It seems like 1996 revisited. Since the election, Pauline Hanson’s bigoted racist views have been promoted in a blaze of media publicity.
The Australian and much of the rest of the Murdoch press have gone into overdrive backing Hanson, she has been showcased on the ABC’s Q&A program, and Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes staged a provocation with Hanson to disrupt the Cairns Indigenous Art Fair to boost ratings. On and on it goes.
Australia’s most prominent reactionary, Andrew Bolt, rapidly moved to position himself as Hanson’s number one defender. Channel Nine presenter Sonia Kruger leapt on the racist bandwagon, calling for a ban on Muslim immigration.
Brisbane Courier Mail columnist Rowan Dean hailed Hanson and Kruger for their “female bravery” in “speaking out against Islamic extremism”. Anyone who dared to stand up to the bigots was attacked for supposedly using “political correctness” to destroy freedom of speech.
Unsurprisingly, a swarm of Liberal and National Party politicians jumped to Hanson’s defence. Resources minister Matthew Canavan warned people not to “insult” Hanson, declaring, “She deserves respect … the way we deal with these issues is to listen to people”. Senator Zed Seselja, the new assistant minister for multiculturalism, cautioned against “demonising” Hanson.
Former prime minister John Howard encouraged politicians to work with Hanson and warned that she should not be a “scorned species” – i.e. that she should be pandered to. This is par for the course for Howard, who was a key player building support for her racist views last time around.
Howard notoriously declared that she had freed people from the constraints of political correctness so that they were able to “speak a little more freely and a little more openly about what they feel”. Hanson in turn praised Howard as a “strong leader”.
But it was far from just the usual right wing suspects rushing to support Hanson. The liberal Age editorialised in defence of her freedom of speech – as though that has ever been under any threat when she is repeatedly on our TV screens and in the papers with her racist rants.
The Age went on to attack anti-racists such as Indigenous activist Murrandoo Yanner for being “emotional and angry” in response to Hanson. According to the Age, “the best way” to defeat Hanson’s “extremist policies” is to “calmly and politely present a rational view based on evidence and logic”.
Racism and far right movements have never been defeated by simple logical argument. It has taken powerful mass movements to drive them back.
Apartheid in South Africa and slavery in the US were not abolished by polite arguments for equality between the races but by enormous upheavals. It took years of defiant mass protests to win basic civil rights for US Blacks in the 1960s and ’70s.
“Rational views” did not prevent the rise to power of Hitler, Mussolini or Franco between the wars and have not been sufficient to stop the recent surge of support for far right parties in a series of European countries and Donald Trump in the US.
Nor was Hanson pushed back last time by courteous, polite, rational argument. She faced sizeable protests wherever she appeared, which made it difficult for her to build a stable far right party in the major cities.
Part of the reason that calm and rational argument are not sufficient to defeat the far right is that it is the sheer irrationalism of far right ideas and conspiracy theories that appeal to their core middle class social base.
Right wingers who believe that whites are inherently more intelligent than Blacks, that Barack Obama is a Muslim, that the ABC is controlled by radical leftists or that there is a secret conspiracy involving the Vatican, Jewish bankers and communists to rule the world are not going to be convinced by logical argument.
In any case, it is not simply a question of ideas. The other reason that far right movements gain support is that they are backed by and serve the interests of powerful forces in capitalist society.
Fascism triumphed in Europe in the 1930s because there was a profound social and economic crisis that threatened the wealth and power of the capitalist class. The German elite turned to the Nazis to crush working class resistance.
Fascism is again on the rise in much of Europe because, in a period of renewed social crisis, the scapegoating of Muslims, migrants or Roma people deflects the blame for unemployment, declining living standards and the destruction of basic services. Those really responsible are the giant corporations, the banks and the governments that shore them up.
But if it is ridiculous to depend on calm, logical argument to defeat racism and undermine Hanson’s support, then Waleed Aly’s call for opponents of racism to “to stop the outrage” and “send forgiveness viral” is even more absurdly counterproductive. It disarms resistance to racism.
Forgiveness is fine for people who repent their appalling ways. But far from repenting, Hanson, Bolt and Kruger have stepped up their racist attacks. It is not to these perpetrators of oppression that we should show kindness, but to the victims of their attacks.
Much of the softness towards Hanson and her backers is argued for on the grounds that they are supposedly reflecting the concerns of real people, which need to be addressed and accommodated. The left should have no truck with this line of argument.
Hanson is no political innocent or genuinely “concerned” person. She is a longstanding hardened reactionary out to exploit and inflame every element of vile bigotry and poisonous prejudice that exists in society to advance her political career.
Twenty years ago, she made her mark bashing Aborigines and Asians. Now it is Muslims. Next week it could be unionised workers, African migrants or the homeless. If she was in the US it would be Mexicans, in England it would be Polish immigrants, in Northern Ireland Catholics and in Eastern Europe the Roma people.
