Unlike radical right-wing populism in Western Europe, Australia’s “Hansonism” is largely a one-woman show, almost completely dependent on Pauline Hanson’s personality and appeal.
She has been called a “mischievous troublemaker, an “embarrassment” to the country, and just a plain racist. The referent of these diatribes is neither France’s Marine Le Pen nor Rocío Monasterio, the rising virulent anti-feminist star of Spain’s Vox, but Australia’s premier political bounce-back artist, Pauline Hanson, the leader of Australia’s One Nation party.
Throughout her up-and-down political career, Pauline Hanson has been the quintessential radical right-wing populist, her discourses a perfect amalgam of anti-elite harangues and nativist resentment. For newcomers to the study of contemporary radical right-wing populism, Hanson is an ideal subject to get a grip on the logic that propels successful populist mobilization. In fact, she is among the most astute prominent contemporary populist actors who anticipated a number of issues that have become central to current radical right-wing populist discourse.
Pauline Hanson has described herself as an ordinary Australian, a single mom with four children, a small entrepreneur who ran a fish-and-chips shop on the outskirts of Brisbane before being thrown into politics. Hanson was first elected to the national Parliament for Queensland in 1996 as an independent, after being “disendorsed” by the Liberals for making disparaging remarks about Aboriginals. A political outsider “of limited education,” initially unsure and nervous in the face of her new role as an increasingly prominent public figure, she portrayed the “quintessential anti-politician.”
Despite gaining national notoriety because of her provocative and pugnacious rhetoric laced with hyperbole and invective, Hanson failed to secure reelection in 1998, the first of a series of electoral setbacks. Dogged by legal problems, which landed her in jail for a few weeks, and expelled from the party she herself had once founded, Hanson ended up in the political wilderness, discredited, then exonerated. But she made sure she would not be forgotten, like the time she competed on Dancing with the Stars and almost won.
Disgraced politicians, like defeated boxers, are not supposed to come back. Yet sometimes they defy unwritten laws and do — with a vengeance. Like Halloween’s Michael Myers, they rise up to haunt a new generation. In 2016, some 20 years after first irrupting onto the national political scene, Hanson was back, this time as part of a gang of four One Nation senators, intent on rocking the Australian upper house. Hanson, who prides herself on “keeping a finger on the pulse” of ordinary Australians, promoted herself once again as the people’s tribune, promising to stand up “for the issues that matter” to them. She was the one who dared to say out loud what ordinary Australians talked about only among themselves; the one in tune with the anxieties and aspirations of ordinary people; the archetypal populist.
Hanson’s maiden speech delivered to the Australian Parliament in the fall of 1996 should be included in any future populism reader; so should her speech delivered at the occasion of the launch of One Nation in late 1997. Both are prime examples of the populist-cum-nativist discourse which has turned once marginalized pariah parties in Western Europe into serious contenders for public office, more often than not courted by the political mainstream, if only to secure their hold on power or regain it.
Populism relies to a large extent on the appeal to diffuse popular resentment. Successful populist mobilization depends primarily on populist leaders’ ability to translate vague resentment into concrete grievances and to identify targets for popular anger, all couched in catchy formulas and pointed labels like “Les français d’abord,” National Rally’s (formerly National Front) “the French first,” or “Asyltourismus,” Swiss People’s Party’s “asylum tourism.” Populist politics is largely informed, albeit to a large extent unwittingly, by Carl Schmitt’s exlusionary friend-enemy distinction. For radical right-wing populist leaders such as Pauline Hanson, the enemy is constituted by all those who willfully ignore and/or foil the volonté générale — general will, also known as the “the elite” — and all those who potentially threaten to undermine the shared identity of the national community.
