G’Day. The Hanson story is hot, fast and fascinating – so I skipped my week off. Tonight, the indefatigible Antony Lowenstein, F2 trainee and Webdiary groupie, gives us the lowdown on how the commentators are telling the Hanson story. For One Nation background see australianpolitics.
Bring on the real agendas
by Antony Loewenstein
Depressingly predictable agendas are the order of the day for media commentators, however since the jailing of Pauline Hanson and David Ettridge last week, a new kind of political orthodoxy has emerged. The attack dogs have fallen relatively silent, if not (self?) muzzled, and the liberal press have resumed their attacks on Hanson as a policy-maker, rather than seriously addressing the reasons behind her continued popularity, if not current martyrdom.
The media’s continued blackout on the ever increasing gap between those who feel empowered in Australia (and less likely to support Hanson) and those who feel disillusioned and removed from decision making, will hurt all Australians in the long run. The us-v-them dynamic must stop, and commentators in the media must begin to take responsibility for their continued obsession with primarily discussing the Big Two Parties whilst ignoring the growing undercurrent of alternative voices. Are some racist? Yes. Are some likely to increase division in society? Unquestionably. But if those in positions of power aren’t engaging in this debate, it’s clear what the outcome will be. Societal cracks are already beginning to show.
SMH’s editorial on August 22, Hanson’s Tawdry Martyrdom, suggested that:
The jailing of Hanson and Ettridge will strengthen the conviction that the established political parties have long been out to destroy One Nation – while quietly accepting many of its policies. There is something in this. In reality, though, the destruction of One Nation and the political careers of Hanson and Ettridge was pretty much all their own work.
To the letter of the law, the judgement may well have been correct in Queensland law, despite a possibly harsh sentence from Judge Patsy Wolfe. However, how do we explain the outpouring of support for Hanson despite the fundamental rightness of the guilty verdict?
The Australian editorial on August 22 had a whiff of condescension, arguably the kind of attitude that increases her support:
Perhaps Hanson is in prison for breaking a law she did not understand – if so, it demonstrates the fatal flaw that was always likely to destroy her career. Just as she never appeared to understand trade and tax policy or why immigration and indigenous affairs could not be easily altered to her prescription, she did not realise that improperly registering One Nation could destroy her. (Hanson was the architect of her sad fate)
Rupert’s Herald Sun took a conciliatory tone on August 22 with an editorial that was unkind on Hanson’s crimes but critical of her sentence. (Hanson’s price)
The Australian’s Steve Lewis Poll rorting’s fine for the big players states quite clearly that our political landscape is a sick one, allowing serious corruption to continue unchecked while small fry like Hanson are given harsh sentences:
Still, she did not deserve to be jailed for three years for the crime of using members of her supporters’ group to register One Nation as a political party. Where’s the justice when Alan Bond served just four years for stripping more than $1 billion from Bell Resources, ripping off countless investors? And where’s the justice when the main political parties routinely engage in shady electoral dealings which, for the most part, are completely unpunished?
The Sunday Age had the most powerful editorial, Pauline Hanson Still Walks Among Us, issuing a blunt challenge to the major political parties (and he media?):
There is a better way to fight Hanson however, and that is to openly discuss the threat racist ideas pose to our social cohesion and future in the region. Xenophobia is an irrational emotion; in a nation of immigrants, with a history of social tolerance, it should not have a natural place. Hanson’s rise and fall also reminds us of the importance of leadership. Without it, fear and hatred affect political outcomes. Hanson’s fortunes are in decline, but unfortunately her influence continues, even behind bars.
Overseas coverage was widespread, especially in our region, but the UK’s Independent on August 21 in Far-right firebrand Hanson is jailed for electoral fraud cited the most salient Hanson quote of recent times:
The reason why I got into politics was actually to make a difference. When you have the government and the Prime Minister take up your policies, I think I have made a difference.
