How Pauline Hanson was stopped

Pauline Hanson burst onto the political scene in the federal election of March 1996. Over the next few years, she attempted to mobilise and lead a racist movement that targeted Indigenous people and immigrants, particularly Asians.

As the Liberal candidate for the Queensland seat of Oxley, Hanson wrote to an Ipswich paper decrying the supposed special treatment and privileges that Aborigines enjoyed at the expense of other Australians. This led to her being disendorsed as the Liberal candidate. But with the ballot papers already printed and nominations closed, Hanson won the seat and sat as an independent.

Hanson polarised Australian society, arousing extraordinarily passionate support and opposition. At one stage, polls indicated that the party she founded, One Nation, was supported by more than 20 percent of the population. But by 1999, that support had slumped to around 5 percent, and by 2002, Hanson had lost her parliamentary seat and had split (or been expelled, depending whose account you believe) from her own party. She had also been jailed for electoral fraud, though the conviction was later quashed.

Despite numerous attempts at a comeback in the years since, Hanson has failed to get herself re-elected anywhere. But she rejoined One Nation in 2014 and has announced she’ll be a candidate for the Senate in this year’s election. She’s still a racist, but her focus has shifted somewhat. These days she’s jumped on the Islamophobia bandwagon, promising “absolute opposition to any more mosques, Sharia law, Halal certification and Muslim refugees”.

As long as our rulers need scapegoats to deflect attention from their own crimes, we will need to maintain the fight against racism.

She’s one of a crowded field. Since 9/11 and the launch of the “war on terror”, Muslims have been among the prime targets of official and unofficial racism in Australia. The demonisation of all Muslims as actual or potential terrorists has legitimised discrimination against Muslims – and also provided a justification for the government’s relentless persecution of asylum seekers. Not surprisingly, in such a climate, we’ve seen the rise of far right Islamophobic outfits like Reclaim Australia and the fascist United Patriotic Front.

So it’s worth remembering how and why Hanson rose to such prominence – but also how she and her racist movement were stopped.

In Hanson’s maiden speech to parliament, she attacked Aborigines as a “privileged class”, asserting that “present governments are encouraging separatism in Australia by providing opportunities, land, moneys and facilities available only to Aboriginals”. She went on to attack multiculturalism and immigration, warning that Australia was in danger of being “swamped” by Asians.

Never has a maiden speech had so much coverage. It was printed in full in many newspapers, and Hanson herself became a major celebrity. The media followed her everywhere and reported every word she uttered. It was estimated that during the first few months after her speech, she was mentioned in the media on average something like 200 times every day.

The parliament passed a mealy-mouthed resolution condemning her views on immigration and multiculturalism, though significantly it remained silent about her attacks on Aborigines. But new Liberal prime minister John Howard refused to condemn her. Instead, he said that her views were shared by many Australians, and he welcomed their expression as evidence that the “pall of political correctness” had been lifted.

Over the next few months, Hanson’s frequent appearances on TV and talkback radio encouraged and cohered racist sentiment. She also drew the admiring attention of racist groups like the Citizens’ Electoral Council, the League of Rights and outright fascists like National Action, who saw an opportunity to promote their racist cause.

In response to Hanson’s rising popularity, Howard moved to restrict refugee applications and cut the family reunion intake by 10,000. Hanson claimed credit for forcing the government’s hand, and buoyed by this success, founded the One Nation party. The name harked back to her denunciation of the Aboriginal flag in her maiden speech: “To survive in peace and harmony, united and strong, we must have one people, one nation, one flag”. (It also evoked Hitler’s slogan of “Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer”.)

Like most racist demagogues, Hanson identified some genuine problems, then offered easy “solutions” by scapegoating Aborigines and Asians.

There was widespread opposition to Hanson from the start. The liberal media and small-l liberals generally saw Hanson as dangerous. But they were more concerned about the “national interest” and Australia’s international image than with her impact on immigrant and Indigenous communities – both of which experienced a spike in verbal abuse and physical attacks. In a two-month period, reports of racist assaults doubled.

Hanson’s liberal opponents were even less interested in analysing the basis of her support. Instead, in their usual elitist fashion, they sneered at the former fish and chip shop owner, who didn’t know the meaning of the word xenophobia; and they painted her supporters as ignorant rednecks and bogans, code for the blue collar working class.

