Undaunted by repeated electoral failure, Pauline Hanson is to again fly the One Nation flag in an attempt to woo voters. Benjamin Law goes on the hustings with “The Redhead You Can Trust”. Photos by Jacky Ghossein.
Pauline Hanson’s campaign slogan may be “The Redhead You Can Trust”, but another phrase she keeps bringing up would serve just as well: “I’ll be Tony Abbott’s worst nightmare.”
This coming federal election is personal for Hanson. After all, Abbott was instrumental in putting her in jail a decade ago on a conviction that was eventually overturned. If Hanson can score a Senate seat, she could be in the delicious position of being someone the prime ministerial hopeful Abbott has to call upon if he doesn’t want his party’s policies obstructed.
To help propel her into the upper house, Hanson has discovered unlikely supporters. “She’s huge among the ethnics,” says her campaign manager Brian Burston, an affable, white-haired former councillor turned political comeback strategist.
We’re at Westfield Parramatta, a shopping mall in Sydney’s greater west. Most Parramatta residents – 64 per cent – come from families where both parents were born overseas, mainly in China, India and Lebanon. Labor holds the surrounding federal seat of Parramatta by the slimmest of margins. Burston says the ALP will lose it at this election. “Good,” Pauline Hanson says. “Before they destroy the entire country.”
“HELLO!” an excited gnome-like man says, appearing out of nowhere. He shakes Hanson’s hand warmly. “I was from Sri Lanka!” he says. “I love you, because you love this country!”
Hosts of people swarm around Hanson to get photos. Women in hijabs shake Hanson’s hand; an Indian woman in a sari wishes Hanson the best. Lebanese men, Anglo teens, Chinese women, they all approach Hanson with smiles and smartphones. Someone offers her a free blow-dry.
Part of me suspects some of these shoppers are only posing with Hanson for the same reason they’d pose with Queensland’s Big Pineapple – it’s there – but it’s obvious many of them adore Hanson and her politics.
“So much for being racist, eh?” Burston says. What am I supposed to say to that?
When I leave Parramatta, my cab driver, a Lebanese Muslim, asks about my day. I say I’ve spent it with Pauline Hanson. Perplexed, he looks at me in the rear-view mirror, perhaps to double-check I am, in fact, an Asian-Australian.
“You have an opinion on Pauline Hanson?” I ask. He nods slowly. “She doesn’t like … us,” he says, probably wondering whether he needs to spell it out.
On the day I first meet Pauline Hanson, it doesn’t get off to a great start. We’re in Charlestown Square, a shopping centre in Newcastle, NSW. She addresses a small cluster of reporters outsider Myer wearing patent-leather alligator pumps, a black scoop top, a gold bow brooch and a skirt the colour of spilled blood. Flame-haired and feline, she hasn’t aged a dot.
Once we start walking – Hanson out the front, reporters trailing like bad sitcom spies – no shoppers seem interested in saying hello. People keep their distance. I catch murmurs as they walk past.
“The lady from …”
“… fish’n’chip shop …”
“… meant to be in Queensland?”
Irritated, Pauline Hanson turns to us. “See, this is what scares people off.” Part of me wants to roll my eyes – politicians can’t just call on media when it suits them – but I also sympathise. In the mid-1990s, when Hanson went door-knocking, residents would close their doors upon seeing the scrum of reporters behind her. Journalists then published sensational stories about how people kept slamming their doors in Hanson’s face.
Finally a bespectacled young man named Martin comes up and asks for a photo. Hanson immediately brightens. Martin says he’s not interested in politics and just wants a photo, really. But he somehow changes the chemistry. Now a steady tide of people approach Hanson. Middle-aged women feel especially comfortable in her orbit. In the food court, Joan Raper, 47, greets Hanson like an old friend. “What are you doing here?” she exclaims.
