Hanson appearing on A Current Affair.

When Pauline Hanson broke down in tears on A Current Affair last night, she was replaying something we’ve seen many times before. Since her political career was in its very infancy, Hanson has frequently tried to cast herself as a victim.

This victimhood is essential to her political identity, that of an outsider unfairly maligned by a hostile political and media establishment out of touch with middle Australia. It’s been tremendously effective for Hanson, not only enabling her to win supporters, but also cultivate sympathy in the media.

A victim from the start

In 1997, a year after she first burst into the national consciousness by warning that Australia was being “swamped by Asians”, Hanson spoke from beyond the grave. “If you are seeing me now, I have been murdered,” Hanson said in a video, intended to be released if she were killed. In a fiery session of parliament, Hanson said she’d made the video in response to death threats, which she blamed her fellow MPs for.

May I say I am disgusted with a lot of members in the House who have actually incited the violence of people in Australia against me,” Hanson said.

Back then, the media had far less sympathy for Hanson’s antics and the video was widely criticised as a desperately macabre publicity stunt.

In the 1998 federal election, just months after the party had picked up 11 seats in Queensland, One Nation’s vote collapsed and Hanson lost her seat. Pundits optimistically celebrated One Nation’s political death. But the party still achieved a primary vote of 8%. One Nation’s failure, Hanson said, was the fault of Australia’s preferential voting system, and the major parties, who had effectively locked them out.

Australia’s first political prisoner

But a turning point came in 2003, when she and One Nation co-founder David Ettridge were briefly imprisoned for electoral fraud. By then, One Nation was in tatters, the personality clash between Hanson and David Oldfield and declining electoral success leaving them in the wilderness.

Although the conviction was quashed by the Queensland Court of Appeal after just three months, the affair cemented Hanson’s martyrdom. Prime minister John Howard called Hanson’s three-year sentence “excessive”, even though Tony Abbott, then one of his ministers, admitted to helping establish a trust fund, backed by major Liberal donors, to help build the case against One Nation.

Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop called Hanson “Australia’s first political prisoner”. The affair also won Hanson much sympathy. The tabloids, particularly in Queensland, were flooded with letters of support, while she became the darling of talkback radio.

This siege mentality has been mobilised by Hanson and her supporters ever since. In 2007, after leaving One Nation, Hanson announced her “last run” in politics under the banner of Pauline Hanson’s United Australia Party, a name which has since been co-opted by Clive Palmer.

“I have had all the major parties attack me, been kicked out of my own party, and ended up in prison, but I don’t give up,” Hanson said.

When an Al Jazeera documentary from March caught senior members of the party begging the National Rifle Association for money, Hanson said “media and Australia have been blinded by their hate and bias towards One Nation and myself”.

How the media helped her

But Hanson’s broadsides against the media are, to some extent, a case of biting the hand that feeds. After Sunrise’s David Koch drew a link between Hanson’s long history of ugly Islamophobia and the Christchurch terror attacks, he was roundly attacked by her supporters. This, of course, overlooks the fact that Sunrise gave Hanson years of paid television appearances, which arguably paved the way for One Nation’s political rehabilitation in 2016.

The media’s fascination with Hanson isn’t new. Back in 1996, following her incendiary, dog-whistling maiden speech, she received as much media coverage as Howard and more coverage than the Australian economy, highly unusual for a newly elected independent MP.

During Hanson’s years in the wilderness, she was courted by reality TV shows, turning the most prominent symbol of Australia’s far right into a harmless, living room sideshow.

Hanson may cling onto a narrative of victimhood. But without non-threatening media coverage, and the complicity of other “mainstream” political parties, she’d be just another reactionary without a platform. 

“I just feel like I’m getting kicked in the guts time and time again,” Hanson told Tracy Grimshaw last night. Luckily for Hanson, each time she’s kicked, another fluffy TV interview will always be waiting to help her get back up again.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey