Tackling Hansonism requires more than pithy memes and biting satire. Comedian Nelly Thomas would know.
I’ve been wrestling about whether or not to write this piece.
So much has been said about Pauline Hanson, so much has been said by her, and so little of it has been productive. But, I’ve decided to weigh in because I come from Hanson country: working class, socially conservative, racist, homophobic, xenophobic Australia.
I went to a public school, I know what it’s like to worry about the electricity bill. The extent of my early cultural experiences were The Sullivans and Albie Mangles. I left my hometown when I was 17, but my roots are there, my family are there and I know this Australia intimately.
For better or worse, unlike most of the people writing, tweeting and talking about Pauline Hanson, she is part of me; part of my story.
A little peek behind the veil.
The last time I went home for Christmas, I went to a family barbecue. I walked in and one of my Uncles turned, saw me, and introduced me to all his friends as, “This is Nelly, she’s my smart-arse radical niece from Prick-toria” (it gets worse), to which – after the laughing had died down – one of the guests said, “I hope she doesn’t protest for those bloody towel-heads,” and everyone cracked up again.
And he’s one of the Uncles who actually likes me. For real.
On the same trip I went to visit a school friend. We were catching up on old times and talking about teachers and who ended up with whom and all that stuff, when her husband joined in and, out of the blue, told me he’d seen a local copper chase a little *&^%$ (a word for “Aboriginal kid” that I refuse to repeat) on a stolen bike in his police car and knock him off it.
The boy was 8. Apparently he was physically uninjured and no charges were laid. We weren’t in Kalgoorlie, but close enough.
On another trip, I rang a cousin to arrange to catch up. His voicemail message was him saying in an Indian accent that he couldn’t answer the phone because he was on the toilet after eating a curry.
Another time, an Aunty – who was sympathetic to my “different” views – tried to find common ground and suggested that “The Aborigines” should be given their land back. I was somewhat heartened until it became clear she meant the “desert” and that she thought they’d “all be happier there”.
I don’t want to think about how she’d get “them” there.
I could go on. I won’t. And this is not meant to be confessional or voyeuristic – my point is that, to be frank, no-one outside the inner-city is surprised by Hansonism. I’m certainly not.
So, what’s up with Hanson? The woman herself – who the hell knows. It kind of doesn’t matter. What is more important, is what’s up with Hansonism. Why is anyone listening to someone so clearly off their rocker, let alone voting for her?
The usual explanation is an undercurrent of persistent racism in Australia. That’s undoubtedly a major factor, but I don’t think it explains her resurrection in full.
The first thing to know about Hanson supporters is that most of them feel stupid. Really. There’s a base insecurity in much of working class Australia about being uneducated which, often times, is conflated with being dumb.
Some of it is paranoia, some of it is real. Educated people do routinely talk down to the uneducated. This is probably true in all cultures, across all time, but I think it is a particular marker of the experience of the English colonisation of Australia: we have a deep-seated suspicion and dislike of The Snob. Being belittled or patronised by The Snob is not a nice feeling.
Fear of the snob takes many forms. I have relatives who panic about filling out even basic paperwork for fear of spelling a word wrong and others who talk differently – literally in a different accent – at the bank, doctors, Centrelink or on the phone with any “officials”.
Many didn’t finish high school, almost none are university educated (certainly none above my generation) and some are functionally illiterate. When they are in the presence of people who sound and look like they’ve been to university, and/or are rich, they’re intimidated.
They will either strike first (their approach with me at the barbecue) or say nothing for fear of being struck (their approach with authoritarian figures).
This is the first clue as to why Hanson resonates: she speaks working class.
Class is complicated in an Australia where a plumber can earn a six figure salary, but suffice to say there is a culture and even an accent and Pauline embodies it, talks it – even when she’s around important people (politicians, journalists, academics)! She’s one of out of the box.
If we had a more diverse political and commentariat class, there’d be others who’d talk working class too, but sadly, we don’t. There’s Jackie Lambie and Chris Bowen, but Australia’s political landscape is dominated by Christopher Pynes and David Marr’s (yes, I love the latter too, but he does sound like a Sydney Grammar Boy on steroids).
