I Still Call Austria Home


"Love it or leave it" says a bumper sticker popular with many Australians who found the politics of the One Nation party appealing. Today we discover that Pauline Hanson has chosen to leave it, planning to settle somewhere in the British Isles.

But if she’s definitely made up her mind to go, there’s another European country that she might consider relocating to, one which has a lot more in common with Australia — and with her effect on it — than many people are aware of.

Remember when George Bush thanked John Howard for the service of "Austrian troops" in Iraq in 2007? Bush’s gaffe was taken to signify that he’d lost it or that he had little grasp of basic geography but a look at Australian and Austrian politics over the past decade shows that the two countries do in fact have similarities far beyond their names — most particularly in one crucial respect.

Over the past decade, populists in both countries made political mileage out of hostility to foreignness. In Australia it was Hanson who acted as the focal point for this sentiment but Austria had a similar figure in controversial right-wing leader Jörg Haider. While both are effectively gone from the political scene, the changes they brought to the political debate in their respective countries remain highly visible in the mainstream.

The two leaders were among the first of a new generation of western right-wing populists (along with the Dutch anti-Islam agitator Geert Wilders, the Swiss People’s Party and the Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his party, Forza Italia), who have rapidly won popularity since the late 1990s. Outside Europe, both Sarah Palin and Barnaby Joyce have found popularity in the English-speaking world through their performance as "plain speaking" politicians.

Yet it was Hanson and Haider who developed this prototype. Both populists had a reputation as outsiders, as unschooled and "authentic"; they were the paradigmatic politicians for the era of reality television. Hanson’s homespun stupidity bedazzled Murdoch columnists and Alan Jones listeners alike. She won support for her famous catch-cry: "I don’t like it", for her call to enrich Australia by printing money and for her demand to turn around the refugee boats.

Meanwhile, Jörg Haider once again proved the old adage that authenticity can be carefully manufactured. An Austrian researcher in aesthetics and cultural studies from Haider’s home region, Gernot Waldner, told me this week that Haider changed his clothes up to three times a day in order to appeal to his various audiences. Haider apparently had eclectic fashion sense: from quasi-hip hop garb (for yoof crowds), to a traditional tracht (stereotypical Austrian folk costume) for the silver-rinse set.

Regardless of the fashion, the two rightist populists excelled at nasty rhetoric. If you were down on your luck, they offered someone below you to blame. In May 1999, in the lead-up to elections in which his party came second, Haider won fans with his tough anti-asylum rhetoric.

After African asylum seeker Marcus Omofuma suffocated to death during a deportation flight (having been bound and gagged by his Austrian police escort) Haider was not one to take a sympathetic line. "One shouldn’t persistently shed crocodile tears for ah, a deported drug dealer," Haider said, even though there had been no suspicion that Omofuma was in any way involved in dealing drugs.

Haider’s tough rhetoric, meanwhile, proved as popular as the fish and chip shop owner from Ipswich was in the late 1990s. Like Hanson, Haider raged against what he saw as a corrupt media elite, against asylum seekers and against the reigning conservative/social democrat consensus. "They are against him, because he is for you" read the posters of Haider’s Freedom Party of Austria during that era.

After the 1999 poll, Jörg Haider was invited by conservative Wolfgang Schüssel to form a coalition. In the past few weeks the 10th anniversary of that coalition, the sanctions against Austria by the EU that the coalition provoked, and Haider’s 60th birthday together have caused much rumination about the course that Austria has taken since those elections.

At the time Schüssel’s faustian deal was met with a horrified reaction in the rest of Europe. Austria’s European partners quickly announced that the nation would face diplomatic isolation should Haider be invited into the ministry.

The sanctions were supported by European conservatives, liberals and social democrats alike. Haider’s praise for Adolf Hitler’s employment policies and his description of the Nazi concentration camps as "punishment camps" proved too much for mainstream European opinion.

For many Austrians however, the sanctions proved what they had always feared about Europe: that the EU was a bureaucratic monster trying to encroach on Austrian sovereignty.

Schüssel denounced the sanctions, and went into coalition with the Freedom Party anyway. However, the sanctions did have the effect of forcing Haider to resign his post as party leader. The führer was proving both too popular (and thus too much of a threat for his conservative coalition partners) as well as too threatening for Austria’s EU membership.

The 1999 federal election turned out to be the pinnacle of Haider’s popularity. While in the aftermath of the coalition deal Haider continued to exercise power as the Freedom Party’s Machiavelli, a series of splits in the extreme Right later robbed his party of its popularity.

Yet it was only after his death in a car accident in 2008 that Haider’s personal reputation suffered its most serious damage. After visiting several functions, and then bars, Haider drove his car off the road at 142 kilometres per hour. Since then, corruption allegations have emerged in relation to the populist leader. Munich magistrates are currently attempting to ascertain if corrupt dealings occurred during the 2001 sale of an Austrian bank to a Bavarian bank. Haider allegedly made it a condition of the sale that two million euros be transferred to a soccer team in his region. (Austrian soccer teams are rarely audited by their tax authorities, and have thus served as a device for money laundering in the past.)

Haider’s personal life, too, has been subject to much mockery of late. Shortly after his "intimate" friend’s death, Haider’s colleague Stefan Petzner apparently outed his leader (much to the dismay of Jörg’s wife, Claudia). Describing Haider as his "Lebensmenschen", ("life-being" or "man of his life"), Petzner tried to assume control of Haider’s party. In a tacky echo of the David Oldfield-Pauline Hanson saga, Petzner tried to convert his proximity to the former leader into leadership of the party itself.

Petzner failed, winning only a deputy leadership spot. But whether it’s via the circus surrounding Haider’s legacy, or via more serious political debate, the Austrian leader has powerfully influenced politics in his home country over the past decade. And while Haider himself has not produced an obvious successor, his party remains popular in his home region — much to the dismay of many other Austrians.

Meanwhile, for the last 10 years, the Haider-driven issues of asylum seekers and doubt over European unification have stayed at the top of the Austrian political agenda.

Haider’s real legacy then is that he managed to do what Pauline Hanson did in Australia: bring the often ugly debate about immigration and border control into the realm of the speakable. The German language has an expression for this Hanson effect — an idea is said to become suddenly "salonfähig". The concept literally translates as "fit for the salon", and dates back to a time where the well-mannered environment of the salon was the centre of political and philosophical chatter. To render something salonfähig, then, is to turn something that once could only be said in cruder forums (eg. talkback radio) into something that can be debated in parliament or the newspapers.

The current Australian fascination for the politics of asylum-seeking, immigration and border-control also stems back to a time when Pauline Hanson made xenophobic rhetoric salonfähig.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.