Pauline Hanson was among the first prominent radical right-wing populist entrepreneurs to mobilize popular resentment against a very specific target — the intellectual elite; or, as she put it, “the elite of the media, of academia and those others who see themselves above ordinary Australians” and “dictate our future” — an elite of “fat cats, bureaucrats and the do-gooders” who complain the loudest because they stand to lose the most — their power, money and position, all funded by ordinary Australian taxpayers” — and elite which she summarily dismissed as the “new class.”
Hanson’s election was to a large extent a reflection of the anxieties provoked among a segment of Australian society about the sustained influx of immigrants from Asia. As Hanson claimed in her 1996 maiden speech, Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Asians,” who “have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.”
In stark contrast to the latter, she promoted herself as a unique ray of hope that would finally allow Australians to rid themselves of “the inequity that has grown from years of political correctness, where we have not been able to speak our mind, or express our views without being called names intended to make us look backward, intolerant or extremist.” In light of Hilary Clinton’s contemptuous quip about the “basket of deplorables” (i.e., Trump supporters) and today’s army of self-styled commentators and pundits summarily dismissing radical right-wing populist voters as uncouth, uneducated plebeians intellectually incapable of understanding the blessings of progressive identity politics, Hanson’s anti-elite rhetoric anno 1996 proved remarkably prescient, if rather tame.
It anticipated legendary and significantly more colorful and sardonic anti-elite rants, such as the (in)famous 2004 Club of Growth ad attacking the “tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, The New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show.” The invective was directed against Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean (governor of Vermont), yet it has lost nothing of its intrinsic ideational punch. On the contrary, today’s radical right-wing populists are even more contemptuous of elites — intellectual, political, cultural. To a large degree, today’s radical right-wing populist’s rhetoric is a direct assault on the legacy of 1968, which, as the radical populist right asserts, has managed to pervade and subvert every facet of contemporary Western society, imposing its views on a panoply of contentious sociocultural issues.
Hanson made this quite clear in her 2016 maiden speech as a newly elected member of the Australian Senate. In the 20 years that had passed since she had first been elected, Hanson charged, nothing had changed. In fact, things had gotten considerably worse, largely because there had been no significant political leader who had dared “to cast aside political correctness.” Instead of promoting Australia’s national interest, political leaders had signed treaties and agreements “giving away our sovereignty, rights, jobs and democracy.” As a result of the “push for globlisation, economic rationalism, free trade and ethnic diversity” they had contributed to “our country’s decline.”
These remarks might suggest that Pauline Hanson has somewhat softened her anti-elite rhetoric. In reality, the torch has been passed on to other leading One Nation politicians, most prominently Mark Latham, a former leader of Australian Labor Party (ALP). Latham, a controversial public figure who over the years had progressively moved to the right, joined Hanson in 2018; a year later, he was elected to the Senate in New South Wales. In his maiden speech he made abundantly clear why he had joined Pauline Hanson: to serve as One Nation’s assault man on political correctness promoted by the “leftist elite” — the “social engineers and cultural dietitians [sic] sneering at our civilisation and its achievements,” who “preach diversity but practice a suffocating cultural conformity,” and who “argue for inclusion” only to “crank up their PC-outrage machine” once somebody dares disagree with them. In short, “elitist, would-be dictators taking away from working class communities the things these battlers value,” such as pride in their country and its achievements.
Populism is more often than not informed by a deep sense of injustice, which does not necessarily have to be economic. In fact, in contemporary Western societies, the experience and perception of economic injustice, most prominently reflected in ever more glaring and dramatic levels of inequality, plays only a subordinate role in radical right-wing populist mobilization. Significantly more important is the appeal to raw emotions, such as anger, anxiety, resentment and indignation.
Pauline Hanson owes her political revival to a large degree to her quasi-instinctual sense that popular emotions are about to crest. This was the case in the late 1990s with lingering concern that Australia was being swamped by Asians. It is the case today with the growing concern over the increasing presence and visibility of Islam in Australian society.
