A big crowd turned out in Melbourne on Monday night to hear David Marr talk about his new Quarterly Essay, “The White Queen: One Nation and the Politics of Race”. And rightly so; Marr is fine performer, and the essay is a good read.
More importantly, it’s topical. Marr has not always been so lucky on this score — his essay on Kevin Rudd appeared the same month that Rudd was deposed by his party — but Pauline Hanson and Hansonism are not going away any time soon, and Australia badly needs the debate on how to respond to them.
He finds — and this will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen the data on Donald Trump’s voters in the United States — that Hanson’s supporters are not the victims of globalisation, not those who have been left behind by changing economic conditions. Indeed, they are not primarily motivated by economic issues at all.
The three things driving One Nation voters, on Marr’s account, are an intense distrust of government, nostalgia for an earlier Australia, and, most of all, xenophobia. As he puts it, “behind all the complex calculations about what drives people into Hanson’s arms, these figures speak with unmistakable clarity: One Nation voters loathe immigrants. It’s an embarrassing challenge for a decent country to find such forces at work, but it is much too late to pretend that a party which displays such extreme hostility to immigration is not driven by race”.
Marr is well placed to understand the persistence of Hansonism because, unlike most pundits, he was never captive to the John Howard myth; he gives Howard due credit for the toxic nature of our race debate. Howard and Hanson, he says, were “a mighty couple”; while he made her go away in the short term, he also fostered the attitudes that ensured her a continuing base of support.
So, what to do about it? Those looking in the essay for a prescription on combating One Nation are likely to be disappointed; there are scattered suggestions, but they are not tied together. In person, however, Marr was more forthcoming.
Appeasement of One Nation, he said, is useless; it simply “feeds the hunger” of its supporters. What we need instead is to stop shying away from naming their motives. We need to admit, he says, that this is a debate about race and racism, and have that “national conversation”, painful though it might be. (He did not suggest an equally explicit conversation about crime, where One Nation’s supporters are also far out of the mainstream, although that too would have its benefits.)
Marr pointed out the difference here with the experience of Britain, where hostility to immigration is much more widespread. In Australia, Hanson’s views are those of a small minority: mainstream politicians should have less to fear from taking her on. “[T]he far right where politicians are spending so much energy harvesting votes these days is not Australia.”
This is an attractive answer. Certainly it would be good to see more explicit attacks on One Nation’s racism, and in the wake of the Western Australian result I suspect some might tread a bit more boldly. But, in general, I think there is little chance of our major parties adopting Marr’s prescription.
One reason is the one he gave: that an explicit conversation about race, uncomfortable anywhere, is especially so in Australia given our tortured history. Beliefs about race, as Marr put it, come from somewhere deep down where your self-respect resides. Most of us, politicians included, don’t want to go there.
But I think there’s a more important reason: although Hanson’s views appeal to only a small minority, that minority is very solid. To attack Hanson in policy terms means to consecrate her as the spokesperson of those views, and to risk assuring her party of a permanent place on the political stage as their representative.
Our political leaders, I think, prefer to treat Hanson as an aberration, a curiosity, and to focus on her (considerable) personal shortcomings, in the hope that her supporters will tire of her and move on to other things. This, they believe, is the lesson of her earlier appearance and implosion. A conversation about issues, by contrast, makes her important. It may scare the vast majority away from her, but a stable 5% to 10% of the vote would be enough to keep One Nation around for a long time.
Here is where it would have been good to see Marr draw more on international comparisons. Taking One Nation’s positions seriously means, among other things, seeing it as the local representative of a wave of neo-fascist movements recently coming to prominence. Other countries have successfully taken on the far right — this month’s election in the Netherlands was a powerful example — but even “success” in this context involves accepting such parties as a continuing presence.
It may be that this is where Australia will end up — we may have to learn to live with One Nation or something like it, just as European democracies do. Marr seems to think so; Hanson, he says, “is manageable, but we are not managing her”.
But having seen her disappear once before, it’s hard to blame politicians for hoping it might happen again.