This year’s impressive Senate wins by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party (four seats) and the Nick Xenophon Team (three seats) signal major discontent with the Coke-v-Pepsi choice represented by the two major parties.
The phrase “two-party elected dictatorship” has been used by Ralph Nader and others to describe the political system in the United States, where the same two parties have been in power alternately since March 1854—for 162 years. The question is: At what percentage of policy overlap do we have a “two-party elected dictatorship”? When both parties have essentially the same foreign policy, defence policy, economic and trade policy, view on globalism, industry policy (none) and immigration policy, you are close to the full deal. Many years ago the principal parties in Australia had different policies on at least one or two of these counts. Television debates between the leaders are boring and contrived because they are arguments around the edges of things generally agreed. There are no strong alternatives being offered by the two big parties.
There are two ways of getting major change in any of those areas: by radically transforming one or both of the parties from within (Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn), or by forcing them to negotiate with smaller cross-bench parties and individuals who do demand such changes (Pauline Hanson, Nick Xenophon, the Greens and others). The first way, currently exemplified in the United Kingdom and the United States, is preferable because it is more likely to be thorough and lasting. In Australia at present the only way to subvert the political duopoly is from outside, by voting against both sides of it. For various reasons one could go into, the corporate media, pretending balance, favour the status quo. They no longer command much trust among a sceptical public, with many people switching to alternative, smaller, online news sources (not many here yet, but overseas there are Huffington Post, Breitbart, Inquirer.net, RT, and many more dynamic and interesting sources with no pretence at balance—one gets both sides by flirting with several).
In contradistinction to the Greens, the Hanson phenomenon was a political incursion from below, from the working class, lower middle class and small-business class. One Nation directed its appeal to a large slice of Labor’s class base but also to a sizeable section of the Liberal class base. Back in the 1990s Hanson ran a fish-and-chip shop in Ipswich, Queensland. The fish were never frozen, but sourced early each morning from the local market. She spoke with the authentic voice of what Lenin and other intellectuals of the revolutionary Left despised as the lumpenproletariat, the real working class.
Married at sixteen (child on the way), part-time waitress in a small café; later divorced, married again, generous help from her next of kin; more kids, fraught scenes in the family home, him into pool, she left alone; anger, violence, fist through a door, she quits the place, not taking any more … it reads like a downbeat country-and-western ballad, but she lived it. When Pauline Hanson entered the political arena in 1995 she was a single mother, self-employed, working from five in the morning, still raising her two youngest. Dis-endorsed by the Liberal Party because of a letter she wrote to the press, she campaigned as an independent in the 1996 federal election. There was a landslide in her favour and she entered Parliament representing former Opposition Leader and Governor-General Bill Hayden’s old seat of Oxley. She was out of Parliament two years later as a result of boundary changes that cut her electorate in half and forced her to stand for the seat of Blair, which she failed to win.
Hanson had not learned the art of nuance, and her pronouncements on controversial issues were delivered with all the style of a sledgehammer. Then she’d have to bandage things up. At first burst she seemed to be attacking Aborigines as Aborigines, or at least that was how it was reported, so she would explain that she was attacking racially targeted handouts which, generation on generation, were not just inappropriate in an egalitarian democracy but demeaned the recipients, eroded their pride and undermined their culture. Her fierce remarks on immigration suggested a visceral prejudice against Asians per se, so she would rephrase it all to show there was no racism involved—she was just arguing for a reduced intake from Asia in the interests of cultural cohesion (à la Geoffrey Blainey at Warrnambool in 1984, and a few years later John Howard backed by John Stone and John Gorton). But by the time she explained herself no one was paying attention, they already had their sound-bite.
Her 2007 autobiography Untamed and Unashamed describes a number of close friendships with Aboriginal and Asian women across the years. It’s true that she hated what she saw of Asia. It depends on what you find there:
When visiting some parts of Asia I was not very impressed. In Manila, while walking down the street, some locals spat on the footpath at our feet as we walked past them. In Bangkok we were taken out for the night with a new tour guide and ended up in a sleazy male-filled nightclub that had women performing explicit sexual acts. I told Mark I wanted to get out of there but the tour guide was in no hurry to go anywhere. He was busy watching the exhibition with a girl on either side of him. Mark also told me the doors were locked and no one could go till the show was over … Years later, when I was a member of Parliament, a journalist asked me had I been to Asia. When I replied “yes” he asked if I would go back. I said I wouldn’t and he asked why. I said, “Because I don’t like it.” Asia has many beautiful places but, apart from wanting to visit Japan, Asia is not a destination I would go to again before seeing many other places in the world.
