‘Hope someone cuts your throat you fucking rag … and soon’ (May 2016)
‘Fukn die you dirty slut you are a traitor I hope you get what’s coming for you people like you deserve a terrible slow death you worthless piece of shit get out of this country you insergen you are the terrorist you filthy dog’ (September 2016)
These are some of the messages I have received as a member of the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, an alliance formed a few months’ back by a variety of left-wing groups (including Socialist Alternative, Anarchist Affinity and the Freedom Socialist Party, as well as a number of unaffiliated antiracist activists) to counter the recent rise of far-right organisations in Australia – for example, Reclaim Australia (espousing extreme populist rhetoric), splinter group the United Patriots Front (explicitly anti-Islam, with leading figures openly Neo-Nazi) and the street fighting True Blue Crew (a ‘pro-Australian group against Islamisation, open border policies, refugees, asylum seekers and the left wing’).
Memberships of these groups are as yet comparatively low, but over the last year or so their online presence has increased significantly. Studies produced by the Online Hate Prevention Institute suggest that around 200,000 Australians actively follow ‘patriot’ sites. Over the same period of time, the Far Right has used violent street mobilisations as a way to drum up support and recruit members. Since April 2016, thousands across the country have attended protests, fuelled by ultra-nationalist chants and Islamophobic rhetoric.
While it is important not to overstate the influence or reach of these organisations, their fascist messages – exemplified in the quotes above – are an expression of the zeitgeist, which in itself is the culmination of many years of fearmongering and broad anti-Muslim sentiment in public and political discourse. These groups are sexist, racist, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant, and Pauline Hanson’s resurrection – and the legitimacy offered by her role as senator – reflect and amplify such sentiment. It is time for the Left to embark on a clear and resolute political project of tackling Hanson and her far-right support base, both politically and on the streets.
Some lessons can be drawn from the first campaign against Hanson almost twenty years ago, in which I was a brief participant.
Hanson made her initial foray onto the federal political scene in 1995, when she was preselected by the Liberal party for the seat of Oxley, only to be disendorsed after a series of racist comments about Aboriginal people. Nevertheless, her campaign platform of abolishing welfare support for Indigenous Australians and blaming Asian migration for Australia’s economic woes propelled her to victory as an independent in 1996.
Hanson’s maiden speech exemplified much of what she stood for: it was a swingeing attack on multiculturalism, political correctness, land rights and immigration. It included calls for Australia to leave the UN and for the introduction of compulsory national service, but the primary focus was on the deleterious effects of Asian migration and Aboriginal ‘special privilege’. Economically, she urged for a return to protectionism and an end to all foreign aid.
‘I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians,’ she (in)famously said. ‘They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate.’ Such crudely worded and explicit racism came like a bolt from the blue. The Keating years, with their pivot to Asia and emphasis on multiculturalism, had established a rhetorical consensus about what could and could not be said about nation and race. The Howard government, with Hanson as its attack dog, turned this consensus on its head. We had entered a new era.
Until 1996, I had been a studious Geelong high schooler. That changed when a poster advertising a demonstration against a One Nation meeting somehow made its way onto the school noticeboard. Revolted by Hanson’s bigotry, a few friends and I decided to go.
One Nation organiser Andrew Carne had tried to hold a meeting in Geelong West some months before, but had been shut down by a raucous protest. This time, One Nation had chosen a meeting space near the Barwon Valley Activity Centre. By the time I arrived, the familiar site had been transformed: police were everywhere; cars were parked at odd angles, as if they’d been left in haste; television cameras hovered.
I joined a bunch of local Aboriginal kids who had brought eggs, and we threw them with wild joy at One Nation members as they arrived. Crowds of anti-racist protesters circled the building. We stood in front of the doors and turned away – with hoots, chants and whistles – would-be attendees. They quickly got back into their vehicles and sped off in undignified haste.
As a result of the two failed meetings, it became impossible for One Nation to establish a foothold in the area.
From then on, rowdy, impolite demonstrations dogged Hanson whenever she attempted to establish branches. Protests also disrupted One Nation meetings in Ipswich, Bendigo, Dandenong, Hawthorn, Adelaide and Perth. The constant public opposition – involving thousands in large confrontational actions – played a vital role in preventing Hansonism from becoming a mass movement. One Nation members couldn’t meet easily and therefore couldn’t organise.
Direct action was complemented by other successful grassroots organising, aided by a larger Left than we have today. Activists leafleted, held stalls in malls and shopping centres, plastered cities and suburbs with posters and collected thousands of signatures on petitions. The High School Students against Hanson network mobilised hundreds in school walkouts and demonstrations. The protest song ‘I Don’t Like It’, by satirical act Pauline Pantsdown, proved so popular it went to number ten on the Aria charts. In late 1996, a variety of community groups, including the Victorian Trades Hall, held a demonstration of 50,000 people. This kind of mobilisation was made possible in Victoria by the history of a comparatively left-wing trade union movement, which wanted to challenge the effects of racism on the state’s highly multicultural workforce.
