Friday, December 08, 2006

Pauline Hanson and the Australian Way

I have noticed the comments about Pauline Hanson in the press. Now here I agree with Neil's view: Best not to give her the oxygen, and Bob Brown’s predictable and well-intentioned namecalling is poor strategy, in my view. As Neil says, best to ignore her.

I am saying this up front because I want to express a counter view about her past role, looking back at what happened and subsequent changes in Australia from a different perspective.

One Nation's success came as a suprise to politicians, journalists and city intellectuals. It should not have.

Cast your mind back to the period leading up to the election of March 1996. Australia had been through a period of very significant social and economic change, some elements of which I have been tracing in this blog.

In economic terms, the economic troubles of the seventies had been blurred by prosperity and then boom during the eighties. This prosperity concealed to some degree the impact of economic restructuring that was already underway, that was already creating a pattern of economic winners and losers. Then came the recession that we had to have, a recession that accelerated and exposed the restructuring process, increasing the the number who were worse off and who feared for their future.

Economic change combined with social and cultural change. Asian migration became more visible, creating fears about the transformation in society. Then Paul Keating started pushing the idea of the republic. Coming on top of other changes, this move was quite divisive, becoming another symbol to some of a change process out of control.

Because of the Party's Irish Catholic past, I do not think that either Mr Keating or those in the ALP supporting the change fully understood the emotional impact of the republic proposal, an impact that was important in part because it was symbolic, another sign of loss of position among a group that had been part of the dominant Australian main stream only thirty years before.

By 1996 there was a large group in society fearful of the future, concerned about the pace of change. Their concerns were exacerbated, their numbers concealed, by the intellectual lockdown imposed by the dominant intellectual elites. There were a range of views that were simply excluded from public discussion.

I remember a dinner party in Armidale in 1993 with a group of people connected with the University. I expressed the concern that the pace of change had become too fast, that we needed to look at slowing it, that Asian migration was becoming an issue. I knew this because of the range of people I talked to across the country.

This was meant to be a conversation, an issue to be explored. I was not allowed to continue. Even to suggest that the question of ethnic mix had become an issue in some people's minds and needed to be discussed was construed as racist. The reason why the word multiculturalism became such an issue among some is that it was itself a symbol of intellectual lockdown imposed by what were being called the thought police aka the chattering classes.

Pauline Hanson and One Nation were created as political forces by the dominant intellectual elites.

Their and especially the press reaction to one of her comments led to the withdrawal of her Liberal Party pre-selection for Oxley and turned her into a political marty. Her decision to contest the seat as an independent might have passed into history had the media not focused on her so strongly. By doing so, they created the conditions required for her to attract support from part of the disaffected group.

The extent of the upswell in support took the metro media by surprise simply because they had become so isolated from some streams of Australian opinion. This upswell then provided further stories, feeding the process.

The way the media reported Ms Hanson and One Nation did us enormous short term damage overseas. But at local level the growth of the media boosted Ms Hanson and One Nation had a major but unrecognised, perhaps still unrecognised, national plus. It lanced a boil that, had it continued, might have poisoned the nation.

This came about in two ways. First, previously suppressed views and concerns were now being discussed. Secondly, the main stream parties now took up some of those concerns in order to isolate One Nation. This was done not so much in policy terms, but in rhetoric and symbols.

Much of the discussion of the language and approaches by those critical of Mr Howard focus on the importation of overseas ideas and especially those imported from the US. There is some truth in this, but it also misses a key point.

In many ways, Mr Howard is first and foremost a populist, electoral politician. He likes being with people and has the capacity to capture and articulate what many people feel. If you look at his comments and approaches, at his language, he is actually articulating what the previously suppressed group felt, presenting an Australian view that reflects their concerns, in so doing bringing them back into the political mainstream.

The loss of republic referendum has also helped here by removing a previously divisive symbol from discussion. Australia may or may not become a republic in due course, but it's no longer something that people have to worry about in the short term. It is no coincidence that the no vote was most concentrated in those geographic areas (country, outer suburbs) containing the highest proportion of those threatened, alienated by the previous change process.

The previously dominant intellectual elites have struggled to come to grips with all this, suffering from the same sense of isolation, of diminished relevance that they had previously inflicted on others.