The success of contemporary radical right-wing populist parties in Western liberal democracies is to a large extent a function of their ability to advance a persuasive nativist project. Nativism is quite distinct from nationalism, although the two are easily — and quite erroneously — conflated. For the radical right, as the fascist theorist and prominent Italian philosopher, Giovanni Gentile, once put it (in the prominent American journal Foreign Affairs, of all places), nationalism is a totalitarian notion which considers “the State as the foundation of all rights and the source of all values in the individuals composing it.”
Given the fact that the “State is a principle, the individual becomes a consequence — he is something which finds an antecedent in the State: the State limits him and determines his manner of existence, restricting his freedom, binding him to a piece of ground whereon he was born, whereon he must live and will die.”
This is entirely antithetical to the spirit of nativism, which has its roots in early 19th-century American movements — most prominently the Know Nothings — seeking to defend the new nation against the mass influx of migrants deemed fundamentally threatening (being Catholic) to subvert its idiosyncratic (Anglo Protestant) cultural identity. Americans are particularly allergic to any notion that the community should take precedence over the individual. This is one of the main reasons why socialism never took roots in the United States — which does not mean that there were, and are, no American proponents of socialism (see Bernie Sanders).
Nativism is all about “our people first” — a slogan that is at the ideational heart of virtually all relevant contemporary radical right-wing populist parties in Western democracies, reflected in the already-mentioned “Les français d’abord,” the Italian Lega’s “Prima gli italiani” and the name of New Zealand’s populist-right party, New Zealand First. Nativism means according absolute priority to the “native born,” not only in terms of job opportunities and social benefits, but also in terms of a society’s values and its idiosyncratic cultural identity.
With respect to migrants, nativism means nothing less than the demand that they unreservedly assimilate — hook, line, and sinker — the “host” country’s shared mores, values, norms, way of life and identity. Or, as the Flemish radical-right Vlaams Blok used to put it, “assimilate or go back” where you came from.
Central to the nativist narrative is the notion of cultural incompatibility. It posits that certain immigrant groups come from cultures which are incommensurate with the values and ways of life which the nativists hold dear. As a result, they cannot be assimilated and therefore pose a fundamental threat to the host society. This is behind the nativist tag line of the so-called Great Replacement, a trope which figures prominently in contemporary radical right-wing populist rhetoric.
Hanson’s election was to a large extent a reflection of the anxieties provoked among a segment of Australian society about the sustained influx of immigrants from Asia. As Hanson claimed in her 1996 maiden speech, Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Asians,” who “have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.” Hanson was hardly the first to raise alarm about Asian immigration. As early as 1984, the eminent historian Geoffrey Blainey had warned of the “Asianisation of Australia,” the threat of a “slow Asian takeover of Australia.” He accused the Australian government of giving preference to Asian immigration, in the process turning Australia’s once dominant “White Australia policy [which gave preference to British immigrants while effectively excluding Asians and Pacific Islanders] inside out.”
Blainey’s comments set off an intense, heated debate that lasted for years and had a profound impact on Australian views on immigration. It also had a major political impact, not least in paving the way for Hanson’s late 1990s radical right-wing populist crusade, which to a significant degree echoed Blainey’s central charges. What inspired Hanson’s anti-Asian rant was the fear that white Australians of European extraction were increasingly losing their privileged position. In fact, Hanson claimed, without providing any credible evidence, that by the year 2040, Asians would constitute a majority of the Australian population.
Hanson’s nativism, however, was not limited to the question of immigration. In her maiden speech, she also outed herself as a strong proponent of economic nationalism, exhorting the Australian government to “stop kowtowing to financial markets, international organisations, world bankers, investment companies and big business people” — what she considered the main driving forces behind globalization. At the same time, she ranted against the sellout of Australian companies to foreign stockholders. Economic nationalism, as Ann Capling has argued, “is above motivated by the belief that a nation should have the capacity and autonomy to make independent decisions about its economy; to lose that capacity and autonomy is also to lose political independence and cultural identity.”
