war in the 1930s – do to prevent the slide into a new dark age?

Let’s not shoot the messengers, first.

134,000 people voted for One Nation in Queensland. And as a recent Guardian piece by Bridie Jabour shows, they are not all racists, xenophobes and anti-Muslim bigots.

Some are fed up with the generosity of the Australian welfare state and their perception that “bludgers”, native-born and imported, are eroding the future pensions of taxpaying workers.

One Sri Lankan immigrant who herself complains of experiencing racism from white Australians supports One Nation in any case, fearful that:

She’s [Hanson] absolutely right, we’re selling Australia. It’s OK to have foreign investments, but all the businesses are gone, car manufacturing is gone, sugar is gone, everything’s gone. They’ve sold it. They’re sending everything offshore where it’s cheaper, so it’s not Australians getting employed, the mining, they’re employing people on 457 visas, I think it’s the worst thing ever, that loophole.

This isn’t racism, more a familiar isolationism that finds an echo in the “Australia-made” branding of many Aussie businesses. Hanson is merely “doing a Trump”, stoking those fears with false data and affected rage, claiming to speak for “the people” against the hordes of invading aliens now banging down the door.

Let’s not blame the mainstream politicians, who are being outflanked by the populists everywhere and not just in Canberra.

Except perhaps for this well-intentioned error: they have failed to engage honestly and frankly with the concerns of working and middle class people as they confront the challenges of globalisation, multiculturalism and identity politics.

There has been a fear, for example, on all sides of mainstream politics, driven by the desire not to be seen to offend Islam, to acknowledge the real tensions which the presence of that religion and its extremist variants have generated in a liberal secular society.

This failure is at the core of populism’s resurgence in Europe and north America, even more so than in Australia, where the trend is at an early stage.

The EU migrant crisis is partly a popular response to the rapid, uncontrolled influx of literally millions of mainly young men from the islamist killing fields of the Middle East and North Africa, at least some of whom are themselves jihadi combatants, including those who brutally murdered more than 100 Parisians at the Bataclan.

Irrational fear of the “Other” has joined with legitimate anxieties about who will pay for the welfare of these migrants, where and how they will live, how they will react to our progressive sexual cultures, and so on.

There is a perception of failure to manage these huge movements of people, of a loss of control by the state organs which exist above all to preserve public security and well being.

By comparison with Europe, Australia’s migrant issues are small in scale – Tony Abbott, to his credit, did indeed stop the boats – but Hanson and her ilk have seized on them, along with other anxieties around such trends as the perceived “takeover” of Australian interests by China.

So before we have our very own Trump, Nigel Farage or Marine Le Pen on our hands, our elected politicians must find a new way to address the hate-filled rhetoric of the populists and the White Australians, a path which engages firmly with Islamic community leaders who promote homophobia or child marriage as much as it condemns One Nationers who exaggerate the threats posed by halal or sharia.

After all, we have as a nation – indeed, the world has – spent years now dissecting the systemic paedophilia and parallel cover ups of the Roman Catholic Church.

While Cardinal Pell sweats under oath to the royal commission in Rome, where is the equivalently high-profile critique of sex with children which Islamic theology endorses? Right now, the Danish government is resisting the legitimacy on “cultural” grounds of child marriage being advocated by imams in their migrant Muslim community.

Islamophobic? Or reasonable, perhaps even essential, given the decades of struggle for sexual equality and against child sex abuse which all advanced capitalist countries have undergone?

Religions are not races, but deeply patriarchal, conservative ideologies. We have the right to routinely offend them, and the duty to criticise when any religion seeks special privilege for homophobic, misogynistic and sectarian beliefs and practices.

If our mainstream politicians and commentators don’t do that in the case of one religion in particular, for fear of causing offence or being called “Islamophobic”, the real racists will step in to the space, as Trump has done so effectively in the US.

As for the media, including the public service ABC with its natural caution and requirement for balance, they must fight populist politicians – and they are not all in One Nation, regrettably – with facts, and not respond to the bait dangled before them by every shocking statement which comes from Hanson or her band.

How do you think Trump got where he is today, if not with the assistance of round-the-clock media coverage of what was initially presented as a novelty, joke candidature?

The new populists understand the media and how to command its attention. News editors and journalists shouldn’t let themselves be played like fools. Hanson is a freak on the fringe. Don’t elevate her to the status of a major player.

This is not an argument for censorship, but for more nuanced reflection of the fact that One Nation’s 2016 vote in Queensland was less than 4% of the eligible electorate.

A political earthquake deserving headline coverage from now on? Or a tremor, a warning of things to come if we don’t respond appropriately now? How to handle what Margaret Thatcher famously called “the oxygen of publicity” in relation to extremist, deliberately provocative statements is an important question for Australia’s media.

There is a need to restate, also, that the defence of Australian national interests and identity is entirely compatible with multiculturalism. Australia (like the US, as Barack Obama put it with typical eloquence the other day) is entirely composed of migrants, except only for the original indigenous peoples who were here first.

Everyone else came here on a boat or a plane sometime in the past, and contemporary Australia reflects that diversity of origin in ways which give it competitive advantage in the Asian century.

In the Australian context, therefore, to be multicultural can be presented as the very essence of patriotism. All those generations of migrants, from the convicts of the First Fleet to more recent refugees from Pol Pot, Assad, Khamenei or the Chinese Communist Party, have an interest in good governance and the management of migration.

As for China and other inward-investing countries in the Asian region, our media and mainstream politicians must explain and explain again to those who may dally with One Nation-ism that a prosperous, dynamic economy is unthinkable in today’s world without lots of foreign trade and investment.

Such investment has to be managed so as to protect national security and long-term sustainability in areas such as energy and freedom of shipping – which may mean robust rejection of China’s imperialist claims to the South China Sea, for example, or a veto on the overseas sale of strategic assets – but it cannot be foregone if Australia is to continue to prosper in the decades to come.

In between the extremes of One Nation nativism, therefore, and the kind of misjudged political correctness which seems blind, indifferent to, or dismissive of the concerns of those ordinary people who chose to vote for Hanson’s party, there must be a new cultural politics of pragmatic progressivism.

Politicians, media and analysts who wish to preserve the progressive achievements of the past must make their own pivot to a better understanding of the real-world concerns of ordinary, hard working folk who are vulnerable to the siren call of extremists. And they must do it before the 4% becomes 40%.

Brian McNair is the author of Communication and Political Crisis (Peter Lang, 2016).

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