“She’s portrayed as this racist person,” Raper says, “but what she’s actually saying is, ‘If you want to live here freely and happily, and abide by our rules and culture and society, you’re more than welcome. But if you don’t – go away! Take your war back to the country you came from.’ ”
Another Hanson fan says she’ll vote for her, but begins by saying, “I’m not a racist, sweetheart.”
Nearly every One Nation voter seems to start with the same disclaimer: they support Hanson, but they’re not racist, sweetie. Whether Hanson likes it or not, her brand – and One Nation’s – is still synonymous with racial bigotry. Even her supporters recognise that.
When the other reporters leave, Hanson, Burston and I sit at a muffin shop to discuss the ins and outs of social media. Hanson may have only just discovered Facebook, but already she’s taken to it with the enthusiasm of a teenager, posting multiple times a day on her fan page. She suspects social media will be a game-changer for her in this election – finally, a way to communicate directly with supporters without the meddling media.
Emboldened, she has bought her first smartphone (Sony Xperia, running on Android), but is still getting used to the digital age vernacular. Several days ago on FM radio, she made a gaffe by referring to young people using tablet devices as “fingering a pad” (she laughs about it now). It has been a steep learning curve. After all, she’s campaigning with a skeleton crew, doesn’t have a background in journalism and …
“Do you want to come and work for me?” she says, interrupting herself. “I’m actually looking for someone who could put out press releases.” I chuckle, pointing out a possible conflict of interest. Hanson grins.
“As long as you’re on side with me,” she says. “If you’re not on side with me, don’t!”
God knows what my Chinese-Australian parents will make of this. Later, when I tell my dad I’ve been interviewing Hanson, he laughs darkly.
“This is a terrible woman,” he says.
Pauline Hanson has an appalling track record for getting elected. This will be her eighth stab at a parliamentary seat in 17 years. She has won only once: the Queensland lower house seat of Oxley in 1996, in the federal election that saw John Howard become prime minister. Hanson was 41 then; she’s 59 now. If John Howard was Lazarus with a triple bypass, Hanson is someone who can miraculously resurrect herself on a regular basis, without ever finding a way out of the tomb.
Still, to dismiss Hanson would be naive. At the height of One Nation’s popularity, it secured almost 23 per cent of the vote at Queensland’s 1998 state election, winning 11 seats on National Party preferences. When Hanson guns for parliamentary seats now, she often scores highly enough on primary votes to secure electoral funding from the Australian Electoral Commission. The only reason Hanson hasn’t secured any seats outright is because major parties are so loathe to preference her, they’ll preference each other first. It speaks volumes of their disregard for her.
On June 3, Hanson announced she would run for a NSW Senate seat in federal parliament under the One Nation banner, more than a decade after their political divorce. Election analysts say complex Senate preference deals – and the fact Hanson is back with One Nation, consolidating brand recognition – makes her first ever Senate seat a possibility.
To outsiders, her return to One Nation this year is surprising. From the start, the party was marred by mismanagement, savage infighting, highly publicised court cases and elected members turning their backs on the party. In 2002, One Nation forced Hanson out of her own party. “One Nation was destroyed from within,” she says. “That hurt. We could have been a major political party in this country. But it’s reinventing now I’m back. It’s going to be a lot of work.”
One week later, Pauline Hanson and Brian Burston drive to Sydney from northern NSW for a 48-hour itinerary of meet and greets. First, the Western Sydney Careers Expo at the former Olympic Games site in Homebush. Year 12 students arrive in uniform. Lebanese girls in hijabs lock arms; Asian nerds play video games with their Anglo counterparts; African and Asian girls play Uno together on the cement. Born in the mid-1990s, they’re not old enough to remember Hanson as a political force to be reckoned with. If they know her at all, it’s from Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Apprentice.
