Trickle Down Racism: Without Tony Abbott, Pauline Hanson Couldn’t Have Returned


Hanson has tried time and time again to return to parliament. Her success this time around is a reflection of the broader political environment, one in which elite racism has flourished, writes Michael Brull.

Now that Pauline Hanson is back in the Senate, we can expect ridicule of her in the mainstream media for the dumb and hateful things she says. Which is fair enough: a lot of it does deserve ridicule.

Yet this is hardly the only Islamophobia worth objecting to. Hanson presents a lowbrow version of concerns that have been legitimised for years by the Coalition and major media outlets. The biggest difference is that they do so in more sophisticated language, aimed at a wealthier constituency. When wealthy and well-connected people use high-brow language to express the same concerns, their friends and associates come out of the woodwork to assure the public that it’s not racist. As this elite racism trickles down, and is expressed in more direct language, the elite disingenuously disowns it. In some ways, this is similar to the original rise of Hanson, except that the primary target then wasn’t Muslims, but Asians.

The Original Hansonism Was Blainey-Howardism

John Howard visits troops in the Solomon Islands in 2003. (IMAGE: Gary Ramage/DFAT, Flickr).
John Howard visits troops in the Solomon Islands in 2003. (IMAGE: Gary Ramage/DFAT, Flickr).

In 1984, conservative historian Geoffrey Blainey gave a speech warning about the dangers of Asian immigration. He then published a book called All for Australia, where he defended his advocacy, on the grounds that it was the public which was uneasy about the scale of Asian immigration. He explained that “The old Australians see the newcomers everywhere: they hear a strange language in the supermarket. They wonder what their own familiar world is coming to. They object to all the strange ways in which the immigrants, through no fault of their own, run their daily life: their attitude to animals, their treatment of children, the way they park their cars…”

Robert Manne describes a striking passage of Blainey’s book, where Blainey refers to Hitler as someone who “carried the mistaken idea [of race]to a terrible extreme.” Manne politely referred to this as “hardly… satisfactory”.

While Blainey’s position was controversial, he was also a prestigious and well-established historian, and found defenders among the elite. Even historian Stuart Macintyre, who was critical of his position, assured us that Blainey “is not a racist… Nor was he prejudiced against Asians.” He was merely “concerned with the incorporation of immigrants into the host society.” Blainey was later made a Companion of the Order of Australia, the most prestigious title there is for Australians.

Blainey’s sentiment was later taken up by Liberal Leader of the Opposition in 1988, John Howard. Howard released a policy document called One Australia. It opposed multiculturalism, and rejected Aboriginal land rights and treaty. Howard warned against the dangers of Asian immigration, urging that it be slowed, along similar lines to Blainey. Howard went on to lose his leadership of the Liberal Party, before reclaiming it in 1995. He went to the 1996 election without his anti-Asian policy. However, he had played a leading role in offering legitimation to anti-Asian sentiment in public debate, which by 1996 had gone back 12 years. In the election, the Liberals didn’t benefit from this, but Pauline Hanson did.

Pauline Hanson won her first federal election in 1996, claiming the seat of Oxley in Queensland. She then lost her seat in 1998. She ran for a Queensland Senate seat in 2001, and lost again. In 2004, she ran for the Queensland Senate, and lost. She launched her own party for the federal election in 2007, and lost again. She ran in the 2009 Queensland state election, and lost. In 2011, Hanson ran in the NSW state election. Once again, she lost. In 2013, she ran in the federal election for the NSW senate. Once again, she lost.

In this election, Hanson’s One Nation Party may have won three seats in the senate, possibly more. To claim that Hanson is wildly popular, speaks for the Australian public and so on, is to grossly misread her political record. Hanson is an unsuccessful politician, who has had two political successes in 20 years. That is not because of a deep rapport with the Australian public, but due to an ability to capitalise on concrete political circumstances. These circumstances – in 1996, as in 2016 – were propitious for favouring an inarticulate politician, presenting common sense and racism as the solution to the problems of everyday Australians, as opposed to the out-of-touch Canberra consensus. In 1996, the time was ripe for her anti-Asian sentiment.