Such social ferment began to isolate Hanson and her supporters. It also accentuated the interpersonal tensions within One Nation, which imploded in an embarrassing mess – an outcome encouraged by the Liberals. After a successful 1998 state election campaign in which One Nation electorally threatened the Liberal National Party, Tony Abbott spearheaded a legal campaign that saw Hanson and one of her senior advisers, David Ettridge, sentenced to three years’ imprisonment for electoral fraud. Hanson only served eleven weeks, but the die was cast. In a few short years, Hanson seemed to have been relegated to the sidelines of Australian politics, only reappearing as a feathered, menacing grin on Dancing with the Stars (following her return from England, where – much to her disappointment – she had discovered Asian people also lived).
Twenty years after her first election to parliament, we are again facing the menace of Hansonism. In the intervening years, however, many of Hanson’s policies and positions have gone mainstream. Temporary protection visas, turning refugees away at sea, offshore detention – things that are now our daily reality seemed outlandish back then. Also normalised is the Northern Territory intervention, which in the past decade has seen armed personnel invade Aboriginal communities, children facing mandatory sentencing for minor crimes and the introduction of a 1950s-style rations system for Centrelink recipients.
Hanson’s fixations have shifted too. Her Islamophobia indicates her capacity to recognise the zeitgeist and move with it.
Before, Hanson seemed more of a soloist; now she is part of an Islamophobic chorus. Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Islamophobia has become one of the key ideological weapons of Western governments. The vilification of Muslims and the association of Islam with extremism and terrorism have been vital in establishing a rationale for the military invasions in Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. They have also played an important role in slowly but surely curtailing civil liberties domestically. The passing of anti-terror laws by Liberal and Labor governments has undermined many legal tenets once considered inviolable: habeas corpus, presumption of innocence and the right to legal representation, for example. There is also bipartisan consensus that the ‘Muslim problem’ must be tackled.
From 11 September 2001 to the fall of the Howard government, the federal parliament enacted forty-eight anti-terror laws – with Labor supporting the overwhelming majority of them. Their modus operandi was – and still is – to use the threat of ‘Muslim terror’ to usher through significant attacks on civil liberties. More recently, Bill Shorten supported George Brandis’ proposal to indefinitely detain those convicted of terror offences. Indeed, Shorten went further, suggesting the families of those convicted of terror offences ought to be investigated.
When Hanson called for a royal commission into Islam during her 2016 senate campaign, she was merely extending and building upon an already established bipartisan narrative: that there is something deeply dangerous and suspect about Islam. While the ALP and the Turnbull wing of the Liberals might want to distance themselves from the more extreme elements of Hanson’s rhetoric, they have played a part in paving her way. Moreover, Hanson is virtually indistinguishable from the hard-right sections of the Liberal party, such as Cory Bernardi or George Christensen. The proposals in Hanson’s second maiden speech, including a halt to the building of new mosques and Islamic schools and the banning of the burqa, are excruciatingly familiar; in the past couple of years, we have seen well-publicised campaigns against mosques in Narre Warren, Bendigo, Casey and Kwinana.
Hanson was right to say she was merely echoing the ‘unease’ of two previous prime ministers when she confessed her opposition to female Muslim attire. In 2006, Howard declared that he found the burqa ‘confronting’; Abbott echoed these sentiments in 2014: ‘I have said before that I find it a fairly confronting form of attire.’
And when Hanson called for an end to Muslim migration, she was echoing the words of a number of widely read News Corp columnists.
There have been other developments, too. While in the 1990s Hanson received the backing of various far-right grouplets (the Neo-Nazi National Action made Hanson t-shirts) she never fully mobilised these forces. Today, her association with the Far Right is more significant.
Reclaim Australia and its offshoots, such as the United Patriots Front and the True Blue Crew, have emerged over the last couple of years as forces capable of mobilising support, both online and on the ground. They have hosted violent demonstrations of hundreds of people across the country. At a protest in Coburg in May this year, one of their leaders, Blair Cottrell, promised to use ‘force and terror’ against the Left and Muslims. The groups boast about attacks they have already conducted and threaten Cronulla-style pogroms in suburbs with large Arab and Muslim communities. Mosques have already been attacked in Thornlie, the Gold Coast, Toowoomba and Newcastle, and one True Blue member has been arrested for possession of weapons and for plotting attacks on anti-racist organisations. This Islamophobic atmosphere has encouraged physical attacks on prayer rooms at the University of Sydney and the University of Western Australia.
Hanson has proven to be a lightning rod for these forces. On one pro-Hanson Facebook page, she is referred to as the ‘Mother Patriot’ and fans vow to protect her with their bodies if need be. One Nation could well be the body that unites and strengthens these far-right Neo-Nazi thugs into a more organised and therefore more dangerous force. We don’t yet know how this will play out, but – given the rapid rise of the Far Right in Europe and the election of Donald Trump in the USA – we cannot rule out the future strengthening of fascist groups in Australia. This new global context could mean that Hanson is a much more dangerous figure this time around.
