Pauline Hanson: the stalking horse that got away?

Issue 

By Peter Boyle

Queensland Premier Rob Borbidge has demanded of Prime Minister John Howard: totally extinguish native title on pastoral leases, or face a rash of Hanson-type independents around the country. This blackmail may benefit Howard, who can now present his 10-point plan to "effectively extinguish" native title on pastoral leases as a moderate compromise between the rights of pastoralists and Aborigines.

While Howard's "compromise" on native title has been welcomed in the corporate boardrooms, according to the Australian Financial Review and Business Review Weekly, there is nervousness about Howard's relationship with Hanson.

Malcolm McGregor acknowledged in the April 30 AFR that Howard's attacks on "political correctness" and "insidious rewriting of history for partisan purposes" gave Hanson "the wink and nudge that got her off the launching pad". Now, he warned, Howard seems set to learn the truth of the adage "He who seeks to ride the tiger often ends up inside".

"Howard understood through his party's private research that his electoral victory last year was an explosive manifestation of all the deep-seated resentment and fear among voters through the years of Labor's disruptive marketisation of the economy ... Howard exploited these emotions cleverly and profited accordingly. He even tried to continue the ruse well into his period in office — running an outsider crusade against so-called cultural elites.

"Unfortunately for John Howard, his little act has been gazumped by a real outsider ... From the perspective of Pauline Hanson and her supporters, John Howard looks awfully like a member of the elite."

Recent polls suggest that Hanson's One Nation party could be winning votes from the Coalition parties. But Howard insists that her popularity will be short-lived. Queensland National Party director Ken Crooke appears to share Howard's confidence:

"When it comes to solutions all the sensible things — and I emphasise only the sensible things — that Pauline Hanson says are already National Party policy."

There is nothing sensible in Hanson's babbling, which consists of nothing but racism, bigotry and scapegoating. Crooke is correct, however, in indicating that there is some overlap between Hanson and Coalition policy: that is why she can be of use to the government, creating a climate more favourable to its reactionary aims.

But Borbidge's hardline stand in favour of total extinguishment of native title on pastoral leases and NP Senator Bill O'Chee's threats to split the Coalition could prove costly for the NP. With most corporate chiefs behind Howard's "compromise" and even the Queensland Mining Council uncomfortable with Borbidge's stance, they may have painted their party into a corner.

Borbidge has raised the expectations of the NP's redneck constituency and now he can only disappoint them. Rumours of NP branches and MPs considering defection to Hanson's One Nation are circulating wildly in Queensland.

One worry for big business is that a split in the Coalition, especially in the Senate, could jeopardise Howard's ability to carry through his program.

The AFR, which has been urging Howard to move to a double dissolution as soon as there is a suitable "trigger" so that it can "break through Senate obstruction to a more vigorous economic reform agenda", now warns that native title is not that trigger. Hanson has let loose too many dangerous populist arguments, it warned in its April 30 editorial.

Right-wing commentators Gerard Henderson and Robert Manne are demanding that Howard vigorously repudiate Hanson's blatant racism. They argue that respectable conservatives risk being tainted by Hanson and her shady supporters in the far right.

Howard still refuses to condemn Hanson as a racist, though he was quick to criticise her for attacking foreign investment. He says he is in favour of a racially non-discriminatory immigration policy but acknowledges "public concern about immigration" and "multiculturalism". He suggests that Australia is culturally and ethically superior to its Asian neighbours yet maintains cosy relations with the region's dictators.

Now Howard is allowing other ministers to attack Hanson more directly. Howard is also probably quite happy to have the Henderson and Manne dissociate themselves and the "respectable" right from Hanson, hoping this allows him to have his cake and eat it too.

Sociologists in the US have coined the term "wedge politics". If you are going to run the country in a way that hurts most people, you have to make sure enough of them blame each other for the pain. Capitalist governments these days have to encourage racists, right-wing religious fundamentalists, homophobes and misogynists, according to this theory.