From this perspective, Pauline Hanson’s propositions represented an internally consistent political discourse entirely at odds with the Australian political mainstream and, as a result, mercilessly attacked and ridiculed by the mainstream media.
In the late 1990s, “Hansonism” had the appearance of a fleeting event, alarming, perhaps even shocking, yet ultimately destined to pass, particularly after Hanson failed to get reelected. Her stunning return to the political scene in 2016 proved that nativism had lost none of its appeal. On the contrary: Hanson’s return to the center of Australian politics has all been about nativism in a new guise.
Her impact on both public discourse and politics in Australia has been — and continues to be — as significant and influential as that of most of Western Europe’s much larger and much better organized radical right-wing populist parties. This is no small feat for a twice-divorced mother of four and former fish-and-chips shop owner.
Hanson owed her success primarily to the ability to adapt her xenophobic rhetoric to the new opportunities offered by growing anxiety over the increasing visibility of Islam in parts of Australian society. Adopting key tropes of the anti-Islam discourse prevalent on the Western European radical populist right, she has projected herself as standing up for traditional (white) Australian culture, values and way of life. Surfing on a wave of anti-Islamic sentiments, Hanson’s campaign promised to severely curb the visibility and influence of Muslims in Australia by, among other things, halting the construction of mosques, preventing the introduction of sharia law, and particularly by barring Muslim refugees from entering the country.
Characterizing Islam as “disease” against which Australians needed to vaccinate themselves, she maintained that only drastic measures — such as the ones propagated by her party — would stop the “Islamisation of Australia” that she implied was well underway.
Hanson’s anti-Islamic rant fell on fertile ground. Already in the early years of the new century, prominent Australian opinion makers had whipped up anti-Muslim sentiment, charging, among other things that “White Australians were losing their rights to Muslims who were supposedly unwilling to adopt Australian customs.” Highly publicized reports of gang violence and of young Muslim men committing rape further tarnished the image of Muslims in Australian society.
More often than not, Muslims were characterized as intolerant fanatics, blindly following an archaic faith, intent on taking over whole neighborhoods, one at a time. Odious comments by Australia’s most senior Muslim cleric in 2006 partially blaming “immodestly dressed” women for being sexually attacked only confirmed the perception that Islam was inherently misogynistic and, as such, entirely incompatible with Australia’s liberal values and life style.
Thus, even before Hanson’s election, Muslims faced an increasingly hostile environment, fuelled by a panoply of hostile charges and insults, such as the notion, presumably adopted from kindred spirits such as Filip Dewinter and Geert Wilders on the West European radical right, that Islam was not a religion but a “totalitarian ideology” seeking world domination, the source of “discrimination, division, and violence” on a global scale. With Hanson’s election, Islamophobia has become politically salonfähig; and with it, a refurbished version of nativism aiming to “reclaim” Australia from the purveyors of multiculturalism to its rightful owners, the vast majority of honest, hardworking white “Aussie battlers.”
It’s Okay to be White
In 1996 Pauline Hanson famously claimed that “the most downtrodden person in this country is the white Anglo-Saxon male.” The reason was simple: the “balance” had gone “too far” in favor of women, and men “don’t know what to do.” Clearly, Hanson was not a feminist — and quite proud of it. Twenty years later, nothing has changed. In fact, Hanson once again promotes herself as the “truth-seeking” advocate of the “neglected Aussie battlers” those quasi-mythical creatures who made Australia what it is today. Much of this is symbolic or perhaps more accurately, what Ingolfur Blühdorn calls “simulative” politics, i.e., political rhetoric that feigns concern, and sounds and looks good, but which in reality does nothing in terms of concrete measures to solve the very concrete and pressing problems of ordinary people.
A recent example was Hanson’s introduction of a motion in the Australian Senate that it was “okay to be white” — or perhaps more accurately that it was okay to be a white male who she claimed was the “most demonised person” in the country.
