Newly elected Senator Pauline Hanson gave her maiden speech in the Senate on September 14 — 20 years after her first appearance as a parliamentarian in 1996.
Her incendiary speech outlined a far-right agenda of racist bigotry, misogyny and attacks on welfare rights.
Her first speech in 1996 falsely claimed that Australia was being “swamped by Asians”. This year, however, she falsely claimed that “now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims”.
It is tempting to dismiss this as the ravings of a right-wing lunatic, latching onto whichever prejudice is the most useful at the time. While there is an element of truth to that notion, it downplays the important threat posed by a resurgent far right in Australian politics.
In particular, it should be noted that Hanson's speech was not only racist and bigotted but also misogynist. It signalled a concerted attack on single mothers and welfare recipients in general. This is a reminder that any advance made by the right in demonising one particular sector of society is a danger for the whole progressive movement.
On the other hand, it is a mistake to exaggerate the role or influence of Hanson the individual or even the far right movement as a whole. This lets the mainstream racists in the Labor and Liberal parties off the hook and diverts attention away from the potential that progressive social movements and trade unions can play to stop the far right in their tracks.
Keri Phillips on ABC's Radio National for example argued that “the success of Pauline Hanson, Donald Trump and Brexit” demonstrate that “right-wing populism, once regarded as fringe, has become mainstream”.
Again, there is an element of truth in this view. However, the take-home message — that the far right has become mainstream — is exaggerated.
The context is also important. Hanson has a lot more impact in Australian politics than is warranted by the poor quality of her ideas — SBS fact checked her speech and found it to be riddled with factual errors — or the level of her support base. The impact is artificially manufactured by the establishment media.
It is now widely regarded that Channel 7's Sunrise program, as just one example, “helped boost [Hanson's] profile [in the lead up to the election] and provided a nice, friendly outlet for her anti-Muslim policies”, while paying her for the privilege.
This has been reflected, during and since the election, by disproportionate media coverage by other outlets as well.
In fact, some of the more progressive media outlets have pointed to the first speech by Northern Territory Labor senator Malarndirri McCarthy as a contrasting example to Hanson. McCarthy's speech “expressed solidarity with Indigenous Australians, immigrants, domestic abuse victims, the homeless and members of the LGBTQI community”. It received a lot less media attention.
This mirrors the situation in 1996 when newly elected Greens senator Bob Brown gave his first speech on the same day that Hanson gave hers. Brown's progressive speech was largely ignored by the establishment media while Hanson's reactionary views were given prominent airplay.
Another reflection of establishment support for Hanson is the explicit call by establishment figures for Hanson to be treated in a respectful fashion. Former Prime Minister John Howard has warned it would be wrong to repeat the mistake of 20 years ago by trying to marginalise Hanson.
It should be remembered that Howard's method of “marginalising” Hanson in 1996 was to express pride that his government allowed Hanson the freedom to express her racist views.
Further, Hanson and the far right would have nowhere near so much support today if it were not for the 15-year war against refugees waged by Labor and Liberal governments and the three decades of neoliberal attacks on workers and the community.
To defeat Hanson and her ilk today, it is not enough to simply denounce their racism and bigotry. What is needed is a progressive antidote, a genuine people-powered movement against privatisation, cutbacks and environmental destruction.
At a time when the Greens are explicitly moving in a more moderate direction, getting involved in the Socialist Alliance is one of the best ways to help build the progressive alternative we need.
[Alex Bainbridge is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]
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