Hanson’s maiden speech in parliament was famous for its anti-immigration themes. It also had an anti-Aboriginal message. Hanson said that she had “done research on benefits available only to Aboriginals and challenge anyone to tell me how Aboriginals are disadvantaged when they can obtain three and five per cent housing loans denied to non-Aboriginals.” She called for ATSIC to be abolished, and said Aboriginal people “do not want handouts because they realise that welfare is killing them.”

Most famously, Hanson denounced multiculturalism, warning that we were in danger of being “swamped by Asians”. They have their own “culture (sic) and religion (sic)”, “do not assimilate”, and form ghettos. Discomfortingly for some, she quoted the “great Australian and Labor leader” Arthur Calwell, who said “Japan, India, Burma, Ceylon and every new African nation are fiercely anti-white and anti one another. Do we want or need any of these people here? I am one red-blooded Australian who says no and who speaks for 90 per cent of Australians.”

Hanson endorsed that warning, claiming repeatedly to speak on behalf of “mainstream Australians”.

new matilda, pauline hanson
Hanson delivering her maiden speech in Parliament.

Perhaps most presciently, Hanson said that “Of course, I will be called racist but, if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country.”

One Nation’s website proudly recounts that aside from its position against multiculturalism and the “Asianisation of Australia”, the party “also denounced economic rationalism and globalisation, reflecting working-class dissatisfaction with the neoliberal economic policies embraced by the major parties. Adopting strong protectionist policies, One Nation advocated the restoration of import tariffs, a revival of Australia’s manufacturing industry, and an increase in support for small business and the rural sector.”

Hanson didn’t invent anti-Asian racism. It was a low-brow version of the anti-Asian position led by conservative luminaries Blainey and Howard for over a decade. Blainey had not himself said he was opposed to Asian immigration. Instead, he had ventriloquised supposed working-class angst. They were the ones whose anti-Asian racism we had to cater to and worry about. This position then slowly trickled down, and found its new political advocate in Hanson. She did not use his sophisticated framing, or highbrow language. She argued crudely that she didn’t want so many Asians in Australia.

Just Hanson’s ground was paved for her, so the Liberals went down the path she suggested. The other day, her Facebook page replied to a critic suggesting that One Nation would never be able to deliver on their policies. She retorted quite effectively: “I guess the idea of temporary protection visas, the abolishment of ATSIC, offshore detention processing centres, the deportation of foreign criminals, the reduction in immigration numbers sound ‘crazy’ to you? They were all policies of mine adopted by John Howard and the Liberals.”

Her line about being able to “have the right to have a say in who comes into my country” was more or less also taken by Howard.

When we think of Hanson’s re-election as a return to the ‘90s, it is important to remember what that history actually was. Hanson’s rise didn’t begin with her, nor did it end with her electoral defeat. There was an interplay with conservative intellectuals and politicians before and after her election, which shaped the country in important ways. If Pauline Hanson does get kicked out of the Senate the next time she stands election, we need to remember that it will not necessarily be the end of her agenda.

New Hansonism Is Basically Abbott-ism

Screen Shot 2015-10-28 at 4.26.08 pmHanson has been in the political wilderness for 18 years. Her anti-Asian message lost its resonance as Asians became better integrated into Australian communities. Her anti-asylum seeker policies were more or less embraced by the Coalition, and to an extent the ALP. Her opposition to neoliberalism, however, was not treated as “controversial” – it was exiled from public discussion. Offending minorities is one thing, but offending business interests is another proposition entirely.

As with Hanson’s anti-Asian stance, so her anti-Muslim stance had already been legitimised in mainstream political discourse. The day before the election, I wrote about how Coalition politicians, News Corp bloggers, and trashy chat shows like Sunrise had contributed to the pervasive anti-Islam atmosphere in Australia. While the Murdoch press was more aggressive in its anti-Muslim polemics, Orientalism and Islamophobia were still common at Fairfax, such as an editorial which claimed that Tony Abbott “made telling points when he said ‘Islam needs to delegitimise the urge to behead all those who insult the Prophet’”.

The context for Hanson’s rise is the aggressive Islamophobia of Abbott as Prime Minister. Abbott wore on his sleeve his suspicion of Islam and Muslims. In order to sell his wars on Iraq and Syria, Abbott resorted to innuendo and fear-mongering about Muslims. This agenda was taken up by Murdoch bloggers, like Miranda Devine and Andrew Bolt. Bolt declared that it was “deeply sinister” to suggest there was a connection between “our policies in the Middle East” and terrorism in Australia. That kind of argument actually “puts us in more danger”.