But actually, Hanson predominantly was attracting people who normally supported the Coalition parties. The journalist Phillip Adams attended a meeting of One Nation and observed: “Though the meeting was crowded, it seemed all but devoid of the promised rednecks. Many of the people arrived in BMWs and Volvos – clearly comfortable members of the middle class”.

In the 1998 Queensland state election, One Nation got nearly a quarter of the vote and won 11 of 89 seats. Mick Armstrong conducted a detailed analysis of the election for Socialist Alternative magazine. He found that 80 percent of the Hanson vote came from conservative parties and only 20 percent from Labor. And significantly, while its highest votes were in rural areas, One Nation polled better in affluent middle class areas of Brisbane and the Gold Coast than in poorer working class areas. He demonstrated conclusively that it was unionised, traditional Labor-voting urbanised workers who most strongly rejected Hanson.

That Queensland election was One Nation’s high point. In the federal election that year Hanson lost her seat, and around the country support for One Nation was in sharp decline. With some justification, Hanson blamed her falling popularity on Howard stealing her policies. As the cover of Socialist Alternative magazine summed it up in July 1998, “Hanson says it … Howard does it”.

Most accounts of One Nation’s demise focus on the organisation’s internal quarrels and splits, its sheer incompetence and Hanson’s increasingly bizarre stunts on the one hand, and on Howard’s tactics on the other. The role of mass protest in Hanson’s demise is usually understated, if not completely ignored. But it was certainly an important factor.

Anti-Hanson protests

In Melbourne in December 1996, more than 50,000 answered the call of the union movement and ethnic communities to take a stand against racism in a mass rally. It was a fantastic display of solidarity. The Nazi group National Action described it as a “disaster”, and abandoned plans for its own pro-Hanson rally in Adelaide the following week.

But there were also many smaller actions, involving many thousands across the country, as people turned out to confront Hanson directly whenever she popped her head up. These protests were typically loud and militant, and remarkable for the intensity of anger and hostility displayed by those involved. Demonstrations of a few hundred or a few thousand frequently disrupted or forced the cancellation of her public meetings.

The tone was set at early protests in places like Dandenong and Geelong in Victoria, which were overwhelmingly working class in composition. Many participants expressed outrage that Hanson had targeted their communities on the assumption that she’d find support for her vile racism there. Missiles such as eggs and tomatoes were deployed to make it clear that she and her racist supporters were not welcome.

When word got out that Hanson was holding a public meeting in leafy, respectable Hawthorn in July 1998, more than 3,000 turned out to protest at a couple of days’ notice, with only word of mouth and some frantic postering by a few activists to publicise it. Arriving well ahead of the scheduled meeting time, we set up a picket line.

Hanson’s softer middle class supporters didn’t fancy having to run a gauntlet of noisy, in-your-face protesters (there was a lot of pushing and shoving, mainly as a result of police charging the protesters as they tried to protect the racists), and ultimately the meeting was unable to go ahead.

The next day, newspaper posters and headlines blared: “Protest silences Hanson” and “Mob halts Hanson”. A month later, One Nation polled less than 6 percent in a by-election in the working class Melbourne suburb of Northcote, despite the fact that there was no Liberal candidate.

Successes like this bred confidence, inspired further protests and drew in more layers of people. High school students mobilised in a way we hadn’t seen since the movement against Vietnam War. There was a thousands-strong rally in Bendigo (more recently the target of racist protests against the building of a mosque) and hundreds of young Aborigines clashed with police at an anti-Hanson protest in Echuca.

While huge numbers of people demonstrated to take a moral stand against racism, the real importance of the protests was that they prevented Hanson from cohering her supporters into a solid organisation of hardened racist activists. Knowing she’d always be confronted by loud and militant protests, One Nation pretty much stopped trying to hold public meetings, at least in the major cities.

Hanson failed in no small part because of a determined and militant anti-racist mobilisation. But under Howard (and then Rudd and Gillard), racist attacks on the rights of Indigenous people and refugees continued and intensified, while Islamophobia has become entrenched at a level that Hanson’s anti-Asian racism was not. As long as our rulers need scapegoats to deflect attention from their own crimes, we will need to maintain the fight against racism.

Tess Lee Ack is the author of “Who is to blame for racism in Australia?” published in Marxist Left Review Number 4 2012.