How we beat Pauline Hanson in the 1990s 
How we beat Pauline Hanson in the 1990s )

In the two years between Pauline Hanson’s election to parliament in 1996 and the eventual collapse of her party One Nation in 1998, many hundreds of demonstrations were held against her and her policies. From bucolic rural hamlets to windswept industrial centres, whenever Hanson or One Nation attempted to organise, so too would protesters. From the mild to the militant, opposition to One Nation became commonplace. A song satirising Hanson even made it to number ten in the ARIA music charts in 1998. 

Hanson started her political career in 1994 as a representative on the Ipswich City Council, but she became a prominent national figure only in the aftermath of the 1996 federal election when, as an independent, she won the previously safe Labor seat of Oxley in outer-metropolitan Brisbane. She had initially been a candidate for the Liberal Party but was disendorsed for racist comments. 

Hanson presented herself as a political outsider: a single mum, a fish and chip shop owner, a voice for those silenced by the Hawke and Keating years of “political correctness”. Her campaign mobilised a populist hostility on several fronts: to the “elites” who she excoriated as responsible for the difficulties Australian battlers had experienced in the economic recession of the 1990s; to Asians, who she claimed were “swamping Australia” and degrading the culture; to Aboriginal people who were allegedly living large on welfare. On this basis, Hanson won with a substantial swing of 19.3 per cent. She took her seat in parliament in September 1996, where she gave an incendiary maiden speech, expanding on the themes she had developed in her election campaign. 

Soon, Pauline Hanson Support Groups were established across the country. These were often run by fascist or far-right activists from groups like the Confederate Action Party, National Action and the League of Rights. Hanson was also emerging into national politics in a period of intensified racism, with Liberal Party politicians and associated historians confecting a “debate” around race, Asian immigration and multiculturalism. By the end of 1997, around 200 One Nation branches were established across the country, and it is estimated that there were tens of thousands of members. 

Nevertheless, despite predictions that Hanson and One Nation were barnstorming national politics, their initial promise was not fulfilled. In the 1998 election, the party failed to win a single seat. Bitter disputes blew the party leadership apart, and branches and membership collapsed. By 1999, One Nation was a marginal player in federal politics. 

The protest movement against Hanson was vital in pushing her back. 

In the months after Hanson’s election, demonstrations were called. In Sydney and Brisbane the far left called protests attended by thousands. Unions and other organisations initially got on board. The largest of the mobilisations was in Melbourne, where tens of thousands marched on a rally organised by the Victorian Trades Hall Council and the Ethnic Communities Council. Socialist activist Jerome Small remembered in an article for Red Flag in 2015:

“It was huge, with tens of thousands packed into Treasury Gardens. I remember being struck by how many blue-collar migrants were there, standing around beaming at the enormous throng.”

By the beginning of 1997, protests against racism and Hanson were spreading like wildfire across the country, but particularly in Queensland. Some of these were organised by the far left, others were largely spontaneous. Even small towns had proportionally large mobilisations: 650 rallied in Kingaroy, 1,000 in Hervey Bay, 300 in Goondiwindi, 1,000 in Rockhampton and 1,000 in Gatton.

One of the important responses to Hanson was the organisation of demonstrations outside her public appearances and One Nation meetings. Indeed, Hanson was dogged by confrontational protests across the country from early 1997 to the end of 1998. These actions were again spearheaded by the socialist left. Many in official institutions and the ALP derided such actions. They claimed they were counterproductive and juvenile. The reality was far from it. These actions, although controversial, helped to galvanise and shape broader opinion. 

In early 1997, Hanson travelled to Perth. Although she was polling well in Western Australia, her first showing was met by 2,000 protesters outside the Challenge Stadium. “As they hurled insults and tomatoes, some of which splattered over Hanson’s red suit, she was rushed inside by police and security officers”, reported Judy Hughes in the Australian. Hanson said that her trip to Perth was the “worst 24 hours of my life”. Public support for One Nation dipped. 

Attempts to set up branches in Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland were greeted with further rowdy demonstrations. In May, One Nation made its first foray into Victoria, starting in the industrial town of Geelong, one hour’s drive from Melbourne. One Nation wanted to field 37-year-old electronics shop owner Andrew Carne as a candidate. Despite his confidence that the branch would find success in the region, the party’s first attempt to meet was stymied. Deakin University students called a protest. Sam Purcell, the president of the students’ association, told Socialist Worker: “[I deplore] the fact that Geelong will be the first place to have a racist political party in Victoria”.

The organisers had modest expectations, but were buoyed by the eventual turnout. Purcell described:

“We thought 200 people would come but around 1,000 turned up. A big group came from the Wathaurong Aboriginal Co-op and the Institute of Koori Education. There were Deakin Uni students and a lot of high school students. There were people from the Migrant Resource Centre as well as groups from the various migrant communities, like the Philippine community.”

