Making sense of One Nation

The return of Pauline Hanson to the centre of Australian politics was one of the major developments of 2016. Although One Nation polled less than 5 percent of the Senate vote at the July federal election, it won four seats and now has a powerful position on the crossbench.

One Nation’s recent performance in the WA election was well below Hanson’s expectations, but the party still ended up with three upper house seats, enough to allow it, in combination with other right wing minor parties, to block bills from the Labor-dominated lower house.

The next state election in Queensland, due later this year, will be the biggest test of Hanson’s support. Queensland is her home ground, where she has a machine and the party receives extensive media support. The most recent poll had One Nation at 23 percent, and in rural and regional areas it is possible the party will pick up a string of seats, depending on LNP preferences.

Much media commentary has tended to lump One Nation into a narrative of right wing populism sweeping the world. Hanson is usually mentioned in the same breath as Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders and the rest of the right wing gang of international populists who have won office or lead the polls in their own countries.

This is a fundamental misunderstanding, well rebutted in David Marr’s latest article in Quarterly Essay – “The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race”. Hanson and One Nation are not mass phenomena sweeping all before them. Trump scored more than 46 percent at last November’s presidential election and in the lead-up was able to fill vast halls with his supporters. The far right Freedom Party’s candidate for the Austrian presidency only narrowly missed out on victory.

Le Pen is polling 25 percent and will feature in the run-off for president in France. The most recent poll has One Nation, by contrast, at just 10 percent – not insignificant, but certainly not a commanding force. As Marr argues, compared to Trump or Le Pen, Hanson is a bit player.

Nor is the Hanson vote the same as Brexit, which was a mass phenomenon: 53 percent of those who voted backed Brexit, that is, 17 million voters. Hanson could only dream of such an outcome. Brexit created a crisis for the British ruling class and continues to dominate politics now and into the future. One Nation, however, can only niggle from the sidelines.

Race and right wing populism

The second major difference between Hanson and some of the other far right populists internationally is their character. Classical populism usually involves some pitch to the economic interests of its audience. It claims to stand for the “forgotten people”, let down by big business and the “political elites”.

Just listen to Trump’s inauguration speech. He described an economic landscape that many in his audience knew about at first hand: “Mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation”. And he poured scorn on those who had written the rules of the game: “The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country. Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land”. Trump promised massive job creation and the return of industry to its US heartlands.

Some of the same themes were evident in the Brexit vote. The referendum was a poll on whether voters wanted to remain part of a hard neoliberal economic bloc dominated politically by bankers and political leaders who have imposed cruel austerity measures. While the majority of the Brexit vote came from Tory areas, a large minority came from blue collar working class communities that have experienced decades of economic and social neglect and mass unemployment.

Marr rejects the idea that One Nation supporters are those “left behind” by globalisation and suffering the effects of years of government cuts and economic dislocation. Based on a survey of 80 One Nation supporters who voted for the party at last year’s federal election, along with focus group reports, Marr concludes that the vote for One Nation is driven in large part by race and immigration.

Hanson’s posts to her followers on Facebook tell the story. Those few that take up the kinds of issues that Trump made large – jobs, protectionism, building up industry – are largely ignored. Those that are about Muslims, race and refugees – sharia law, mosques, burqas, halal certification – along with crime and protecting “our way of life”, go viral, typically with 15-17,000 likes. What Marr calls “race fear” is the fuel that powers the entire One Nation caravan.

As Ben Reid argues in a recent Marxist Left Review article, most One Nation supporters have never met a Muslim – the party’s vote is highest in the least mixed suburbs and towns – and yet they fear or despise them. They are overwhelmingly Australian-born, and, given their place of residence, one can assume overwhelmingly white.

“Law and order” features heavily in their world view. Immigration and refugees are strongly associated with “criminals” and “terrorism”. One Nation supporters are strong backers of the death penalty. And, while they share with Trump supporters a hatred of the political establishment, their fury is driven by hostility to immigration.

Marr recognises that One Nation supporters are by far the gloomiest of any in regard to their own financial situation and the overall state of the national economy. Other research, by the ABC’s Catherine Hanrahan, using ABS data, demonstrates that “voters in disadvantaged suburbs were more likely to vote One Nation across the country”.

One Nation supporters are also the least likely to have any tertiary qualifications: just one in five of Marr’s sample, half the average. This matches other studies linking low levels of education with support for far right parties.

But Marr is adamant that “doing it tough” is no explanation for One Nation support. He argues that One Nation supporters are “in work and middling prosperous”. They are “no more likely to be at the bottom of the management [i.e. occupational] heap than anyone else”. Unlike the UK and the US, Australia has not experienced the kind of social devastation associated with the global financial crisis and its aftermath.