When I was their age, in Queensland, schoolmates’ parents drove cars plastered with One Nation stickers. We’d tape Pauline Pantsdown’s devastating vocal mash-up Backdoor Man on to cassette, before a court injunction ruled ABC youth radio station Triple J couldn’t broadcast it any more. Sometimes it felt Hanson didn’t even need to be parodied, like the time she recorded a video that began, “Fellow Australians, if you are seeing me now, it means I have been murdered.”
It wasn’t all laughs. It was during this time that a Chinese-Australian relative of mine was bashed in a petrol station by angry white racists and hospitalised. Strangers drove past me calling out “chink”, “gook” and “f…ing Asian”. If you were on the receiving end of these attacks, you didn’t have to draw a line between them and the rise of One Nation. You just knew.
Hanson arrives at the expo in black and turquoise. Burston assures me this stopover isn’t about courting first-time voters, but about One Nation’s keen interest in apprenticeships. Hanson’s proposed policy – that the government pays 75 per cent of all apprenticeship costs in the first year, 50 per cent in the second and 25 per cent in the third – gets the thumbs up from Deb at the apprenticeships marquee. Validated, Hanson beams.
Burston, meanwhile, has been dealing with prank calls. Facebook may be a blessing for them but it’s also attracted trolling. Pauline Pantsdown, the drag queen responsible for Backdoor Man, has re-emerged on Facebook and has somehow gotten hold of Burston’s mobile number. He has bombed Facebook with it, encouraging everyone to pester and protest.
Out of nowhere, a solidly built 17-year-old named Jason confronts Hanson, arms crossed. “What’s the way you think about Asian immigration? Have your views changed?”
Hanson is gentle but firm. “Yes, they have, because that was 15, 16, 17 years ago. Have you read my maiden speech?”
“No, I haven’t,” Jason admits.
“I think you should read my maiden speech,” Hanson says. “When I made that comment in parliament, it was because we had a huge number of immigrants coming to Australia who were of a … ” She stops herself. “And we had to take control of it,” she finishes.
Unlike Jason, I’m familiar with Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech, a blistering bit of oration most Australians over 30 vividly remember. “We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians,” Hanson said, “by those who promote political correctness, and those who control the various taxpayer-funded ‘industries’ that flourish in our society, servicing Aboriginals [sic], multiculturalists and a host of other minority groups.”
Horrified, my family watched on the evening news as Hanson said, “They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” She was talking about Asians.
Still, for every Australian who heard Hanson’s speech and felt a new dimension of bigotry entering the political discourse, there were just as many who found her arguments – that Aborigines receive more benefits than non-Aborigines; that multiculturalism should be abolished; that Australian youth undergo mandatory 12-month national service; that Australia was in danger of being “swamped by Asians” – refreshing and galvanising.
I remind Hanson of how she singled out Asians in her maiden speech. Surely it’s one reason why people still think she’s racist.
“Look, I think so,” she says, sighing, as if expecting this from me. “It’s the words that I used. But I had to have the impact to tell the government, ‘Have a look at the figures.’ Most of the figures we were getting, in people migrating to Australia, were actually … Asian. So there was going to be imbalance in years to come.”
Hanson is right when she says Australia’s migration patterns are changing. Australia’s last census, in 2011, will probably be the last to show that Europeans account for the majority of new arrivals. By the 2016 census, it is anticipated that most of Australia’s migrants will come from Asia. Does Hanson see that as a problem?
“You’ve got to have a balance, otherwise you have a dominating culture. I suppose I’m a proud Australian! I don’t want to see my culture gone. Does anyone? Would Asians like me to go over [there] with heaps of our people and take over?”
How does she propose “a balance” be enforced? Some form of racial capping?
“Look, it’s not about ca-,” she says, breaking off, as if that notion is preposterous. “Australians have never been asked. We’ve never had a discussion on immigration or multiculturalism.”
The next morning, Pauline Hanson waits for me on the driveway of a home in Sydney’s Sylvania Waters. It is the home of Bev Wallice, one of Hanson’s closest friends. The two met in 1999. Wallice’s husband had been diagnosed with cancer and they sought Hanson in Queensland to ask her to examine the inadequacies of private health insurance in covering cancer treatment. Since Bev’s husband died, Hanson often stays in Wallice’s home when she’s in town.
