This may be the first time the body politic has defeated the alt-right virus – and done it without the loss of too many limbs. But why?
Hanson’s defeat happened in what should be fertile territory for this type of politics. The huge state of Western Australia is a boom-and-bust land of outback mining, stony deserts, tropical gorges and individual cattle stations as big as some American states. Taken as a whole, the state covers “an area the size of Europe,” as the defeated premier said this week, handing his crown to a triumphant Labor leader.
The real interest, though, was not on either the defeated leader, Colin Barnett, or his ebullient usurper, Mark McGowan. The focus was on the expected third force: Pauline Hanson’s One Nation.
Polls had suggested Hanson might achieve 13 percent of the vote – rather than the 4.9 percent she ended up achieving. (The party didn’t contest all seats, averaging 8 percent in the seats in which it stood a candidate.)
So why was Hanson expected to do so well? Why did she come unstuck? And could there be lessons for other countries experiencing an emboldened alt-right movement?
When Pauline Hanson first emerged, in the election of 1996, the political establishment responded with horror. In her first speech to parliament she accused Aboriginal Australians of riding high on government benefits: “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.” These are the people, by the way, who still die on average 10 years earlier than non-indigenous Australians.
Hanson also, in that same maiden speech, attacked the rate of immigration from Asia: “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians.” (More recently she shifted her target to migration from Islamic countries, while using remarkably similar language: “We are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible to our own.”) Many were disturbed by her views, but these same horrified folks also spent much time being fabulously amused by the manner in which she made her points. Her voice! Her accent! Her lack of knowledge of middle-class vocabulary!
The amusement peaked when, in 1996, Hanson was asked by a reporter on the Australian version of “60 Minutes” if she considered herself a “xenophobe.”
Pauline Hanson furrowed her brow – she’s charismatic and quite appealing – admitted her ignorance, and then uttered what have since become her most famous words. “Please explain,” she said.
“Hilarious,” I thought. “Hilarious,” said nearly everyone else. And thus a brand was born.
In the Australian context at least, “xenophobe” is quite a fancy word: “From the Greek, one unduly fearful of what is foreign and especially of people of foreign origin.” Australians don’t tend to use it.
And yet, in the years that followed, the Australian mainstream – the media, the political establishment, normal folks at suburban barbeques – spent a lot of time mocking Pauline Hanson for that “please explain.” People would mention her previous occupation of owning a fish and chip shop. And, given a chance, we’d all sing-song “please explain?” in a high, upward-inflected falsetto.
Said her supporters: “Yes, exactly. That’s precisely right. The fish and chip shop? It’s a real achievement to run your own business. That voice? It’s like ours. The willingness to say things you’re not meant to say? That’s why we like her.”
Then, adding to her allure, was a decision by the legal system – egged on by some mainstream politicians – to charge her with electoral fraud, due to problems with the party’s paperwork. In 2003, she was given a three-year prison sentence, later quashed. She served eleven weeks in jail, which only served to cement her image as a political outsider, targeted by the elites.
By this point, it seemed that Australia’s mainstream could not have done more to build Hanson’s brand as the ultimate outsider.
About a week ago, I saw some American friends sending up President Trump for the way he’d accused the former president of installing a wire tap.
Except, in Trump’s tweet, it was a wire “tapp.”
Double pp. What an idiot. Cue mocking. I enjoyed it. Until I thought: “Actually we Australians have all been here, some years ago.”
Which brings us to what actually made Hanson come unstuck in this week’s election.
This time, no one attacked her vocabulary. There was a widespread view that mocking Hanson was bad politics: “I respect her. I respect her election,” said the Prime Minister, Malcolm Turnbull, through delicately clenched teeth. The focus, it was said, should be on policy.
And, just maybe, it worked. Policy, it turned out, was the real peril of Pauline.
A week before the election she threw her support behind the anti-vaccination movement, advocating a non-existent test through which parents could check if their children might be injured by their vaccination. She also praised Vladimir Putin as “a strong leader” who commanded her respect. The prime minister was not alone in lashing her about both views. On Putin, he noted the Russian leader’s role in shooting down Malaysian Airlines flight MH17, in which 38 Australians were killed. Others talked about One Nation’s strange policy which demanded that all marriages involve a prenuptial agreement.
So is Hanson over? Certainly there are plenty of newspaper headlines this week asking: “Is this the end of One Nation?”
Here we come to an old saying about newspapers: Whenever a headline ends in a question mark, the answer is nearly always ‘no.’
There’s an election soon in Queensland, Hanson’s own state. Sensible Australians are waiting until then before writing her off.