In short, Pauline Hanson talks up to the elite. She makes large swathes of working class Australia feel right and powerful. It’s intoxicating.
To complicate matters, every time a commentator, cartoonist, comedian SNOB makes fun of Hanson (and yes, I do it) – especially when she gets a word wrong or mispronounces something – she’s loved even more.
All working class people have at some point experienced that sense of being laughed at. I still wince at the time in first year uni I tried to order an “Alfresco” (thinking it was a coffee) and the time I was asked if I liked Picasso and replied that I didn’t play the piano (I can only assume I thought he was a classical musician). I can joke about these things now, but they sting.
Cultural capital is a powerful thing; and when you don’t have it you know it.
Hanson doesn’t have cultural capital and lampooning her lack of it – please explain – does nothing more than make those of us who already despise Hansonism feel better. And Superior.
Sometimes that’s ok – the choir needs preaching (especially in a comedy club) – but what it does in the media and political sphere is simply reinforce the idea that WE all think we’re better than THEM (The Greens boycotting her second diatribe Parliament thingy did the same. YOU’RE TOO GOOD TO EVEN LISTEN?).
So, first note to self and others: call out bigoted views for sure, but try to leave the easy target bullshit out of it. Her hair, accent, vocabulary and the like are irrelevant. And when you make fun of them, you kind of sound like a dick.
The other thing to understand about Hanson supporters is that, as Kim Carr’s excellent piece on New Matilda recently emphasised, support for Hanson can be tracked geographically and socio-economically.
This is no coincidence.
Most of her supporters are in Western Australia, Queensland and the low socio-economic parts of other states. Yes, there are some entrenched cultural factors of racism and xenophobia at play here, and those should not be underestimated, but there’s also the simple fact that increasing economic inequality in Australia is hitting those areas hardest.
We are a very wealthy country and by-and-large our poorest are better off than the poor world-wide (some Indigenous communities being an exception), but the gap between rich and poor in Australia is growing. This exacerbates feelings of being “left out”.
Just this week the IMF attributed the rise of Trump to this phenomenon, and Hanson is no different. The IMF certainly wouldn’t put it this way, but I would argue the working class know they’ve been royally screwed by deregulation, privatisation, union decimation and globalisation. The rich got richer, the poor paid the price.
I’ll give you a personal example.
My dad left school when he was about 13. He worked a series of shit-kicker jobs (his words) and then landed a low-paid but steady government job in my hometown. When he was in his 50’s, the service he worked for was privatised and he was retrenched with an absolute pittance (no Golden hand-shake, that’s for sure).
He was unemployed for almost two years and eventually got a job at a petrol station earning minimum wage. He was 60 and his boss was 19.
Dad’s story obviously isn’t unique. Hanson and Trump country(ies) are full of stories like his, and none of those workers are consoled by the promises of “trickle down economics” or slogans like “no jobs on a dead planet.” They see the rise, rise and rise again of corporate salaries, white-collar wages, banking scandals and profits and literally they suffer for them.
Economic inequality – including unemployment (which can so easily become entrenched and intergenerational), underemployment and the working poor – are central to understanding Hansonism. When you’re wondering if you can fill your fridge or pay your phone bill, it doesn’t take much for someone to activate your fear centre. Add Border Security and you’ve got a time bomb waiting to happen.
I jest, but seriously: when you’re afraid, you cast around for a reason. Enter Pauline Hanson with The Answer. Sure, The Answer changes from Asian to Aboriginal to Muslim to Refugees to Penny Wong, but fear never required logic.
One of the most galling aspects of all this, is that the targets of Hansonism are, by any rational measurement, suffering the same or more than the working classes (and indeed, the categories aren’t mutually exclusive)! One of my greatest frustrations in life is not understanding why the combined oppressed don’t unite and see the elite is screwing them all. Again, perhaps too busy with Border Security.
Hansonism is about racism.
It’s also about economic insecurity, fear, under-education and historical ignorance. Australia was a powder keg just waiting for Pauline and her box of matches.
One thing I know for sure is that being right about Hanson and Hansonism won’t be enough to defeat her. And making fun of her won’t help either. I have no interest in offering her understanding, but I’m afraid we are going to have to work harder to understand.