As for Sonia Kruger being a representative of “fearful” struggling families, she is a wealthy media personality who was previously married to a banker and whose current partner is the executive producer of Today Tonight. Some battler!
She also has form. Back in 2008, she was in hot water for making racist comments about Asians, which she defended by saying she would not bow to “political correctness”.
Then there is Andrew Bolt. For two decades the Murdoch press has provided him with a highly paid platform to promote every vile anti-worker cause imaginable.
Nor should we immediately jump to the conclusion that the people who voted for Hanson are hard up, salt of the earth, “fearful” working class people. There is as yet no clear evidence of the class backgrounds or social motivations of the Hanson voters.
What we do know is that the areas where she got most votes this time round are small Queensland rural towns, such as Laidley and Gatton in the Lockyer valley, where she got most support in the late 1990s and early 2000s. One Nation held the state seat of Lockyer, west of Brisbane, until 2004. Hanson was defeated by only 114 votes when she stood there in the 2015 state election.
These are areas with vicious reactionary traditions – anti-union strike breakers, Bible bashers, law and order nuts, hardened monarchists, anti-communist vigilantes and vile racists. They (or their parents or grandparents) voted for Hanson in the 1990s. Before that, they were the base of support for the arch-reactionary Queensland premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen.
In an earlier era, they would have been mouthing off about Catholics or Jews – now it’s Muslims. These were areas where Australia’s largest postwar fascist organisation, the openly anti-Semitic Australian League of Rights, got big support in the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s.
So support for the likes of Hanson is nothing new. Vile reactionary politics has been long entrenched in these areas. It is not simply a product of newly emerged fears about terrorism or recent economic or social problems.
Part of the reason that Hanson’s vote revived in these areas could well have been because these established reactionaries could not stomach voting for Turnbull because of his small-l liberal image and were bitter that he rolled Abbott. As well, Hanson received more media publicity than in the previous couple of elections.
The fact that Hanson’s vote was nowhere near as high as at the peak of her support in the 1990s reinforces the point that a significant proportion of her vote was the core reactionary vote that is pretty much always there in these rural areas, whatever the exact economic and social circumstances.
The various hard right and violent fascist groups such as the United Patriots Front, the Australian Defence League, the Australia First Party, the Party for Freedom and the True Blue Crew have rallied to the Hanson cause. While still small, they have more of a street presence today than back in the 1990s, when Hanson first came to prominence.
Hard core Hanson supporters are not going to be placated by making concessions to their reactionary “concerns”. Concessions to their vile politics will only embolden them to make more outrageous demands. They need to be combated and driven back into their box, not pandered to.
That is the challenge facing the left. Hanson is not yet comparable to the European far right, which does get a mass vote from people impacted by severe and longstanding economic and social crisis.
Hanson’s vote of 4.3 percent in the Senate is nowhere near the support for the French National Front, which is currently second in polls for the 2017 presidential elections, or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, let alone the Austrian fascists – who were only very narrowly defeated in the recent presidential elections.
The comparison in Australia today is more with the initial hard core of people who voted for the French National Front before it really took off – white former colonists from Algeria, old school fascists from the 1930s, Catholic arch-reactionaries and so on.
The task of the left is to mobilise against and isolate this hard core to try to prevent them for building a mass base. We have the advantage that while Hanson’s vote has revived, she is yet to build a strong activist organisation.
One Nation remains fragile. It could easily blow apart, particularly if Hanson makes some bad tactical mistakes. The fact that she has attacked Asians as well as Muslims could well rebound on her.
Nonetheless, while it is early days and the Hanson phenomenon is still developing, we should not be complacent. Hanson has a number of factors working in her favour. Her widespread media coverage since the election almost certainly means she would get a bigger vote if elections were held in a month’s time.
Also, Islamophobia is more mainstream today than anti-Asian racism was back in the 1990s. Plenty of people in small-l liberal circles are more hesitant about defending Muslims than they were about defending Asians and Aborigines. Islamophobia is a core element of ruling class politics today, whereas in the 1990s some sections of the capitalist class were worried that Hanson’s attacks on Asians would damage their trade and tourism interests.
The further decline of the trade union movement over the last 20 years and the continuing disgraceful failure of the ALP to defend the interests of workers and the poor and to stand up to Islamophobia and anti-refugee racism also makes it easier for Hanson to galvanise support.
So we face a challenge.
The first step in defeating Hanson is to cohere politically the already committed anti-racists. We have to build a counter-pole of attraction – a strong force that can challenge the far right.
We will be able to do that only by taking a clear and determined anti-racist stand. Only on that basis can we begin to lay the foundations for a movement that can challenge One Nation at every step.
We won’t stop Hanson from breaking out and building a sustained far right party by “respecting” her opinions or sending “forgiveness viral” or by pandering to her supporters. Such an approach can only undermine our side.
We need to do the exact opposite. We need to strengthen the confidence of existing anti-racists so that they feel emboldened to challenge the likes of Hanson and Bolt at every step.