After her years in the wilderness, Hanson has been enthusiastically welcomed back, with important news conglomerates and media outlets happy to give her plenty of airtime. In the late 1990s, she was given huge media exposure; it was estimated that, in the first few months after her maiden speech, she was mentioned in the media almost 200 times a day. The spotlight has been similar this time around. In the lead-up to the election, Channel Seven’s Sunrise gave her own spot to comment on a range of issues. She was given a place on the ABC’s Q&A program, and 60 Minutes ran a dewy-eyed puff piece on the eve of her return to parliament. Full transcripts of her second maiden speech were immediately made available through almost every major news outlet.
Many politicians and liberal commentators have called for her to be brought into the fold of legitimate debate. The hugs and effusive handshakes after her maiden speech were a physical manifestation of these attitudes. Some media commentators – Margo Kingston key among them – have argued that Hanson presents legitimate grievances that need to be dealt with. She declared the fears of One Nation voters toward Islam to be ‘natural, and understandable’. The problem with such an approach is that it implies Hanson is responding to widespread Islamophobic sentiment that is welling up as an organic reaction to global terrorism. Such an analysis fails to recognise that Islamophobia is one of the key cornerstones of modern Western governments. To declare that fear of terrorism is something ‘natural’ (as opposed to carefully fostered) and therefore something that needs to be accommodated is mere cover for capitulation to one of the most virulent forms of modern oppression.
Federal resources minister Matthew Canavan warned people not to ‘insult’ Hanson: ‘She deserves respect … the way we deal with these issues is to listen to people’. An Age editorial followed a similar line, arguing that ‘the best way’ to defeat Hanson’s ‘extremist policies’ is to ‘calmly and politely present a rational view based on evidence and logic’. Waleed Aly, in a much circulated statement after television presenter Sonia Kruger endorsed a ban on Muslim migration, called for us all to show ‘others radical generosity in the face of their hostility, even when it hurts. This is the harder choice because it demands much more restraint and patience, and so much more strength’. After her maiden speech, Aly continued his call for moderation and understanding. In what amounts to a let’s-all-get-in-the-centre-and-hug-it-out strategy, Aly condemns those who want to isolate Hanson and her proponents. He suggests that the problem with today’s world is the inflexibility of political positions.
These arguments are profoundly mistaken – Aly and his ilk conflate form and content. If anything, the left needs to be less flexible on questions of Islamophobia and racism. The increasing normalisation of Hansonist attitudes is the problem.
What is more, these arguments underplay the very real threat of Hanson and her patriot offspring. The re-emergence of One Nation and the new Neo-Nazi organising drives are nothing to be sanguine about. After Hanson’s maiden speech in 1996, the New South Wales Race Discrimination Commissioner noted a doubling in reports of racist attacks. Almost certainly, we will see a similar rise in attacks this time around.
Sending ‘forgiveness viral’ won’t stop such attacks. Neither Hanson nor Hansonism should be welcomed into mainstream ‘debate’. To do so would be to normalise bigotry while ignoring the very real violence of the Far Right. To fight Hansonism today requires a rejection of what Mohamad Tabbaa and Claudia Maryam Sirdah describe as the ‘symbolic politics … [of] liberal activism’. This is why the Greens’ decision to walk out on Hanson’s maiden speech is to be commended. Any step that delegitimises Hanson’s ideas is a useful one.
We should also follow the lead of Aboriginal activist Murrandoo Yanner. When Hanson provocatively staged an appearance at an Indigenous art show in Cairns, he didn’t send forgiveness her way. Quite the opposite, in fact. ‘Now you are kicking the Muslims around,’ he said.
You are just a racist redneck with your red hair. Go away, go back to Ipswich and your fish and chip shop. You’re disgraceful, you are intellectually dishonest and you are not welcome here.
Yanner did what more of us should be prepared to do: he made Hanson unwelcome. The Left should reject the prevailing orthodoxy of bringing Hanson to the democratic discussion table. We need to link up and mobilise all of those who have an interest in seeing Hanson’s agenda defeated: Muslims, Asians, Indigenous peoples, single mothers, welfare recipients and whomever else is on the receiving end of her hatemongering. Wherever Hanson appears, she should be met with loud, angry demonstrations. This is no time to be quiet. If and when One Nation tries to consolidate and build branches across the country, it must be resisted.
The global context of a rising tide of Islamophobia, the demonising of refugees and migrants, and the normalising of far-right attitudes requires a more general political challenge. If the Left merely cartwheels around it, discarding established responses like protest, confrontation and hostility to the state as we go, we could easily see a situation developing like in Europe, where the Far Right is a major political force in many countries. There must be a halt of the march towards the centre – after all, today’s centre is skidding rapidly towards the Right.
A focus on Hanson need not preclude condemnation of the political system that produces figures like her. That must be protested as fully and with as much rage as ever. But Hanson remains one of the clearest and crudest manifestations of the zeitgeist, and we need to organise accordingly.
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