This isn’t just an Australian phenomenon. After the 9/11 attacks in America, President George Bush famously asked ‘why do they hate us’? He explained that they hate us because of our freedoms. He didn’t want to discuss the grievances many in the Muslim world have with Western foreign policy, because he didn’t want an open debate on those policies. Yet without discussing foreign policy, it was hard to understand why there is so much anti-Western sentiment in the Muslim world.

In that context, Islamophobic narratives make sense. They trickle down, starting out in more sophisticated versions as freedom-haters distorting a great religion of peace, to radical Muslims from a savage religion, clashing with modernity. Or Miranda Devine explaining that Muslim “’psychological resentment’ of Western culture” Is the reason why Muslims hate us and the cause of jihadi terrorism.

Devine was just one of many providing ideological backing for Abbott’s foreign and counter-terrorism policies by demonising Islam. This was the crux of Abbott’s case for war on Syria and Iraq. Anti-Islam and anti-Muslim sentiment didn’t disappear when Abbott was ousted as Prime Minister. It just lost its biggest megaphone, and its political home.

Where Abbott could warn us to stop tip-toeing around the sadly unreformed Islam, so public discussion followed. It is insane to think that we really had a six-month Senate inquiry into Halal certification of food.

Hanson’s Enablers And Supporters

Hanson On TodayAs shown in a great story in Hanson made regular paid appearances on trashy breakfast talk-show Sunrise in the lead-up to the election. Sunrise competes for morning viewers with the other trashy show in the same timeslot, Today. Presumably, having a notorious racist after terrorist attacks was regarded as a better way to boost ratings than inviting some boring academic full of equivocations and tedious complexities. Today got in on the act, and also gave her a sympathetic space to spew her racist thoughts about Muslims in the wake of last year’s Paris attacks.

When Turnbull had an Iftar at Kirribilli House, the Murdoch press had a field day attacking him and Muslims in attendance. Miranda Devine decided that hosting the event for “one of the smallest religions” in Australia was “political appeasement”. Hanson agreed that this was a “special ‘appeasers’ dinner”. And Devine wasn’t the only one whose anti-Muslim writings dovetailed with Hanson’s worldview. After the election, Hanson praised Paul Murray from Sky News as someone who has “always given me a fair go”. Here’s a chat with Andrew Bolt from mid-June, as they swap jokes about the Liberals. In June, Hanson had a friendly conversation with Kyle Sandilands and Jackie O. Sandilands defended her from charges of anti-Asian racism, agreeing that “you weren’t wrong” about Australians being swamped by Asians.

And here’s a friendly chat with Alan Jones. Alan Jones is well-known for his considered views on Lebanese men, such as the time he said “They simply rape, pillage and plunder a nation that’s taken them in… What did we do as a nation to have this vermin infest our shores?” The day before the election, Jones explained that he considered Hanson a “very legitimate candidate”, a “very courageous woman”, well-liked because she “says it as she sees it”, and increasingly, “she says it intelligently”.

That is, the mainstream political and media elite has legitimised Hanson’s concerns, echoed Hanson’s message, and enabled and supported Hanson herself. When Abbott led the Coalition, there was no need for Islamophobes to vote for any other party. Many of them turned on the Coalition when Turnbull took over, and found a new home – for now – in One Nation. Yet just as One Nation’s supporters and policies were absorbed into the Coalition after 1996, so it is likely that the Coalition will strive to pinch them once again.

In short, the new Hansonism isn’t really Hansonism either. It can more properly be called Abbott-ism, if we remember that Abbott didn’t invent modern Australian Islamophobia either, but merely became its new leader while Prime Minister.

The political and media elite will express outrage at Hanson – for a while. She engages in the kind of crude, unsophisticated Islamophobia that they find embarrassing. It would be fine if she could just cloak it in the disinterested language of favoured ABC pundits like Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali – both of whom are far more hateful and vicious than Hanson.

The challenge is not just to kick Hanson out of the Senate. Her political career is mostly unsuccessful, and it is unlikely she will be there for too long. The goal should be defeating her agenda. This is a greater challenge, because it is rooted in elite interests, tied up in Australian and Western foreign policy. Yet as long as elite interests are served by Islamophobia, it will continue trickling down.

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).