Hanson is both scared and scary.
She thinks Australia is on the brink of social collapse, facing economic takeover by evil international financial forces and in danger of being invaded by the Asian hordes to the north. Her plan for saving the nation is to turn away from the rest of the world, build an economic and military fortress, put all young people into the Army and to create a united people by stopping assistance to the most disadvantaged.
Her diagnosis of Australia’s problems is simplistic and chilling. Her solutions are populist and unworkable.
But those Labor MPs who boycotted her first parliamentary speech in protest at her overt racism and who hoped that her extreme views would have little resonance out in the community would have been badly unsettled by what has happened over the past two days. MPs report a remarkable number of calls from people applauding Hanson and urging them to follow her lead. Media organisations report extraordinary public backing for Hanson. A radio poll by conservative Sydney radio host Alan Jones drew more than 37,000 responses, almost unanimously supporting her.
Hanson’s politics may not be mainstream. But she represents an undercurrent which is running strong and becoming more visible. And the voters being carried along by it appear to be predominantly people who would normally be Labor voters.
Hanson was catapulted into Federal Parliament by the voters of the strongly working-class Queensland seat of Oxley. She won Liberal Party preselection only because no-one in the party thought the seat was winnable, and despite the fact that she was overcome with emotion and unable to complete her speech to the preselection panel. There was only one other contender.
The Liberal Party then did her the favour of disendorsing her for unacceptable comments about Aborigines, which elevated her to national prominence and did wonders for her recognition in Oxley.
Her anti-Aboriginal views tapped strong sentiment in blue-collar households which believed the Labor Party was more concerned with noisy interest groups than its battling, taxpaying worker supporters. As an Independent rather than a Liberal, Hanson was a more attractive alternative for Labor voters. She won the seat with the largest anti-Labor swing in the country.
Her triumph was the most spectacular manifestation of what happened across the country: traditional Labor voters voting against the Keating Government.
Hanson is no political genius. She was tossed onto the political stage by a freak combination of circumstances and will go no further than the place she now holds on the fringe of the political process. Her political career is likely to follow a similar, but less spectacular, trajectory to Bronwyn Bishop’s. Like Bishop she will be a one-speech wonder whose novelty value will eventually fade as she says the same things over and over.
Hanson’s place in the political system is as a beacon, a warning to the main political parties of something quiet nasty happening out in the electorate.
She is the embodiment of a strong and widespread sense in the community of alienation from, and disillusionment with, the political system and government. She is a protest.
The views she expresses are a collection of the grievances from mainly working-class, white Anglo-Saxons living in their own homes and battling to pay mortgages and worried about their jobs, their security and their children’s futures, who feel that no-one is listening to them and no-one cares. They are deeply angry at what they believe was Labor’s obsession with fixing problems for organised groups which made a lot of noise while it forgot them.
The opinions Hanson is expressing are driven by fear – fear of change which isn’t understood and which the political process has not explained. In some cases, it is change that the mainstream political parties have conspired together not to debate for fear that the debate would be divisive.
Politicians like Paul Keating believed the Australian electorate was much more sophisticated in its understanding of the quality of policy decisions than the media understood and that good policy would always win in the end. He was the most policy driven modern politician and presided over an extraordinary period of change in Australia. But he was humiliatingly rejected by voters because they believed that none of his great policy reforms did anything for them.
Mabo and the recognition of prior Aboriginal ownership is a classic example of the gulf between Keating’s vision and the electoral reality. Keating did what he believed was right for the Aboriginal people but failed to convince his own blue-collar voters that this was relevant to them because it made Australia a better place. They just saw Aboriginal people getting his attention and special treatment while he ignored them. Hostility to assistance to other disadvantaged groups, such as single mothers and the unemployed, to the levels of Asian immigration, to Australia giving foreign aid or signing UN treaties and to foreign ownership of Australian businesses, all come from the failure of the political process to take the people along with it on important change.
Pauline Hanson and the popular support she is receiving are depressing evidence of a systematic failure in Australian politics. That she is able to be seen as someone with something worthwhile to say in the Australian political debate when she says Aborigines are better off than whites because the colour of their skin qualifies them for special benefits, that she can’t go to the Gold Coast because it is overrun with Asians, that Australia should stop all foreign aid and withdraw from the United Nations and so on, is more an indictment of the political system than of her.
John Howard recognised there was political opportunity in this for the Coalition and, helped by extensive polling, branded much of this government policy “political correctness”. He made these dirty words and turned them into votes for the Coalition. There is a risk for Howard, however, that the “Hansonism” which the demonising of political correctness has produced could turn against him as his Government inevitably has to deal with its own special-interest pressure groups.
The great problem, though, is Kim Beazley’s. The chord Hanson struck with working-class voters this week is a sharp reminder to Labor that the disillusionment which swept it out of power has not abated and may even have intensified. No wonder Beazley is worried about the Lindsay by-election.
Geoff Kitney writes on News specialising in Politics, Policy. Based in our Canberra newsroom, Geoff is a senior national affairs writer and columnist.