At this point, even if Malcolm Turnbull manages to return to government in either majority or minority form, few people can see him hanging on as prime minister for very long. Yes, John Howard had a similarly close result in 1998, but he wasn’t left in minority, and he didn’t have a coterie of MPs and a former leader actively working to destroy him.
In which case, there’s a very real chance that Turnbull’s biggest achievement as prime minister will have been to usher Pauline Hanson back into political relevance for the first time since she lost her seat in 1998. Worse, there remains a strong possibility she will bring another senator in with her. Maybe even two.
This, and the re-election of Islamophobic Jacqui Lambie and the return of LNP MP George Christensen, is terrible news for Australians’ Muslim communities, which can now expect routine demonisation and vilification from an emboldened clutch of bigots who have parliamentary privilege and guaranteed media exposure as part of their national platform.
In ordinary times, that would be an appalling outcome. It will encourage an already aggressive handful of Islamophobes to verbally and sometimes physically attack Muslims — or people they think are Muslims (bigots have trouble distinguishing, say, Sikhs from Muslims). People’s lives will be made miserable by the kind of rhetoric Hanson, Lambie and others will spout. But at a time when security agencies are pleading with politicians to tone down divisive rhetoric because it undermines their capacity to engage with Muslim communities in order to spot people at risk of radicalisation, it might have further debilitating effects on our domestic security.
This is all on Malcolm Turnbull and his decision to call a double dissolution election.
The surge of support for Hanson not merely in Queensland but in NSW and Western Australia will draw any number of think pieces about what it means; Malcolm Farr had an excellent piece on Hanson and her party today. The rise of Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK adds to the context of populist revolts. There has also been some ready conflation of the success of One Nation and that of NXT in South Australia. But Nick Xenophon’s outfit is significantly different in policy terms: Xenophon is a centrist except on economic matters, where he skews hard to the traditional left — he backs protectionism and industry interventionism of the kind both major parties abandoned in a general sense in the 1980s but now flirt with via defence policy and on specific industries like steel.
Neither side now has a figure willing, as Keating was, to explain effectively and coherently to voters why and how they benefit from liberal economics, to short-circuit the instinct to rush to protectionism by detailing, in a cut-through manner, why it will always fail.
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One Nation, however, isn’t explained simply by economics. Hanson has always appealed to communities who resent economic liberalisation and globalisation — especially in regional areas, and Queensland, after all, is the most regional of Australian states. But it was always about social and cultural issues as well. Hanson — as Malcolm Farr accurately discusses — particularly appeals to low- and middle-income middle-aged white Anglo males. That demographic is the biggest loser from the last three decades of economic and social change in Australia, because they have lost their socio-economic top status. The culture and the economy used to pander to them — a protected economy guaranteed manufacturing jobs, a patriarchal culture guaranteed their gender privilege, they lived in a white country, they dominated its institutions of power. Their support for Hanson is a cry of rage at everyone they blame for their loss of status: women, LGBTI people, asylum seekers, Muslims — anyone for whom the Australia of 2016 is a more comfortable place to live than the Australia of 1976.
The fact that Hanson has traded generic “Asians” for “Muslims” demonstrates how there’ll always be a convenient “other” for such people to blame. In the 20 years since Hanson first soiled politics with her presence, Asian-Australians have become far more accepted, even if some xenophobia can still be found when it comes to property markets. That, after all, has been the Australian history of multiculturalism — yesterday’s targets of bigotry become today’s part of the Australian furniture. Hanson simply switched seamlessly to demonising Muslims. And if she’s still around in 20 years, it’ll be some other group.
All that downward anger is coupled with fierce resentment of “elites” who have allowed or caused all the bad things to happen (immigration, economic change, divorce law reform, legalising homosexuality, etc). And this inevitably turns into conspiracy theory: the elites aren’t in charge because voters elect them, but because there’s some anti-democratic cabal manipulating events, with the usual cast of conspiracy theories such as the UN, the IMF. That’s why One Nation rapidly shades into overt wingnuttery — anti-fluoridationists, anti-vaxxers, climate change deniers, anti-Semites, halal conspiracy theorists.
Though Nick Xenophon’s program of economic interventionism (similar to that espoused by the likes of Bob Katter) would pander to the economic illiteracy of such people while impoverishing us all, nothing will satisfy the rage of the middle-aged white men who back Hanson. The rest of the country isn’t prepared to go back to an Australia where women knew their place, “wogs”, “poofs” and “spastics” were mocked (and worse), Australia’s first peoples wee vilified and impoverished, and Muslims were some mystifying, barbaric Other best left to stew in the Middle East. There’ll always be someone for these people to resent. And now the Senate will be used as a platform for that resentment.