The party’s base of support is regional towns and rural districts and the far outer suburbs of the big cities (but not those with a large migrant population) with no history of industrial employment. These areas, like the Lockyer Valley outside Brisbane, have long been the well of far right politics, back to the days of Joh Bjelke-Petersen and before. Unemployment is not a problem in these areas, and the far right was a potent force here long before Muslims became the latest target of institutionalised racism.

And so, while two-thirds of One Nation supporters describe themselves as working class (as against only 45 percent of Labor voters and 32 percent of Liberals), in the kinds of rural, regional and peri-urban areas where One Nation finds its core support, most people doing manual work of any kind, including the self-employed, or small proprietors running shops or service stations probably think of themselves as working class, as opposed to “middle class” – the despised “university educated, politically correct latte sippers” of the inner cities.

Reid concludes from his study of the One Nation vote in Queensland at the 2016 federal election that “much of the ONP vote appeared to come from the comparatively better off and non-Indigenous rural population”.

And, although they are not the biggest component of One Nation supporters, some are quite prosperous indeed. Guardian writer Joshua Robertson found quite a few wealthy professionals and business owners in some of the posher suburbs of Brisbane, long-time true blue Liberal supporters, now looking to vote One Nation at the coming state election.

UQ researcher Frank Mols predicts One Nation will pick up support from “voters with above average incomes who can afford homes in nice suburbs, overseas holidays and even private school education”.

Marr’s conclusions should be taken as only tentative given the limited base of his research, but they mesh with the other serious research on the character of One Nation’s base of support.

Dealing with One Nation

Various approaches have emerged in how to respond to the rise of One Nation.

The right wing of the Liberal and National parties use it as the basis for the argument that their parties need to adopt Hanson’s policies.

Centrist Liberals like Turnbull, who initially said her presence in parliament would not be welcome, have now gone out of their way to butter her up in a bid for One Nation votes in the Senate.

Small-l liberals like Margo Kingston, Stan Grant, Waleed Aly and the Age newspaper have generally fallen over themselves to announce that Hanson’s ravings represent “legitimate concerns” that people may have, even while they may disagree with them. They argue that Hanson should be incorporated into the big national debate about race and listened to respectfully. Shining the bright light of facts will supposedly bring her down. But there is no evidence that the truth is any antidote to right wing populism – no amount of “fact checking” by the Clinton camp and the liberal media could stop Trump’s rise to power even as he peddled atrocious lies.

Another approach, which dominates among Labor politicians and union leaders, is based on the idea that One Nation supporters are driven primarily by economic woes. In most cases, their understanding is based on a simple transference of Trump and Brexit to Hanson.

Their response is to point to Hanson’s support for the Turnbull government’s cuts to pensions and welfare spending, while pushing their own version of “Australia first” nationalism, cracking down on migrant workers and supporting local industry.

Exposing Hanson’s pro-business, anti-working class policies is important. But this shouldn’t mean shying away from confronting the question of racism. Any strategy to combat One Nation has to deal with racism squarely and not try to dance around it. Hanson cannot be combated just by promising more infrastructure spending or hospitals in regional areas.

But while race and immigration are the hot button issues, and the middle class is Hanson’s core base, some sections of the working class are pulled towards One Nation. These include not just the disorganised workers in the regional towns with no union traditions but also workers in traditionally Labor areas with a union presence, but which have suffered severe job losses and economic downturns in recent years.

These include mining areas like the Hunter Valley in NSW, central Queensland and Weipa in the north. One Nation support is also high in Labor strongholds like Townsville, where unemployment is extremely high. Anecdotally, blue collar union organisers in Queensland report some sympathy for One Nation even among otherwise good union delegates.

Any strategy to combat Hanson and the right wing populist project needs to confront the racist core at the heart of her project. But this also entails responding to the fact that economic distress may in some areas be a factor underpinning the racism. Many people in the working class and lower middle class do experience job insecurity and are worried about their standards of living. In the absence of a left wing argument that points to the bosses and government as responsible, such people can be susceptible to the racist argument that puts the blame on Muslims, immigrants and refugees.

So we need to work on two strands of argument, exposing her support for cuts to company tax and welfare payments, her support for enormous tax breaks for billionaires and the introduction of anti-union laws, but to link this to the fight against racism. The government uses racism to try to divert people’s attention from the attacks that Hanson is supporting.

If we are to fight both Hanson and the Coalition, we need to combat the racist lies as well. And that means both mobilisations against Hanson wherever she shows her face but just as importantly, a sustained political argument that we can’t just let racism slide, that “tolerance” for racist bigots only helps their cause.