On August 25, Herald Sun commentator Andrew Bolt suggested that Pauline had committed a crime but had already done her time. Bolt seemed to be encouraging more parties of similar pedigree to One Nation, if “we want to encourage new parties, new voices, new ideas”:
No party has been so vilified. None have had their supporters so regularly threatened, spat on, abused and even punched. No party leader has been so viciously caricatured as a racist and a moron. Hanson, for all her sins, forced the big parties to stop treating these voters like mushrooms, and that has to have restored the “confidence of people in the electoral process”. (Free Pauline Hanson)
Is Bolt seriously suggesting that One Nation has brought greater accountability to the Liberal or Labor parties? And more seriously, is Bolt encouraging new parties with hateful policies, rather than supporting those who aim for social harmony and inclusiveness? His flirting with the politics of the lunar right is welcome in an inclusive media environment, but the question remains: does he want Hanson released simply to annoy the “elites” in society whom have long disliked her (and him)?
Hatred piled upon ignorance, bigotry heaped upon stupidity, she was the exemplar of George Bernard Shaw’s ‘feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy’.
Naturally, this was seen as the “sneering of these little cappuccino-quaffing journalists”, to quote my the Herald’s Paul Sheehan. Even today her media hagiographers like to affect the notion that she spoke an intrinsic Aussie truth which has escaped those lofty elitists who befuddle their brains by actually reading a book or two.”
These views are undoubtedly shared by many SMH readers, but they don’t engage or attempt to explain her popularity, and moreover, give ammunition to those who accuse the media of treating Hanson with utter contempt ever since her maiden speech. Shaun Carney had a more reasoned discussion of the Hanson legacy in Saturday’s Age, Howard the Invincible? His piece highlights the fickle nature of Australian politics. Howard may well be the man for the times, as is often argued, but here he explains the frequently misguided analysis by many in the media. Are Hansons’ ghosts likely to give Howard another helping hand come the 2004 election? And how much did Hanson contribute to an environment in which Howard could suffocate all opposition?
To read the commentary, he [Howard] has every card in the deck. No matter what the Labor Party does, Howard’s supremacy is beyond question. Australian politics is not even considered a contest! Howard has the threat of terrorism on his side. Voters are frightened and Howard makes them feel safe. They want him to stay put. They do not care that he did not tell them the truth about weapons of mass destruction and the reasons for waging war on Iraq, or the children overboard, or his meeting with ethanol boss Dick Honan. Whatever he is doing, it is worth it. He is the great father figure of the nation who the people feel will protect them. This is the analysis and, all up, it is not very persuasive.
Piers Akerman in the Daily Telegraph was remarkably restrained in Three years too long for stupidity. He argued that Hanson was stupid, no more or less:
Before attempting to portray Mrs Hanson as a martyr, or more insanely as a political prisoner and an heir to Nelson Mandela’s heroic legacy, her supporters might ask themselves whether they want a return to a corrupt governmental process that for so long protected crooked Queensland politicians and rotten police officers.
Tellingly, there was no mention of Akerman’s good mate Tony Abbott. Questions remain as to the closeness of Akerman and Abbott, and whether Akerman is well aware of his friend’s role in the case.
The only way to maturely cope with the issues raised by Hanson is not to simply dismiss them as simplistic, racist or discriminatory, (though they may well be), but to engage the wider community in discussions about the issues of the day. Whether that is multiculturalism, immigration or economic rationalist policy, the personal impact of major party policy cannot be ignored any longer. Or the double standards.
A few words on the so-called “elites” and the ramifications for Hansonism. It’s a term loosely thrown around by commentators and politicians alike, and has become a powerful weapon in silencing dissent in Australia. It’s been used to dismiss journalists, lawyers, doctors, ABC reporters and intellectuals, amongst others. Howard has brilliantly tapped into the vein of distrust by many Australians towards those who supposedly rule us. Professor David Flint, Chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Authority, recently published The Twilight of the Elites, which sums up the arguments of Howard, Abbott, Hanson and co, as does a recent op-ed piece:
So those who dare present the traditional views of most Australians are inevitably branded as conservative, or worse. But members of the elite commentariat are presented to the public as if they are mainstream – which of course they are not. If you believe in cultural relativism, or that crime should not be followed by punishment, or that our borders should be thrown open – in sum if you oppose traditional institutions and values – you are hardly in the mainstream.