“People were playing didgeridoos and there were flags and people were milling around but keeping their distance from the entrance”, socialist activist Sandra Bloodworth related in an interview. She was living in Melbourne but drove down for the rally. Diffidence transformed into defiance as soon as the One Nation supporters started going into the meeting. Bloodworth recalled:

“The police were really under-resourced, so everyone started crowding in and I just said, ‘Why don’t we just go inside? Why are they allowed in, and we aren’t? Everyone has the right to free speech’. And then people started saying, ‘Yeah why aren’t we allowed in?!’ And the police just melted away and everyone just went in ... All the Aboriginal people took the lead and got up on the platform. We sang songs and stood on the chairs, singing and clapping and chanting anti-racist slogans. So they never had their meeting. People realised if they took a stand, they could change the whole dynamic.”

One of the most notable of these confrontational protests occurred in the multicultural suburb of Dandenong. More than 2,000 protesters gathered: rowdy, chaotic and angry outside a One Nation inaugural meeting, which attracted known members of neo-Nazi organisation National Action. The Hanson fans, self-confident and aggressive, were confronted by a mass of protesters and no clear path to the door.

“Someone, I don’t know whether it was serious, but someone suggested going to the supermarket and getting eggs and rotten tomatoes”, Bloodworth said. Community worker Sally Thompson recalled in an interview:

“Then, my partner Bill ran out of smokes, so we ran down to the 7/11 to buy some cigarettes and I remember there was this really long queue of mainly Vietnamese young people and they all had a dozen eggs in their hand. The whole shop had been cleaned out of eggs. It was hilarious.”

The crowd surged, and according to the Age, “became angrier and angrier and they threw their rotten produce with more and more fury, rarely missing their targets”. Thompson remembered that “the crowd was very young and very Asian. There were lots of Vietnamese and Asian young people and there was a real sense of: ‘This is our town. You don’t get to come here. Not in Dandenong’”. 

Someone produced a bag of balloons and locals rushed down to the nearest McDonald’s to fill them with water. Production lines of kids began making water bombs to throw at the Hanson supporters. The press later reported that these balloons were in fact condoms filled with urine, a claim strenuously denied by the anti-Hanson activists quoted in the Age. 

More protesters arrived, some having left a multicultural event organised by the city of Greater Dandenong that was happening a few streets away. The festival was designed to be a respectable rejoinder to both Hanson and the anti-Hanson protesters. Mayor Greg Harris insisted in the Australian: “We wanted to be seen by the media and the public as having a mature response”. 

Around 200 locals attended the festival, but several anti-Hanson activists recalled groups of young people peeling off from the festival and wandering down to the protest. Socialist Mick Armstrong recalled in an interview:

“People meandered up to our thing because theirs was so boring ... All those dignitaries and worthies saying, ‘Oh you shouldn’t protest; it just gives her oxygen’. Nevertheless, the evening was a success for the anti-Hanson forces. The racists and fascists had been sent a clear signal.”

Throughout the rest of 1997 and the start of 1998, further One Nation branches were established and further protests were organised. Indeed, almost every public appearance Hanson made in the lead-up to the 1998 federal election was met with protest.

In June 1998, the first of several high school demonstrations occurred, with hundreds in some places and thousands in others leaving school and marching through capital city streets. One 15-year-old protester declared to an Australian journalist: “All high school students are affected by racism and getting out on the streets and having a say is very important”. 

The anti- Hanson sentiment had clearly penetrated nationally, particularly among young people, and was captured musically in the iconic anti-Hanson anthem “I don’t like it”, penned by the satirist drag queen Pauline Pantsdown [aka Simon Hunt]. Pantsdown performed for the high school protesters, or “for the troops” as Hunt put it in an interview in 2021. 

The anti-Hanson protest movement was both significant and effective. The confrontational protests undermined the capacity of One Nation to form and staff branches, particularly in Victoria. Many Hanson supporters didn’t have the mettle to withstand being called out publicly as racists who consort with fascists. This was a vital contribution. Unlike many parts of the world, Australia does not have an active far-right party with a cohered membership and active branches. 

Although Hanson is back in parliament, she has not tried to build a solid organisation. The protests also helped to sharpen the arguments against Hanson and make her ideas unacceptable on a broader level. Indeed, calling out Hanson’s racism undermined not just her hardcore supporters but also her vote. The bigger and longer the protest movement went on, the lower Hanson’s approval rating fell. The protests cut a clear line—and shaped subsequent opinion in an important way. 

What’s more, the campaign mobilised hundreds of thousands of people—including many who were the object of Hanson’s attacks. The participation of migrants, youth and Indigenous people in protest movements against Hanson gave them confidence to withstand racism and bigotry in their own lives. Indeed, many of the active Hanson haters in the 1990s continued their activism into the 2000s. These demonstrations were central in shaping the consciousness of thousands of young people and in forging an anti-racist common sense that would last for years to come.

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