Change is continuous. Here I have been fascinated by the way in which the dialectic between the two schools - previously dominant, then suppressed, now dominant again to some degree vs the dominant now suppressed - combined with policy and political change is leading to a new amalgam.

Take the word multicultural as an example.

When this first emerged, it simply meant a society with multiple cultures that could exist and be recognised within the broader national body. This was in fact Australia's formal position in 1949 in the early days of the post war mass migration program when the Government emphasised the fact that migrants did not have to give up their culture or religious practices.

The word then became a sometimes hated symbol - the substitution of the concept of multiple cultures in place of an Australian national culture. This led to its partial suppression, discredited, after 1996.

The word is now coming back into acceptable usage, its meaning morphed back into its initial meaning before it acquired all the semantic overtones. To put this in Howardian terms, Australia is a tolerant society that recognises and accepts different ways within a framework set by our national laws and culture.

I linked the term Australian Way with Pauline Hanson because all this goes to the heart of one of my recurring arguments, the fact (as I see it) that there is a distinctive Australian Way, that we need to focus on charting our own path.

Pauline Hanson was a distinctly Australian creation. The response to her, immediate and longer term, was also distinctly Australian. Attempts to interpret her and subsequent responses usuing overseas models will at best be grossly misleading. One Nation, for example, was never an extreme right wing party on European lines even though some of those following One Nation may have had Neo-Nazi links.

I do not pretend to know Australia now as well as I did in 1996.

Since we moved to Sydney's Eastern Suburbs my contact base (occupational and geographic) has narrowed, while Australia has become more diverse. Still, my feeling remains that Pauline Hanson this time round will be important if and only if she receives the same amount of attention she did in 1966. Even then, I doubt that she will have the same impact.


Anonymous said...

Thank you Jim for your very clear and highly credible analysis of these episodes in our recent political history. I particularly liked the paragraph featuring the words "dialectic" and "new amalgam", a section where you capture well the jockeying for dominance between the chattering class and the Howardians.

Thank you.

Your Secret Admirer

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you secret admirer!

Lexcen said...

Jim, whatever people may think of Pauline Hanson, she did bring to surface the feelings and thoughts of many Australians. As a political agenda, it was doomed to failure because Pauline was never a politician. She embodied the thoughts, and ideas of people who fear change (Asian immigration) and who are fed up with the failure of Aboriginals to integrate into mainstream society. The fact that she wasn't an intellectual, that she was inarticulate and naive, endeared her to those who saw themselves in Pauline. It's ironic that John Howard took up Pauline's causes while ridiculing her (he didn't want to share the political platform with somebody outside of his party and his control). We can dismiss her as a fool and inept politician but you cannot dismiss the undercurrent of fear and distaste of foreign cultures that permeates Australian society - the Cronulla riots is one example. Personally, I feel that multiculturalism has ran its course and there is a need for a different approach. Not all cultures are equal and not all cultures are good. There are traditions and customs that are best left behind instead of being brought to Australia. You would remember the Ustashi for example. There are numerous examples of immigrants who have psychological and cultural baggage that serves no purpose other than to divide the Australian community. We wouldn't want Shia and Sunni muslims battling each other in the streets would we? We wouldn't want Serbs and Croats fighting it out in Australia. We wouldn't want Hutu and Tutsi tribes importing their prejudices and hate. We don't approve or condone torching of Indian brides who fail to provide adequate dowries. We don't approve or condone of female genital mutilation. We don't approve or condone honor killings. Should I go on?
BTW, have a great holiday.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thnaks, Lexcen. I am enjoying my break, although I had to tell David that there was no prosecco.

You wrote: "whatever people may think of Pauline Hanson, she did bring to surface the feelings and thoughts of many Australians" and "It's ironic that John Howard took up Pauline's causes while ridiculing her (he didn't want to share the political platform with somebody outside of his party and his control.

I think that this links to one of my key point, that Pauline Hanson did provide a circuit breaker for concerns about direction that had been supressed, forcing the mainstream parties to take some of them up.

Beyond this point I want to think about your comments before responding further, for I think that you are both right and not right at the same time!