In her shadow
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
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
Howard recognised Hanson was more than one independent politician. She
was a scream of protest rising from a deep well of electoral resentment
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
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 smh.com'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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