Manila and Bangkok are probably not ideal choices for a first trip to Asia.
She made some mixed-blessing connections in her early years in politics, and did not particularly shine in the areas of “people skills” and judgment of character. Several key individuals in her party quickly fell out with her, and litigation typically followed. One example was David Oldfield, who won a seat in the New South Wales upper house in 1999 for a period of eight years, initially as a member of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation; in 2000 he was expelled from the party. When his connection with Hanson began he was two-timing his boss Tony Abbott by working with her. They got it on straight away, but it didn’t last:
We enjoyed each other’s company and talked for hours. Not only did we talk but we ended up spending the night together. It was dawn before he left my unit. It was not until that night that he revealed he was associated with the Liberal Party and was a staff member for Tony Abbott, MP for the NSW seat of Warringah, and was on the Manly Council in Sydney. He stressed that it was very important his identity and association with me not be disclosed to anyone … I will always believe David used our short but close relationship to get a foot in the door … Many years later, David made threats to tell all about the affair I had with Steve [a Clinton bodyguard]. There is nothing to tell and, considering both of us were single, I wouldn’t call it an affair.
You just did. But one feels for her there, prima facie. If it’s true, David Oldfield had every word of it coming. Of course there are always two sides and it’s water under the bridge to her, along with Steve and a few other guys.
Hanson’s thoughts on policy matters, such as they were, even at that stage extended well beyond Aborigines and immigration, as her maiden speech to Parliament on September 10, 1996, made clear. The half-formed ideas tumbling out of that speech were for the most part left by a partisan press to die on delivery (“We’re being swamped by Asians” was the bit most of the media reported). Their begetter was marked for slow suffocation: de-registration of the party, a political trial, political imprisonment lay in the future, then appeal and acquittal with all charges quashed—a story too well-known and notorious to recount in great detail here.
It was the 1998 Queensland election that precipitated the legal vendettas that led to her subsequently-overturned three-year prison sentence in 2003 for electoral fraud: eleven One Nation candidates elected to the Queensland Parliament out of eighty-nine seats, with 22.68 per cent of the primary vote:
I was at the tally room that night. Most of the political pundits were in shock. We picked up six Labor and five Coalition seats. The National Party, as senior partner of the Coalition, lost office and Labor was now in government. One Nation had gained the second highest primary vote. Labor got 752,374, One Nation 439,121, Liberal 311,514 and the Nationals 293,839. There was no doubt in my mind that Canberra was tuned-in and probably going into meltdown.
It is said that Murdoch sent an order: “Get the cow!” This thing had to be killed. Her imprisonment ran from August to November 2003. In the eyes of many, including political enemies, it turned her into a martyr. Given that she was acquitted on appeal, and that the original charges, involving intentionally fraudulent actions on her part, were shown to be without adequate basis, it’s hard not to describe her as a former political prisoner. It’s been a few years since then, most of that time a political hiatus for her, but now she’s back four times as large and wiser to the snares of her enemies.
In comparing the ideas in Hanson’s maiden speech with their current forms in the party’s 2016 policy document, one notes that none has been diluted, many have been added, and the party now has a wide range of policies entirely distinct from the customary Liberal/Labor variations. They are populist policies, but populism is a legitimate strand of politics in a democracy. Populist movements usually arise when something has gone seriously wrong with establishment politics.
Take manufacturing or industry policy. There was no fundamental debate in Parliament on industry policy before Hanson came in. Her maiden speech condemned the selling-off of national assets, “all our big Australian industries and icons”, and the sacking of Australian employees—and, she might have added, the off-shoring of industry in a rootless quest for ever-cheaper sources of labour. She didn’t put it that way because this was still 1996, when the off-shoring of manufacturing was just getting under way following Keating’s abolition of tariffs a few years earlier, but in her 2007 autobiography she referred to the fate of the place she knew best, Ipswich, “once a thriving town built on coal mining, timber industry, engineering works, cotton mills, wool mills and clothing manufacturers”.
