How Pauline Hanson became prime minister

April 12, 2000


How Pauline Hanson became prime minister

"Howard takes policy advice from One Nation", "Nationals steal another One Nation policy", "[Bob] Carr may bag One Nation but gee he likes our policies" — these are just some of the headings on press releases issued by Pauline Hanson's One Nation party in the last 18 months.

One Nation leaders complain bitterly that the policies for which they were lambasted have been adopted by the federal Coalition government, and sometimes the Labor Party, without public outcry. Examples include regulations adopted in 1999 which deny refugees who arrive in Australia without documents the right to apply for a permanent protection visa, and making the acceptance of Kosovar and East Timorese refugees conditional on their agreement to return home when the Australian government deems it "safe".

These are elements of the refugee policy proposed by Hanson during the 1998 federal election campaign, and for which One Nation was berated by the media and politicians. There was no such condemnation when the federal government, with Labor party support, adopted the same policy.

The government has adopted many aspects of One Nation's reactionary policies and rhetoric. It denies the existence of the stolen generations, it attacks United Nations human rights treaties and committees, it has all but ended refugees' right to claim permanent refugee status in Australia, it advocates that Aboriginal-specific services be "mainstreamed", it has abolished Abstudy, it exaggerates the amount of land that Aborigines control, it claims that single mothers on benefits are bludgers and it accuses unemployed people of being "job snobs".

Howard has pursued a Hansonite approach since his government was elected in March 1996. In his first media conference as PM, Howard denounced what he called the "black armband" view of Australian history in an attempt to deny that indigenous people were violently pushed off their land and that generations of Aboriginal children were stolen from their parents in an effort to exterminate the Aboriginal people. Howard also tried to soften up the public for a government onslaught against Aboriginal rights.

The first Howard budget slashed $400 million (30%) from the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC) budget. No other government department suffered such a brutal cut. The government began to claim that Aboriginal-specific services were not effective and should be transferred from ATSIC to other federal government departments.

A government review was established to look at legislative options for extinguishing native title on pastoral leases. This initiative predated the December 1996 High Court ruling in the Wik case that found that native title is not necessarily extinguished by the granting of a pastoral lease, and that the two could legally coexist.

Stalking horse for Howard

Hanson issued a call to arms for all racists in her inaugural parliamentary speech in September 1996. The timing of Hanson's entry onto the national political stage was welcomed by the Coalition. Howard indicated his approval of Hanson's incendiary speech by boasting that since his government was elected, people "can talk about certain things without living in fear of being branded as a bigot or as a racist".

He was able to rely on Hanson and other One Nation racists to whip up fears about native title claims, fuel envy about the "special privileges" of Aborigines and claim that Asian migrants were "stealing" jobs. While Hanson copped the flak, the government was able to implement its anti-Aboriginal and anti-migrant policies with little opposition. Howard simply rode on the coat-tails of Pauline Hanson's vitriolic racism.

Hanson distracted attention from the impact of the government's economic policies on most working-class and small-business people. The effects were particularly severe in rural and regional areas, where budget cuts had resulted in the closure and/or privatisation of services and the loss of jobs.

The whipping up of anti-Aboriginal racism suited Howard. The federal government wanted to guarantee the mining and pastoral companies' profits by extinguishing native title rights, and if this was not possible, by removing Aborigines' right to negotiate over the use of land on which native title existed.

The government also wanted to avoid paying compensation to the stolen generations. And, as part of its drive to cut spending on welfare, health, education and housing services, it wanted to obliterate spending on Aboriginal services and welfare.

The federal government needed a racist propaganda campaign to undermine support for Aboriginal rights and to convince people that indigenous people are no longer disadvantaged by historic oppression. Hanson and One Nation's far-right cadre provided such a campaign, with additional support from the mining companies, the National Farmers Federation and the media magnates.

A threat

But while Hanson initially helped Howard to create the atmosphere to implement his racist policies, she soon became a hindrance. A right-wing populist, Hanson did not restrict her comments to scapegoating Aborigines and migrants. To broaden her support, Hanson began calling for economic protectionist policies, such as tariffs, and while initially supporting the GST and the privatisation of Telstra, she switched once she realised that these policies were massively unpopular in One Nation's rural heartland.

Howard moved against One Nation because its popularity could have derailed the government's economic agenda. The government blocked One Nation winning lower house seats in the 1998 federal election by refusing to direct its preferences to it. One Nation's "unprofessionalism" and crude racist rhetoric were denounced, although the racist substance of its policies was not.

The Liberal Party, through MP Tony Abbott's office, funded legal actions against One Nation by disgruntled former members, resulting in the deregistration of One Nation in Queensland. Hanson was ordered to repay funding received by One Nation to the Australian Electoral Commission.

As the Coalition implemented more of One Nation's racist policies, and as the influence of far-right conspiracy theorists within One Nation and the party's lack of internal democracy became public, many One Nation voters began to return to the major parties. And as One Nation's influence waned and disenchantment with the federal government's economic policies grew, Howard returned to using racism as a "wedge politics" tactic. (This is where a political party seeks to blame the most oppressed groups in society for the problems faced by other groups. Aborigines, non-English speaking background migrants, welfare recipients and women are particularly targeted by this tactic.)

Wedge politics

It is not hard to see why Howard is using wedge politics. The Liberal Party is in disarray in Queensland, NSW and Victoria. The Coalition parties were soundly defeats in NSW and Victoria state elections last year, and in two Queensland state by-elections and the Brisbane City Council elections this year.

In addition, the rural and regional disenchantment is being reflected within the Coalition's parliamentary caucus, with some MPs threatening to vote against further Telstra privatisation.

Each time Howard thinks he has diverted public attention from his economic program using racism, another issue — the GST, cuts to rural services, Telstra privatisation, sacked workers denied their entitlements, increased petrol prices, the crisis in aged care and mandatory sentencing — crops up which reinforces the image of the government as unfair and callous towards anyone who is not rich.

Not working

The only cards the federal government has up its sleeve are wedge politics and the ALP's lack of alternative policies. However, these work only if sympathy for the plight of the more oppressed sections of the population can be undermined.

It has not worked in the mandatory sentencing debate. An ACNielsen poll on March 28 found that 53% of respondents oppose mandatory sentencing. Opposition exists even inside the parliamentary Liberal Party.

There is also a danger that wedge politics could create such deep social divisions that the government's austerity policies could be endangered. This is worrying some sections of the ruling class, and is reflected in articles by the Australian newspaper's international editor Paul Kelly, for example.

Big business media commentators have sought to explain Howard's promotion of racism by examining his personal psychology. They say that it is not possible to get Howard to apologise to Aboriginal people because he is personally conservative.

It is not Howard's individual conservatism that is the problem. It is quite likely that a Beazley-led Labor government would make an apology to Aboriginal people, and also that a Peter Costello-led Coalition government would apologise. However, this would not mean a Beazley or Costello government would abandon racism and wedge politics. Their motivations would be the same as Howard's: to impose economic misery on the majority of people — in order to benefit the ruling capitalist minority — while retaining office and minimising opposition.


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