The message is blunt: If you diverge from the government line on the big issues, beware. As Tony Abbott said in launching Flint’s book:
The problem is that too many people in the commanding intellectual heights of our society have in recent times thought that because they might have been better educated and arguably better informed than the general public, they were therefore better people, and when it comes to making basic value judgements, there’s no reason why a professor is going to be intrinsically better at that than a shopkeeper and I think that’s the mistake that the elites, in inverted commas, have tended to make.
But I think that it would be fair to say that there is a world view in the ABC and in the Fairfax Press which tends to have very different views on, for argument’s sake, the three Rs, republicanism, refugees and reconciliation, than those of the majority of the Australian public.
Perhaps the barrage of criticisms from the right side of politics will force the left to learn more persuasive ways to engage the greater public. Hansonism is but one representation of an insecurity felt throughout Australia, an Australia rarely discussed in the mainstream media. Ideologues on both sides of politics have clouded the issues for too long.
In late 2002, Professor John Quiggin argued in How Power Elites work in Australia that the political landscape in Australia has split to the extent that neither side appears willing to listen to the other. The result is a force like Hansonism:
Keating’s new agenda attracted strong support from some members of the elite – these are the people that John Howard talks about when he uses the term ‘elite’. But the economic rationalists were either indifferent or actively hostile, particularly when proposals for Aboriginal land rights clashed with the interests of the mining industry, the chief financier of Australia’s free-market think tanks.
With the election of John Howard, and his advocacy (punctuated by occasional backflips) of the social agenda represented by Pauline Hanson, positions hardened. Today, the Australian elite is divided in much the same way as the population as a whole, between a right-wing group which favours both free markets and a conservative or reactionary social agenda, and a left-wing group which supports republicanism and reconciliation, and opposes free-market reform.
The main difference between the elite and the population as a whole is the absence of any group corresponding to the One Nation support base, opposing both free-market policies and social liberalism. Because of this absence, the Australian elite is both more ‘economically rationalist’ and more ‘socially progressive’ than the population as a whole. However, it is increasingly uncommon to find both traits in the same person.
In late 2001, the Whitlam Institute released Battlers vs Elites, which deconstructed the term “elite” and attempted to explain the processes through which Australia would have to pass to reach a greater understanding of itself. It would not come through name-calling, or petty putdowns. Rather it would come through an inclusive policy by political parties interested in engaging the greatest number of people. The question needs to be asked however: do the major parties really want to understand those members of the public with supposedly distasteful views?
Our attention to the incidence of the rubric of “elites” and its populist alternative “the mainstream” has a straightforward aim: to draw notice to how these rubrics are inseparable from the propagating of the policies of Howardism; and to note the particular provenance of “elite theory.” Howardism will pass but not without struggle, precisely the kind of struggles – over the complexities of and inequities currently inscribed in social relations of class and “race” and gender and sexuality and region, for example – it seeks to deny.
Finally, Angela Bennie had a fascinating article in last weekend’s Herald about the role of the public intellectual and his/her importance in fostering debate and new ideas (Missing in Action). It goes to the heart of the kind of country Hanson and Howard have forged in the last seven years, an environment of shutting down dissent, and most disturbingly, forcing the so-called elites to whisper their views on the periphery of society rather than fully engaging in mainstream Australia.
Australian writer and critic Ivor Indyk sums up the challenges ahead:
Australians have an ambivalence about the very word intellectual, because that person is perceived to be claiming a position of authority. It smacks to them of elitism. And that goes against the Australian egalitarian idea. Most of the people who do speak out on public issues are academics, who therefore come with institutional backing. So do people who come from those so-called think tanks.
I also believe the public intellectual has a position in the community that has to be fought for, striven for. The role is not just a given, it emerges at certain moments in the public’s time of crisis or need. It is the public who invests them with authority when they speak out at certain times in the community’s life. That is the time it is right for them to be heard. And that’s when the public listens and invests them with this particular authority.
Only when Australia cherishes the art of the dialogue, rather than the monologue, can we can call ourselves a truly progressive nation. And only then we may fully understand the legacy still being written by Hanson and Howard.