Pauline Hanson, Brian Burston, Malcolm Roberts

Kenneth Tynan, one of the great theatre critics of the 20th century, is not much read these days, which is a pity. Faced with works he was hopelessly conflicted about, he resorted to parody — most tellingly in the case of Samuel Beckett, whose Endgame he assessed with a playlet of his own, in which a theatre critic went back and forth across a stage between two evenly spaced wastebaskets, pulling out half-written drafts from one (“a masterful exploration of the nothingness that lurks beneath the surface of existence”) and then the other (“a grab-bag of pretentious vaudeville tricks to which there is less than meets the eye”), cackling hysterically in between.

Kenneth, I feel you, brother. What is one to say after the (re-)maiden speeches of Pauline Hanson and Malcolm Roberts? Wander between the wastebaskets: “The beginnings of a new unified force on the right, which, should conditions deteriorate, would provide the basis for a mass party.” Crumple. Cackle. Second wastebasket. “Yesterday One Nation began circling the drain of the great right-wing gully trap down which so many other reactionary movements have been flushed!” Cackle. Repeat. “Our racist past rises to …” Etc.

What to say? The overwhelming take-away from those two speeches was just how decomposed and pathetic the hard right now is. Merely comparing Hanson’s 2016 speech with her 1996 speech makes it clear. In 1996, Pauline Hanson launched a clear call to control immigration by country of origin, limit the intake from east Asian countries, and reject the policy of multiculturalism, which was (falsely) claimed to be one of cultural relativism. Quantitatively speaking, Hanson was correct. The steady intake of Asian migrants over decades was and has changed the character and texture of metropolitan Australia.

Politically, Hanson reflected a feeling of a not insignificant part of the community — whatever one’s view of it — that such a change had not been debated or discussed. Above all, she advocated a set of policies that could have been easily adopted. With John Howard coming into office, following a campaign representing “political correctness”, it would have been possible to reshape immigration flows. But Howard simply cracked down on boats, left the intake settings where they were (albeit changing the method), and consigned Anglo-Celtic Australia to the history books.

Hanson, had she been the leader of a genuine movement, would have gone in hard against Howard, for doing what Labor never could and putting a preferential immigration policy utterly beyond possibility. And also for letting his attack dog Tony Abbott help tip her into prison on a fit-up. Instead she went in for … Dancing With the Stars, and anything else on offer, including carpetbagging her way through a series of state and federal campaigns.

How? The key difference between “we are being swamped by [east] Asians” and “we are being swamped by Muslims” is that there is not even the raw material for the latter charge. In 1996, Hanson was channelling fears and obsessions that had been formative of white Australia over more than a century. Now she channels the obsessions and talking points of the internet-based “alt-right”, with its tangled ideas about Islam as a power cult, rather than a religion, the undermining of community and family, etc, etc.

Just when the conditions have emerged in which a broad-based nationalist party could emerge — focused on national economic development, inward investment and raising some searching questions about what a wholly globalised culture does to citizenship and identity — Hanson shows up again with the most crackpot version of the right-nationalist narrative. Most of her 10% vote was attributable to her iconic status, and that lifted her three compatriots into power. I suspect only a section of the people who voted for her really believe in such extreme versions of that myth — if they did, one would expect similarly deranged Islamophobic groups like the Australian Liberty Alliance to share some of the spoils. They went nowhere.

Compared to her underling Malcolm Roberts, of course, Hanson is Metternich in Kmart casuals. The purpose of this very odd man, a coal miner from a poor background turned mining engineer and management consultant, appears to be to sop up all the hard-right obsessions of the 20th century that Hanson was not capable of covering. His other obsessions are well-known: crude and conspiratorial theories of central banking, global control through the UN, theories of earth-science that can only be described as Ptolemaic, and last but not least a devotion to the ideas of educationist Maria Montessori, usually a favourite of the hippies*, but whom Roberts describes as the “greatest philosopher in the history of the world”.

Roberts has been a great one for badgering politicians with endless email and letter campaigns, as recorded by Graham Readfearn. He has the air of a man who has faced substantial obstacles in his life and achieved much, yet the lesson he has taken from such a journey is not that life is a relatively open process to which reason is successfully applied, but that vast, yet specific forces conspire against them. The more you succeed, the vaster are the forces to be uncovered. You start off wondering why you have to go down the mine and thinking the masons might have something to do with it, and you end up an international businessman and a senator and conclude that the UN and the global finance system must be out to get you. You can see how people slide from conspiracies that are at least in the realm of the possible to believing that the whole thing is run by shape-shifting lizards from outer space. Where else is there to go?

