In her shadow

Sydney Morning Herald

Date: August 23 2003

By Geoff Kitney

It's as though the clock has been wound back nine years. Everywhere you

look you see her and the outraged crowds who support her, flocking to

stand with her in a fight against injustice and the dark forces of the

political establishment.

But now it's not Pauline the Maverick. It's Pauline the Martyr.

And the injustice is not against the silent masses, powerless against

the privileged elites. It's against Pauline Hanson herself, victim of a

conspiracy by those who have long resented her for the trouble she has

caused and long wanted to destroy her.

The crowds she and her supporters have helped stir to demand tougher

penalties and longer sentences for criminals suddenly find themselves

joining an outraged cry at the harshness of Hanson's punishment by a


That she has been convicted of the serious defrauding of the state

(taxpayers) of a huge sum of money and a crime against democracy matters

little. Hanson is being seen as a victim, not a criminal.

Suddenly a political star which burnt out long ago has flared to life

again, fed by much the same fuel that first sent it streaking through

the political firmament: the belief that she is a battler fighting

against the crushing weight of vested interests unconcerned with the

plight of the little people.

The mitigating circumstances defence for her crime - a defence rarely

given weight by her baying mobs seeking punitive punishments for others

- is winning her massive sympathy. Pauline was naive. Pauline was

ignorant. Pauline was convicted on a technicality. Pauline was used by

others. Pauline was given harsher-than-usual treatment because of her

fame. Whether any of these justifications carry legal weight will now be

tested by the appeal process. No one who hasn't studied all the evidence

and the detail of the law is qualified to judge the judgement - although

almost everyone is. The Prime Minister joined the mob yesterday, saying

he found the sentence "certainly very long and very severe".

But then the Prime Minister has more reason than most to extend some

sympathy to Hanson. He has been the chief beneficiary of her political


A much more interesting and brave response came from Queensland's

Premier, Peter Beattie, another beneficiary of Hansonism, which split

the conservative vote in Queensland in 1998 and helped him to win power.

Beattie said politicians' criticism of Hanson's three-year jail term

showed self-interest and a lack of respect for the courts. MPs at all

levels and from all parties, including the Prime Minister, were running


"I have seen some comments by politicians reflecting a range of

political views because they are all terrified of the consequences of

the court case against Pauline Hanson," Beattie said. "I have never seen

so many gutless wimps in my life running around like scalded cats trying

to position themselves for political gain."

But running scared of Hanson is not a new phenomenon.

From the first time she sought elected office and won a landslide

victory at the 1996 federal election in the formerly safe Labor seat

held by Bill Hayden, Hanson clubbed the political establishment with a

ferocious reality that it did not know how to handle.

The first reaction to her arrival on the national political stage was to

pretend she wasn't there. MPs from all parties flouted Parliament's

traditions by boycotting her first speech so that when she attacked

Aborigines, Asian migrants, multiculturalists, do-gooders, the Family

Court and economists, she spoke to almost no one.

There was debate in the offices of the major news organisations in the

parliamentary press gallery about what to do with her outrageous speech,

a speech of extreme views long considered to be unacceptable in the

Australian political mainstream. Some news organisations decided not to

report it. The Herald did, but with just 300 words on page three.

On the last count, in the almost nine years since that story ran, the

Herald has published slightly fewer than 4000 articles about Hanson. In

the wider media, her story count runs to tens of thousands.

She might have spoken to no one in her maiden speech to Parliament but

she spoke for many in the community. Ultimately, well over 1 million

Australians voted for her and for candidates who represented her in the

various elections in which they participated.

The MP who wasn't there became a political phenomenon not previously

experienced in Australian politics. Ignoring her became impossible. She

stood out like a nudist at a bishops' conference, rudely intruding on

the closed and comfortable club of politics as practised by the

mainstream political parties.

Ignoring her was the instinctive response of the political establishment

because it feared what she represented. Hanson had lifted the lid on a

Pandora's box of political nasties the major parties had tacitly agreed

to keep hidden in a dark room, away from the light of attention which

would have allowed them to grow and poison the community. The initial

reaction was to try to quarantine Hansonism, to marginalise it and to

hope that it shrivelled and went away.

But what political leaders for a generation had regarded as a critical

consensus to sustain policies unlikely to withstand populist attack was

suddenly seen as a conspiracy against political freedom.

And while the instinctive reaction of most of the political

establishment was to continue defending the consensus, there was one

person who took a different view: John Howard.

Howard, newly elected on a landslide of anger with a Labor government

overwhelmingly seen as having lost touch with ordinary Australians,

sensed that Hanson was much more than a flame-haired political curiosity

who would quickly flame out without seriously impacting on the political

status quo.

