By Sylvia Hale
SYDNEY — Marrickville Council at its August meeting unanimously declined to ban Pauline Hanson's One Nation party from using council facilities. Ashfield Council had, only weeks before, voted unanimously to support such a ban.
Marrickville is one of Sydney's most ethnically diverse regions: more than 40% of residents were born in non-English-speaking countries; some 67 languages are spoken within the municipality; and it has one of the state's largest Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander populations.
Unanimity is not characteristic of the council — it is usually deeply divided between a pro-development Labor majority and a No Aircraft Noise/Green minority with strong resident links.
The move to ban One Nation was prompted by a petition signed by 475 people, sponsored by the International Socialist Organisation.
Its supporters claimed that a ban would further the anti-Hanson campaign, provide a rallying point for anti-racists and deter acts of aggression against Asian and Aboriginal people. Lindsey Munks addressed council and argued that preventing One Nation from using its facilities would underscore council's November 1996 explicit rejection of any form of racism.
Opponents of the ban also addressed council and the packed public gallery. Marny Kennedy of the Communist League stressed the political dangers of restrictions on freedom of speech.
Wendy Robertson of the Democratic Socialist Party described activities she believed to be more effective in opposing One Nation: demonstrating at Hanson meetings, organising and participating in anti-Hanson rallies and councils appointing an anti-racist organiser.
Councillors' reasons for opposition varied. One instanced Leichhardt Council's pre-war bans on the Communist Party's use of its facilities. Another spoke of being the victim of racist attacks in the past but still being committed to free speech as a greater safeguard of individual liberty.
A third outlined the range of services provided by council to its ethnic and Aboriginal residents and its active promotion of multiculturalism. A fourth said that Australia's toleration of diversity and freedom of speech had influenced his decision to migrate.
Another doubted the wisdom of ceding to an organ of the state the power to determine who should have the right to speak.
The question of how to counter racism is an important one. To doubt the good will of advocates of either position is to reduce the debate to the level of personal animosity.
Exposing the falsity of Hanson's claims, revealing the superficiality of her "solutions" and demonstrating the strength of opposition to her views by picketing her meetings (tactics supported by all groups) are surely more effective than sidetracking the debate into one about freedom of speech — a strategy that both alienates people who are opposed to all that Hanson stands for and diverts attention from the real struggle.
Her appeal is to those who feel powerless and ignored. To ban her is simply to reinforce those perceptions.
[Sylvia Hale is a No Aircraft Noise councillor on Marrickville Council.]