People of New South Wales,
Well, that was close.
First of all, I think we should start with an apology. On behalf of mypeople — the tanned, tropical and slightly sun-stroked natives of Queensland — I would like to offer a genuine ‘Sorry.’ You know, for the whole Pauline Hanson thing. We breathed political life into her before passing her your way, and today, we nearly saw things get out of control.
Sure, Hanson seemed like a good idea in the mid ‘90s, but hindsight is a very funny thing and we all now know she was a mistake. We admit that. We deeply regret that she somehow escaped our state borders and managed to roam free, getting a little too excited for her own good and finding herself into all sorts of unlikely places — not just the lower house of Federal Parliament, but also the dance studios of Channel 7 and prison (quite similar, really) and today — thrillingly! — nearing scoring herself a seat in the Upper House of New South Wales Parliament. A free spirit, she was always going to be difficult to contain, that Pauline.
Should you have been worried, New South Wales? If she got in, she would have actually been harmless right? At worst, she would have been just comic relief, surely. Because everything about Pauline has always invited jolly laughter, from her delightfully retro hair to that endearingly clipped, verge-of-tears, “Seriously-you-guys, my-bladder-is-about-to-frickin’-explode” voice of hers. She’s the perennially alarmed bird of Australian politics, always sensitive to the political climate and alert to the next minority group to single out and hate upon. And golly, hasn’t she done well out of it.
In the spirit of today’s almost-landmark vote, let’s cast our minds back over some of her more hilarious political highlights to speculate on what you’ve missed out on. If you will, a gag reel (in every sense of the word).
I still fondly remember her 1996 maiden speech about the dangers of Asians swamping Australia. Retrieve it online and you’ll also have a very good chuckle, though that could just be reflux. “They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate,” she said about Asians — which is to say, me and my people. 15 years later and we know she was wrong, of course. Not necessarily about the swamping thing (seriously, look around: our takeover is almost complete), but the idea that people actually care. Unless you count high school violin quartets, LAN parties and yum cha dining experiences as “ghettos”, you couldn’t take the woman’s claims seriously.
But in 1996 — the same year Hanson gave that speech and appeared in news footage all over the world — my Year 9 friends and I would gather at the school bus shelter for lunch and discuss all manners of things. We’d chew over The X-Files, passionately argue about the band Korn, and — quite often — had roaring chats about politics. (I know, I know: I’m just surprised we didn’t bring fortified wine to school in monogrammed flasks.)
Most of my friends saw merit in the types of things Hanson was advocating. Because we were teenagers, the arguments seemed to make sense. To live in Australia, you should speak the language. To improve the economy and people’s individual wealth, we should just print more money. The volume of Asian immigration was getting a bit, you know, out of control. When I started to protest this, lost for words, furiously jabbing at my face with my fingers, my friends would look at me beatifically and say, “Don’t be silly, Ben. We don’t see you as Asian.” At the time, it felt like a compliment. It was only years later that I realised how bizarre that comment was. If they didn’t see me as Asian, how did they see me? Latino? White? Congolese?
Over the next few years, other students would be dropped off at school in their parents’ One Nation monogrammed cars, since their fathers had decided to become fully-fledged party supporters. Being one of the few Asians at my school, I felt deeply uncomfortable when these cars pulled up. Still, do you know who was in a state of far deeper discomfort? My Chinese family friends who were getting bashed and spat upon in the street.
If you want to see the extent to which political invective can translate to racist violence — and you’ve already forgotten about the hideous role Alan Jones played in the 2005 Cronulla riots — come over and I can tell you about the time our Chinese family friend was beaten up and left for dead in a petrol station late at night, by ugly, vicious men emboldened by that era’s political climate.
It’s easy and comforting to dismiss Hanson as a joke, because she’s a far scarier prospect when she’s doing what she actually wants to do: politics. What nearly happened today reminds us that she’s ridiculously good at it too. She nearly eclipsed both the Greens and the 11th Coalition candidate (who eventually won) in what Greens candidate Jeremy Buckingham described on The Drum recently as a “neck-and-redneck battle”.
While the parties will bicker over who’s responsible for Hanson’s near re-entry into Australian politics, it might be worth considering — and here’s a revolutionary thought — that the fault is actually ours. She nearly won, not because people didn’t understand preferential voting, and not because of botched preference deals, but because the will of the New South Wales people actually placed her in a position to win. As Antony Green pointed out this morning, on first preferences alone, Ms Hanson placed 20th position, the Coalition in 21st and the Greens in 22nd.
“She got a lot closer than […] people thought she could have,” said ABC NSW Political Reporter Mark Tobin on ABC News 24 today, after the results were announced. This might surprise some of you. People forget that voters like Pauline Hanson a lot. Run a search for news stories about Hanson online, scroll down through the reader comments and you’ll see a gushing, open admiration for the woman that borders on evangelistic zeal. And if her popularity surprises you, it probably means your social circle doesn’t extend to the vast stretches of Australian communities who adore the woman and what she stands for.
In some ways, it would have been okay if Pauline had gotten through. On Twitter yesterday, both The Chaser’s Chas Licciardello and News Limited columnist Joe Hildebrand tweeted practically the same thing within minutes of each other. “If people want Pauline Hanson to be ignored and irrelevant, I can’t think of a better place for her to be than in the NSW Upper House,” Licciardello quipped. Hildebrand agreed. “[I’m] shocked at pundits’ predictions Pauline Hanson could soon be relevant again,” Hildebrand tweeted. “They clearly aren’t familiar with the NSW Upper House.”
I laughed. But the problem wouldn’t have been about the amount of legislative power, or lack thereof, that Hanson would have wielded, but the fact we’d have given her a platform to be vocal again. If she had successfully scored a seat in a state parliament, that would have been enough reason for the press to flock to her. Her regular spot on talk shows, women’s magazines and talkback radio would have been guaranteed, and it would have been safe to expect her on an upcoming episode of Q&A very soon. We would have wanted to know what Hanson thought, and this probably says more about us than her.
Still, some good could have come out of her winning. Conservative politicians and newspaper columnists might distance themselves from Hanson the person, but have happily absorbed her arguments as their own for years: that Aboriginal people unfairly use race to their advantage; that it’s impossible for Muslim people to assimilate into Australia; that all Australians should speak English. If Hanson had come back in the political spotlight, we would have seen her at the same rallies as those politicians, advocating the same policies and agreeing with them thoroughly. Hanson’s endorsement alone would have forced them to reconsider how their views appeared to the broader Australian public.
People of New South Wales, before the result came in today, you might have been laughing, but we all knew it was nervous laughter. Sometimes, like in a horror movie, we laugh because it’s a flinch reaction to a deep, primal terror. And though she has lost today, we all need to understand that plenty of voters – not just in your state – take Hanson and her politics dead seriously. She may strike us as funny now, but we were all very close today to being stuck with her for eight more years. Bad comedy wears thin very quickly. The joke would have been on us.