Under the circumstances, Mark Latham’s choice, alluded to earlier, to join One Nation seems almost a foregone conclusion. The former leader of the ALP had warned as early as 2004 of a “crisis of masculinity” affecting Australian boys, which he attributed to two secular developments: the “decline of social and personal relationships” caused by globalization and the decline of “blue-collar muscle jobs,” presumably caused by rapid technological change. The results were disastrous: Boys’ “school retention rates lag well behind girls. Their literacy levels are lower. And in disproportionate numbers, they are the victims of drug overdoses, road trauma and youth suicide.”
Latham’s words were part of a larger discourse of “white male victimisation and disempowerment” which in recent years has morphed into white victimization tout court, promoted by far-right groups and politicians, most prominently former One Nation politician Fraser Anning. Starting from the notion that white Australians are threatened with being displaced by immigrant minorities from non-European stock (reflected in the notion of the “great replacement”), the far right calls for preserving Australia’s “ethno-cultural identity” by restricting immigration to the “culturally compatible,” such as white South African farmers escaping “racial oppression.”
Hanson took up the compatibility trope in her 2017 maiden speech when she called for a ban on Muslim immigration, charging that Australia was threatened to be “swamped by Muslims.” At the same time, Latham revisited the victimized white man trope in his 2019 maiden speech mentioned above, lamenting that the “Rainbow Left” (who he accused of peddling a “new anti-white racism”) had “no solution for the white welfare dependent man in a public housing estate.”
In fact, rather than “helping him, perversely and tragically, they define him as part of the problem.” At the same time, however, Latham made it a point to affirm that he opposed discrimination “in all its forms,” including against Muslims, rejecting “the flawed belief of some that Muslims are evil, inspired by the Koran to cut our throats when the Caliphate is called.” This was clearly not in line with Hanson’s corrosive anti-Islamic rhetoric.
The “theory” of the Great Replacement is part of a “paranoid style” which has rapidly spread among the radical populist right, European and beyond, in recent years. Central to this paranoid style is the conviction that developments and process the radical right objects to or abhors are the result of a conspiracy — conscious evil designs by individuals, such as George Soros, or a cabal, such as remote Brussels administrators. In theory, virtually anything can be subject of the paranoia, nothing is too far out or bizarre (such as the notion that the existence of extraterrestrials visiting the Earth is systematically suppressed by the United States government).
In reality, radical right-wing populist paranoia is limited to a very circumscribed number of issues of major political concern: immigration and national identity; climate change/global warming; the question of gender; and public security. All of these issues have been raised by either Hanson or major One Nation political candidates in a fashion that only but reinforces already existing preconceived notions among their targeted audience. A recent article in The Guardian has shown to what degree conspiracy thinking is prevalent among populist-minded voters, ready to be mobilized by political entrepreneurs.
And this Pauline Hanson and her acolytes have done. Take the question of climate change. Here, Hanson has repeatedly rejected the notion that humans are to blame for global warming. The only thing that was man-made, she has maintained, was “the fear mongering about climate change,” accusing the national Bureau of Meteorology of cooking data in such a fashion as to conform to “the global warming agenda.” At the same time she fiercely defended new coal mining projects in her home state of Queensland, despite their projected devastating long-term impact on the environment.
Former One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts followed suit, charging on social media that the two major parties were destroying Australian farmers by putting “the United Nations war on carbon dioxide ahead of their rights to farm their own land.”
Or take the question of gender, which obviously is closely linked to Hanson and Latham’s defense of the white battler. At the same time, the politics of gender is part of the radical populist right’s larger agenda of assaulting elite-mandated political correctness, fighting the “new class” of cosmopolitan elites and, in the process, reclaiming “cultural hegemony” lost in the years following 1968.