In 2016, One Nation’s policy on manufacturing included themes consigned by the political duopoly to the depths of hell: tariffs on products coming from offshore including from re-located Australian companies in “countries that pay slave wages under poor working conditions”; “fair trade and not free trade”; “support to protect our vital manufacturing industries”; an end to globalism; “withdraw[al] from international treaties that harm our manufacturing industry”. Whatever one thinks of these ideas, in neither of the two major parties could any of this find a voice. Australians were effectively being told that there was no choice, but of course there is always a choice, and few economic “truths” are unchallengeable. The wind is all one way, then it changes.
In her maiden speech Hanson targeted multiculturalism as an “industry” that was nothing but a big junket:
We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians by those who promote political correctness and those who control the various taxpayer-funded “industries” that flourish in our society, servicing Aboriginals, multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups. In response to my call for equality for all Australians, the most noisy criticism came from the fat cats, bureaucrats and the do-gooders. They screamed the loudest because they stand to lose the most—their power, money and position, all funded by ordinary Australian taxpayers … [Sir Paul] Hasluck’s vision was of a single society in which racial emphases were rejected and social issues addressed. I totally agree with him, and so would the majority of Australians.
In the 2016 policy document the first paragraph states:
Multiculturalism has failed everywhere. It is negative and divisive, a weight that is drowning our once safe and cohesive society. One Nation will abolish multiculturalism and the Racial Discrimination Act and promote assimilation, nationalism, loyalty and pride in being an Australian.
All immigrants, it continues:
must accept the basic structures and principles of Australian heritage, society and culture, the constitution and the rule of law, tolerance and equality, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech and religion, and English as the national language.
In 1996 Hanson made no mention of Islam. In 2016 it assumed a policy plank of its own. The document’s chief objection to Islam is its totalising nature:
Islam sees itself as a theocracy, not a democracy. Islam does not believe in democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly. It does not separate religion and politics. Many believe that it is solely a religion, but the reality is that it is much more, for it has a political agenda that goes far outside the realm of religion. Islam regulates the Muslims’ social and domestic life, their legal system and politics—their total life.
For that reason and others outlined in the policy document, One Nation says it would stop further Muslim immigration into Australia. It also says it will “call for an inquiry or Royal Commission to determine if Islam is a religion or political ideology” (it’s both, which presumably is their point).
In her maiden speech to Parliament in 1996, Hanson called for Australia to review its membership of the UN and repudiate treaties already signed with the UN that had violated Australia’s sovereignty. In the 2016 policy document this is reiterated.
The 2016 document sets out the party’s position on a host of other issues including age pension (increase it), apprenticeships (government to pay 75 per cent of the first year’s wage, 50 per cent of the second and 25 per cent of the third), citizen-initiated referenda (providing a more direct say for electors in government decision-making—I missed any reference to term limits and recall, which in the United States have been on the agenda in some states), drugs (for “ice” users: three strikes and they’re into rehabilitation centres till their addiction is under control; very harsh penalties for sellers), economics and tax policy (a people’s bank, ties with the IMF cut, tax power returned to the states), employment (discourage employers from going offshore, fairness to both employer and employee), euthanasia (a right, to be properly overseen), family law (the current system is full of injustice), firearms and gun control (current laws are adequate, but we need greater inspection of shipping containers smuggling thousands of guns into ports with little border security), halal certification (a global money-making racket), housing and land (tougher restrictions on foreign buyers), primary industry (“The USA, Japan and EEC [EU] will not stop protecting their farmers … we must do the same”), university students’ allowances (should be more generous), water (no privatisation of city waterworks; enhanced property rights in regard to rainwater, dams), climate change (very sceptical).
Those are One Nation’s policies. Whatever one thinks of them (I’m not interested in moralising upon them), they constitute a clear set of alternatives to the status quo. The online material, including the policy document, is visually attractive, and I assume that a lot of people saw it and liked what they saw.
To restore their lost duopoly, the major parties, particularly the government, will feel compelled to do everything in their power to fragment both the One Nation and Nick Xenophon Senate blocs. Indirectly, via agencies, this could and probably will include subtle kinds of bribery to change parties, and every divide-and-rule trick in the book. A good private investigator could make a killing in the present situation. It’s likely that within two years the four One Nation senators, and maybe the three Nick Xenophon senators, will be divided against themselves, but in any case something new appears to have begun.
Philip Ayres is the biographer of Malcolm Fraser, Owen Dixon, Douglas Mawson and Sir Ninian Stephen.