Thus both Hanson and Roberts are essentially people for whom political, external struggle is an outsourcing of the internal. Doubtless they are competent and realistic people, but everything they do gives the appearance of being the product of multi-symptomatic neuroses of persecution. What’s even more interesting is that such neuroses appear to be congruent with their preferred politics, that of the Chifley era. The psychological ailment of our age is narcissism, a disease of a media era, of a world that’s a hall of mirrors, where the relations of self and surroundings become reversed (hence Latham, Rudd, Abbott). The neuroses of the mid-century were obsessive and persecutory, writ large in the political passions of the time. Hanson and Roberts aren’t right-wing nut jobs, they’re retro-chic nut jobs; scale-model miniatures of the great delusion of the last century, deliverance by means of politics.**

That suggests that they will not go anywhere; that rupture and dissolution will be the fate of One Nation, and their supporters will move on to new, equally obsessive, self-appointed leaders. But but but … traipses over to second wastebasket … the great contrary to such an argument would be that it is as sealed within progressivism as Hanson et al are contained within their shell-hard obsessive worldview. Progressivism, the worldview of the culture-knowledge-policy class, becomes more arrogant and self-enclosed with every passing day, and it is this very process that Hanson and others build their base from. No, I’m not talking about the Greens’ walkout on Hanson’s speech: they were right to do so (even if it had a theatrical aspect, in that they turned up to it at all), when she began talking of mass deportations. Listening to your opponents is one thing; consenting to what you find abhorrent is quite another.

But other arguments invoke the characteristic arrogance of progressive politics: the suggestion that Malcolm Roberts’ election has no legitimacy because he only received 77 first preference votes, as No. 2 slot on a party ticket, or that the election of a slate of One Nation Senators represents a “failure” of the Senate voting reforms. Both arguments are profoundly anti-democratic, expressive of the idea that institutions should be arranged to generate a progressive class outcome.

They’re particularly unwelcome given the tricky politics of the same-sex marriage plebiscite.

There’s no point fighting the argument about the plebiscite any more; it seems clear that the overwhelming majority of the LGBTIQ community/grouping are opposed to it, and the Greens are right to honour that politically. That refusal seems like a missed political opportunity, and the speed with which some groups went from celebrating the hard-fought, hard-won Irish referendum to resisting one here is irritating to say the least.

On the other hand, the widespread resistance to a plebiscite is a measure of how much acceptance and integration of LGBTIQ there is here; people don’t want their mainstreamed and unpoliticised lives turned into political situations, and that’s fair enough. The Irish, struggling to push back Church influence and create a secular civic space, had less incentive to defer the fight (funny story: a progressive opinionista once remarked that there should be a siren that goes off every time I write about same-sex marriage; that man is now training to be a Catholic priest. Strange journey from A to B.).

Here, the strong representation of LGBTIQ people in elite groupings — in terms of economic-socio-cultural power — is part of what’s pushing against a plebiscite. It’s notable that the most significant public LGBTIQ figure to argue for taking on the plebiscite is Bob Brown, a man who is, in the words of Mao, always ready to go back to the mountains and start another revolution. The plebiscite, and its almost certain defeat, is another sign that the fundamental character of politics that we inherited from the 1960s is dissolving altogether — the “liberation” coalition of workers, non-whites, women and the LGBTIQ community is breaking up altogether, and fundamental realignments taking place. There are good reasons to resist a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, but there is no doubt that if such a result occurs, the right will present as proof of the elite’s fear of the people. Crumple. Cackle. But who cares? The right are a pack of crazies anyway. Crumple. Cackle. Crazies whose time has come. And on we go …

*and Mussolini, who handed over a chunk of the Italian education system to Montessori’s control. Or, as he put it, “l’istruzione diretto”

**I suspect the Montessori enthusiasm — she believed in children autonomously steering their own learning, moving freely round the classroom, shaping the world rather than imbibing rote learning — is Roberts’ human dimension, the part of him where he deposits his full humanness. How else would one cope with being so rigidly structured by fantasies of persecution? Politically, the man is a cicada, all exoskeleton. Hanson, well, she put it all into the dancing, the strongest woman on the right become the tremulous feminine. The STC should put her in a production of Streetcar. No direction would be necessary.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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