Before Trump or Farage, before Wilders or Marine Le Pen, there was Pauline. Pauline Hanson was the original rabble-rouser who disrupted the pieties of liberal multiculturalism. Along came this copper-topped fish ’n’ chip shop owner with her screechy, strangled sentences and her gut prejudices about immigrants, welfare wasters and Aborigines. Unexpectedly elected to Parliament in 1996, Hanson stunned her fellow MPs and much of the country by declaring in her maiden speech that Australia was in danger of being ‘swamped by Asians’.
She is back in the news after wearing then tearing off a burqa in the Australian Senate. Senator Hanson, who leads the hard-right One Nation party, has made the veil her signature issue. It is a security threat. A public order concern. Misogynistic. Patriarchal. In truth, Islam is just the latest bogeyman that scares Hanson and that she hopes will scare enough Australians to win their vote. Muslims are the new Asians.
Stunts like the burqa display are shocking in the Australian Senate, which likes to think of itself as more sober than the pub-brawl-with-no-beer that is the House of Representatives. Attorney General George Brandis, who leads for the Liberal government in the Senate, denounced Hanson’s antics: ‘To ridicule that community, to drive it into a corner, to mock its religious garments is an appalling thing to do. I would ask you to reflect on that.’ Labor senate leader Penny Wong was similarly critical while Nick Xenophon, who heads up an eponymous centrist party, described Hanson’s behaviour as ‘toxic’.
Of course, this is exactly what Hanson wanted. When Brandis flatly rejected her call for proscription of the burqa, she pounced: ‘Let Australians have their say. I think you cannot, like Senator Brandis did, just get up to his feet and say no and shut it down. The people of Australia want more than that.’
This how Hanson operates. She makes extreme statements, the mainstream parties condemn her, and she retreats into victimhood, shouted down by the elites for telling it like it is. There are a great many Aussies who see Hanson for what she is but those sympathetic to her do not necessarily share her views. She is a beneficiary of that noble Aussie tradition, the fair go. Some see establishment Canberra — pollies, journos, and the rest — ganging up on this plainspoken, syntax-jumbling battler granny and can’t suppress an ‘onya, Pauline’.
When she first made it to Canberra 20 years ago, opinion was divided on how to handle Hanson. Prime Minister John Howard thought it best to ignore her, appalling some of his colleagues and putting a strain on relations with allies in Asia. Indeed, the more Howard ignored the tangerine termagant spoiling his new government’s honeymoon, the more reporters asked him about her. No, the Hanson problem couldn’t be wished away. But the opposite tack didn’t go to plan either. When protestors interrupted her speeches, clashed violently with her supporters or mobbed ordinary voters who had come to hear what Hanson had to say, the One Nation leader usually won the image war. Inevitably, that night’s news would carry hectic footage of a frightened-looking Hanson escorted by police through baying, spitting throngs.
Another victory over the political class came in one of Hanson’s first major TV interviews. 60 Minutes interrogator Tracey Curro, scarcely able to hide her contempt, asked Hanson if she was ‘xenophobic’. Pause. Blank stare. Not a clue. Eventually, Hanson gulped: ‘Please explain.’ Her critics hooted over Hanson’s ignorance; now the voters would see she was a dumb bogan — an Australian redneck. For a section of the population, mostly located outside big towns and cities, it was proof that Hanson was one of them, no airs ’n’ graces, true blue. Hanson adopted ‘please explain’ as her catchphrase, a shorthand for frustration with the remote political class. At the following Queensland state election, One Nation went from nowhere to third place.
Her opponents next tried the law and set up a slush fund to bankroll lawsuits against Hanson and her party. Eventually, she was convicted of electoral fraud for breaking recondite membership registration rules. Her jailing, and the decision to house her alongside murderers and sex offenders, provoked a backlash. A Liberal opponent described Hanson as a ‘political prisoner’ and after spending 11 weeks in custody, Hanson’s conviction was quashed and she was freed. Even if her political career appeared in tatters, Hanson again cut a sympathetic figure — especially since she used her time behind bars to help a fellow prisoner successfully appeal a murder conviction.
After everything she has been through, a jolly good scolding from George Brandis and the press gallery won’t chalk up to much. Ignoring Hanson doesn’t work and nor does anathematising, patronising, or even jailing her. Hanson’s schtick is that she’s an ordinary Aussie but ordinary Aussies don’t don religious garb for a political stunt. They don’t walk into their workplace covered head-to-foot to make an ill-defined point. They are habitually informal — Australians can’t pass a noun without sticking an ‘o’ or a ‘y’ on the end of it — but Hanson’s caper was just plain weird. The winning argument isn’t that she engaged in bigotry but that she engaged in bullshit — and political bullshit, the worst kind in the mind of the average Aussie.
Hanson’s opponents are playing to her strength, allowing themselves to be cast as PC schoolmarms. Instead they should ask why this dotty old banana-bender is raking in $200,000 a year to prance about Parliament in a burqa when she’s supposed to be battling for families and farmers in Queensland. Please explain, Pauline.