In the weeks before this year’s national election, a One Nation candidate from Queensland made headlines went online to say that the “only thing worse than a gay person with power is a woman.” Two years earlier, a One Nation candidate had gotten into trouble when she posted a series of comments on Facebook charging that “LGBTI is out to destroy families” and claiming that the gay community was “the real manipulating bigot.” Finally, during his senate campaign ahead of the New South Wales election in early 2019, Mark Latham rejected the notion of “gender fluidity” and vowed he would support measures banning people from self-identifying as transgender which allowed them “to change their gender at the drop of a hat.” In none of these cases Hanson pulled her support from the candidate — not least because their positions largely jibe with her own.
Take, for instance, Pauline Hanson’s position on same-sex marriage. In late 2017, during a parliamentary debate on the issue (in the context of the Marriage Amendment Bill), Hanson defended traditional marriage as a union between a man and a woman, charging that allowing for gay marriage would open a “can of worms” potentially leading to under-age marriage and poligamy. It should be noted, however, that Hanson declared herself to be “very divided” on this issue. And for good reason. As a populist, she was in a quandary given the fact that a significant majority of Queensland voters (some 60%) taking part in a plebiscite on marriage equality earlier that year had come out in support of gay marriage.
In order to get out of this quandary, Hanson stated that there were significantly more important issues to be concerned about, such as a the plight of Australian farmers. This was reminiscent of Marine Le Pen’s strategy of dealing with the question of gay marriage at the beginning of François Hollande’s presidency — an issue that deeply divided her party’s constituency, with half for, half against gay marriage.
A third important issue spawning a panoply of conspiracy theories is the question of public security in the age of terrorism and mass shootings. One of the most insidious ones in the first decade of the new century concerned September 11. The 2001 terrorist attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon provoked a number of conspiracy theories, most prominently the notion that top-level members of the American administration had prior knowledge of what was going to happen, but for a number of reasons did nothing to prevent it. Similar conspiracy theories have swirled around the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, a lone-wolf mass shooting that cost 35 people their lives.
Although it was established that the attack was the work of a single individual, Hanson and some of those close to her have suggested that the massacre was orchestrated by the Australian government as a pretense to tighten the country’s gun laws. With Australia having some of the most restrictive gun legislation following the 1996 massacre, right-wing parties have been trying to water down the laws, with Pauline Hanson going so far as to solicit financial support from the National Rifle Association — a move that spectacularly backfired.
Last but not least, the newly elected senator chimed in to the chorus of vaccination skeptics raising doubts about the safety of immunization and advising parents to investigate for themselves the safety of vaccines before going to their doctor. At the same time, the senator attacked the government’s new coercive vaccination program (targeting in particular Australia’s Christian Scientist community, which hitherto had been exempt from vaccinations), characterizing it as “blackmail” worthy of “a dictatorship.” Hanson’s comments were widely condemned by medical professionals and public officials alike, one noting that this was the case of “a popular politician with a significant following who’s actually giving crazy, crazy medical advice.”
In response to the furor engendered by her remarks, Hanson did retract some of her comments, while continuing to maintain that people should do “their own research” before having their children vaccinated.
Those who write on the most recent wave of radical right-wing populism generally ignore the Australian case. Yet Hansonism is arguably one of the most complete cases of contemporary radical right-wing populism — particularly with respect to its ability to absorb new ideas and tropes while abandoning others (e.g., Asians/Muslims), to attract like-minded individuals with significant potential appeal to voters, and to maintain a constant high media profile by churning out a steady stream of controversial, provocative and incendiary utterances.
Unlike radical right-wing populism in Western Europe, Australia’s Hansonism is largely a one-woman show, almost completely dependent on Hanson’s personality and appeal. Yet her impact on both public discourse and politics in Australia has been — and continues to be — as significant and influential as that of most of Western Europe’s much larger and much better organized radical right-wing populist parties. This is no small feat for a twice-divorced mother of four and former fish-and-chips shop owner.
*[The Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right is a partner institution of Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.