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Hanson used to be shocking, now she's almost mainstream. What does that say about us?

By Emma Dawson - posted Wednesday, 29 September 2004

So Pauline Hanson's back! Declaring herself on Andrew Denton's talk show like some sort of scary, shining-inspired political apparition, she announced that she wants "accountability" in government, and for Parliament to return to the "ordinary Australians" it was set up to serve. Admirable. Fascinating. And bewildering, given her "rocks in my head" statement of just a few months ago.

But surely the most interesting part of this comeback declaration was Hanson's statement that the Howard Government has "tackled" a lot of the issues she raised in her maiden speech, and adopted many of the policies she advocated. She's right in saying this proves she had a point in the first place. She's absolutely correct in stating that much of her work has been done for her by the Howard Government. What's scary is that she believes there's still more to be done.

Excuse me, everyone, but where's your reaction to that?


These claims, which Hanson also made during her appearance on a Brisbane radio talk show last week, seem to have gone virtually unnoticed by the majority of our political commentators. It's apparently an unremarkable statement of fact. And yet, only eight years ago, Hanson's maiden speech to parliament, in which she famously lamented the fact that Aborigines are "given everything" and declared that Australia was in danger of being "swamped by Asians", exploded on to national front pages and radio airwaves as people reeled in shock that anyone dare voice such feelings in public, let alone in parliament.
How far we've come since then.

The most obvious thing about the reaction, or lack thereof, to Hanson's claim that Howard has effectively appropriated her original policies is that Australia is no longer the place it was when she was dumped by the Liberal Party after speaking her mind and went on to win the seat of Oxley as an independent.

Hanson's maiden speech, and just about every comment she made thereafter, was covered in 1996 by a mesmerised media that couldn't believe that anyone would have the hide to declare such intolerant and clearly old-fashioned views. It was seen as political suicide, and indeed was the reason the Liberal Party dropped her like a hot potato. But Hanson didn't say anything, it's now clear, that Howard didn't agree with in his heart of hearts. And just like Howard did, Hanson's "ordinary people" responded to her because she was saying things that they were too afraid to speak aloud in the aftermath of the rapid - obviously too rapid for some - social and cultural changes wrought by the Hawke and Keating governments.

While he publicly lamented her words, Howard was quite open about the fact that he welcomed an Australia that was "relaxed and comfortable" enough to let Hanson speak her mind. It was an "end to political correctness", in Howard's view. For too long the "cultural elites" (read progressive thinkers) had dominated the development of our national culture. Although he was determined to win back some ground, Howard apparently could see that a subtle approach, a gently-gently winding back of the more radical, as he considered them, social and cultural developments was his only hope of engaging with the Australian public as it was, or as we thought it was, in the early '90s.

Hanson changed all that. She gave Howard the appearance of credibility in the culture wars - a veneer of progressiveness in comparison with her deep conservatism. In fact, the ideological difference between them can barely be distinguished. She might have been saying things that in 1996 shocked a population that had come out of 13 years of economic and social reform. But to Howard, she was speaking a language he had long thought dead and wanted desperately to revive - the language of division. And since that time, he's softened it, mastered it and spun it so often it's become the dominant discourse of our political landscape.

That is because Howard has succeeded, with the political nous Hanson so clearly lacks and the power of the Liberal Party behind him, in turning this country back: from a forward-looking, independent nation seeking to engage with its closest neighbours with the confidence of a strong and inclusive cultural identity, to a place of fear and division, of lies and obfuscation; a place which looks to Western superpowers to reinforce its sense of self, and turns away from its neighbours, from its indigenous people, from those in the most desperate circumstances who throw themselves on our mercy - perhaps because they had heard, long ago, that Australia was a welcoming and tolerant place.


A place that, in 1996, was rightly shocked and disgusted at the xenophobia and ignorance being spouted by the independent member for Oxley.

No matter who wins the election on October 9, the change in Australian society that has transformed Pauline Hanson from radical redneck to representative of the people is John Howard's real victory, and it's already been won.

The only question is how much we can claw back, and how soon we can start.

In 1996, Hanson was shocking. In 2004, she looks almost mainstream. Is that OK with you?

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Article edited by Julian Gruin.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This article was first published in The Age on September 17, 2004

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About the Author

Emma Dawson is a fellow of the non-partisan think tank Oz Prospect, and a member of the ALP.

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