Howard recognised Hanson was more than one independent politician. She

was a scream of protest rising from a deep well of electoral resentment

and anger.

Howard also recognised her as much as a political opportunity as a


While others attacked her views as dangerous and divisive, Howard

defended her right to express them.

"Australians can now talk about certain things without fear of being

branded as a bigot or a racist," Howard said. "The election of the new

Government has done something to make neo-McCarthyist, zealous,

prejudiced reaction against something you don't agree with a little less

acceptable and I think that is a great thing for democracy in


This marked the beginning of a profound shift in Australian politics.

Although there had only been glimpses of it before he was elected Prime

Minister (most obvious in his comments years earlier, and never

completely retracted, supporting fears about the pace of Asian

immigration), Howard was instinctively sympathetic to much that Hanson

said and to the sense of disconnection and alienation that fed her

political support.

He also knew, from the Liberal Party's electoral research, that her

support base included a large number of working-class Labor voters

disillusioned with Labor's economic reforms and social policy agenda.

Howard set about harvesting for the Coalition the rich, Hanson-exposed

vein of disenfranchised voters.

Not once since then has Howard chastised or patronised those who shared

Hanson's views. On totem issues, such as border protection and refugees,

he has adopted her policies. On others, he has legitimised their

opinions. He doesn't always agree with them but he always says that he

defends their right to express them.

He did this with Fred Nile's offensive claim that Muslim women should

wear Western clothes because they might be hiding weapons under their

traditional clothing. He did it just a few weeks ago on the baying for

the introduction of the death penalty.

Howard has constructed a formidable constituency of conservative belief

on social issues while maintaining an essentially liberal economic

policy agenda. As a consequence he has remade Australian politics

without reneging on economic changes that were a significant factor in

the sense of powerlessness and insecurity that gave rise to Hansonism.

The disenfranchised of the era of dramatic economic reform in the

Hawke/Keating Labor years have been drawn into the mainstream of the

years of consolidation of those reforms. Where Keating sought and failed

to use the symbols of an Australian republic and a new flag as rallying

points for the new, remade Australia, Howard has, with Hanson's help,

succeeded in using issues such as border protection and security to

fashion a nostalgic nationalism which the Hansonites love.

Now the disenfranchised are the small-l liberals who have been driven

out of, or fled, the Howard big-C conservative Liberal Party and feel

betrayed by a shell-shocked and uncertain Labor Party.

In an article on Hanson's demise by's web diarist, Margo

Kingston, a former senior adviser to Kim Beazley, Syd Hickman, laments

on behalf of disenfranchised liberals: "What we thought about key issues

used to matter. Quite frankly, in political terms, now it doesn't. And

that's why core liberal issues such as the future of the ABC, the

secular education system and universal health care get such meagre

attention. People who hold liberal values must demand their own place in

the political spectrum. To get it they are going to have to work outside

the old frameworks. They should stop telling themselves that it's good

enough to be the wets and the progressives in political parties which

are now openly dedicated to illiberal ends. This is not virtue; it's


Ironically, Hickman's call echoes the same feelings of

disenfranchisement that gave rise to Hanson's political movement at the

opposite end of the political spectrum. This is a measure of how

Australia has changed under Howard, after Hansonism.

If Hickman's call is taken up, it will require the embracing of the

Greens as the vehicle to mobilise this electorally - or the creation of

a new political party.

This is a major challenge to the Labor Party, which so far has decided

that its best hopes still lie in trying to differentiate itself from the

Coalition in areas such as health and education rather than on long-term

Hansonite issues like border protection or one-off issues such as

support for the death penalty for the Bali bombers.

But it is also a challenge for Liberals of similar views to the former

prime minister, Malcolm Fraser. Where can they find political leverage

in a remade political landscape in which there is an increasingly

pervasive conservatism which casts them and their liberal views as

do-goodism, with nothing to offer ordinary Australians?

It is impossible to imagine a public outpouring of sympathy for any

leading advocate of liberal ideas in Australia of the kind now occurring

for Pauline Hanson.

Equally, it is unlikely that Hanson will rise again as a political

force, even if her legal appeal restores her eligibility to run for

public office. Why would anyone want Hansonism now when they can have


Indeed, it is hard to see anything threatening Howard's dominance and

the dominance of his ideas.

Short of a surge of economic growth which pushes up interest rates, or a

collapse which causes a surge in unemployment - either of which could

plunge deeply mortgaged suburbia into a cash crisis big enough to change

the dynamics of politics - Howard will continue to ride the political

wave which we first noticed when it propelled a Queensland fish and chip

shop owner to national prominence nearly a decade ago.

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