Bev Wallice is 76, sports jaffa-red fingernails and is full of fizz. She reminisces on how she and Hanson secured their friendship. “A couple of chardies and that was it,” she says. “She’s the nicest friend, and I have a lot.” Wallice cracks up at her own joke. “She’s not racist in any single way,” she adds reassuringly.
Wallice’s home bar is lined with framed photos. One is a signed portrait of Alan Jones. Next to it is the well-known photograph of Hanson draped in the Australian flag.
At the dining table, Hanson and I talk about her kids, all of them adults now – Tony, 42, Steven, 38, Adam, 32, and Lee, 29. Hanson is a grandmother now to Lee’s boy, Rielly. Her fish’n’chip days are long behind her and she now splits time with her partner Tony Nyquist – who works in real estate – between properties in Ipswich and the north coast of NSW.
I ask about money. It seems staggering that Hanson would keep putting herself forward after so many back-to-back defeats. Earlier, Hanson told me she puts her own money into campaigning, as One Nation has no backers, big donations or significant membership base. “In the last federal election, it cost me just over $100,000.”
Electoral funding helps. When Hanson ran as an independent for an upper house seat for Queensland in the 2004 federal election, she received $199,886 in electoral funding. In 2007, her Pauline’s United Australia Party received $213,095. This election, if One Nation obtains at least 4 per cent of first preference votes in NSW, the party will receive a fraction over $2.48 for every vote counted. Later, when I phone Hanson to confirm those figures, she is livid.
“Ben! That is garbage,” she shouts. “Do you ask Tony Abbott how much electoral funding he’s going to get? Do you ask Kevin Rudd? Wayne Swan? Barnaby Joyce? I am frickin’ sick and tired of this! I am not getting electoral funding. I stand with the party. Nothing goes directly to me.”
It’s a sore spot. In August 2003, Hanson and One Nation’s co-founder David Ettridge were sentenced to three years in prison after being found guilty of fraudulently registering One Nation in Queensland. In November that year, their convictions were overturned and the charges dismissed. But by then, Hanson had already served time in jail.
The person who established the trust fund to pursue court cases against One Nation was Tony Abbott. Hanson not only loathes discussing electoral funding, she loathes the existence of electoral funding itself. She has publicly campaigned to have it abolished. Still, it’s a system that has aided her political longevity. And her fury at journalists for asking her about it far outstrips her anger at the system itself.
ABC election analyst Antony Green has bad news for Hanson: she won’t win. “Oh, she gets a significant vote,” he says, in a don’t-get-me-wrong voice. “When she stood for the Senate [representing Queensland] on an independent’s ticket in 2004, she got a higher number of below-the-line votes than any other candidate in the history of the ticket voting system.” But preferences will work against her, he says.
When I tell Hanson this, she is angry. No one, she says, has insider knowledge that the Coalition parties won’t preference One Nation this year.
I point out they haven’t in the past. “They haven’t,” she says. “But Tony Abbott wants to consider who would be the best choice in the Senate. I’d like to know where he bloody well stands on this, because if he doesn’t flow [preferences] to me, he’s nothing but a bloody hypocrite. I’m against the carbon tax. I’m against the illegal boats.”
It’s true. Many of her platforms square up with the Coalition. It’s why Hanson doesn’t strike me as an extreme figure any more. Burston agrees: One Nation isn’t a fringe party, because Labor and Liberal have caught up to it. Hanson nods and says that has been validating.
But doesn’t that diminish One Nation’s appeal? Reshaping Australia’s politics might be Pauline Hanson’s legacy, but coming into an election, it is also her key strategic weakness. When the major parties blunt your competitive edge, why would anyone vote for Pauline Hanson now?