Hanson's resurgence combined with a Coalition Government and a renewed racialised right in the Reclaim Australia movement, signal dangerous times for Australian politics, writes John Passant.
RACISM is, to misquote Bill Hughes, a dagger at the heart of Australian society.
The country was founded on a white colonial racism that dehumanised Aborigines and treated them as inferior, to justify stealing their land and in many cases their lives.
The success of that genocide enabled capitalism to grow and entrench itself in the colonies and states in Australia. As it did so and the working class grew, the ruling elite othered not just Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, but also, depending on the times and the circumstances, the Irish, the Chinese, Russians, Kanaks, Jews, Southern Europeans and so on. Fill in your favourite "enemy" here. Othering divides the working class among themselves and can bind workers ideologically at least to the exploiting class.
The slave trade helped build the capitalism we have today. An ideology of dehumanising Africans arose to justify this trade in human beings and their use in profitable enterprises. The expansion of capitalism under British bayonets and guns required a dehumanising of all the conquered nations, starting with the Irish and then on to Asians, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia, and Native Americans in the United States.
Part of this process saw an elevation of British culture and religion to a level of supremacy over other cultures and religions — a position the likes of Pauline Hanson and more mainstream politicians echo today when they talk about Australia being a Judeo-Christian country, or appeal to Australia as somehow exceptional compared to other countries.
One of the first pieces of legislation of the new Commonwealth was the Immigration Restriction Act 1901, known as the White Australia Policy. It was one of the key devices, along with Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904, to keep workers in bed with the bosses. It was not until the 1960s this policy began unwinding. With the opening up of the Australian economy in the 1980s by Hawke and Keating and the rise of Asia – especially China since then – the more sensible elements of the ruling class abandoned anti-Chinese and anti-Asian rhetoric and racism.
But not all of them. John Howard tried to pander to anti-Asian sentiment in 1988. He lost the Liberal Party leadership shortly afterwards. In 1996, the Liberal Party disendorsed Pauline Hanson for her comments against Indigenous people before the election, but she was on the ballot and won the seat. In 1998, her party won 11 seats in the Queensland Parliament. Her target then was "lazy", welfare dependent Aboriginal people and those scheming, hard working Asians.
Asians were going to swamp our country, evidently, much as British and Australian capitalism actually did to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from 1788 onwards.
Her movement collapsed. There were a number of factors. The racists fell out. They were disorganised. Liberal Prime Minister John Howard began talking to them and using language that won many of her supporters and voters over. And, finally, a mass movement of sorts sprang up to oppose the racists.
Twenty years later and, while Aboriginal people and Asians remain part of the Hanson target, the main ‘threat’ now is Muslims. Hanson wants a Royal Commission into Islam. Oh, and climate change. Malcolm Roberts, her adviser and potential second One Nation Queensland Senator (unlikely, but possible), runs the Galileo Movement — an outfit that denies the science of climate change. He believes it is an international bankers’ conspiracy to control the world.
He has said for example:
“The objective is global control through global socialist governance by international bankers hiding control behind environmentalism.”
Often, talk about international bankers is code for Jews controlling the world. Andrew Bolt abandoned Roberts and the Galileo Movement over this "hint" of anti-Semitism.
Despite the absurdity of the anti-Muslim and anti-climate change positions, the Hansonites could win three Senate seats – one each in Queensland, New South Wales and Western Australia – with an outside possibility of Roberts joining Hanson as a senator in Queensland. In some of the lower House seats One Nation contested in Queensland, they won between 15 and 20 per cent of the vote.
There are two main sections in Hanson’s support base. The first is small business and other respectable middle class people. The second is the less educated, less unionised, regional and rural worker. Both are threatened by the pace of change of capitalism. That was true in 1996 and it is true now. What has changed is the inability of the established parties over the reality of the last 20 years to address their economic concerns. For the middle class, that is the threat of becoming working class or unemployed. And for the regional working class it is the threat of less and less work and more and more unemployment and never being able to break out of the downward spiral to poverty.
There is not a strong union movement committed to defending jobs and wages, and resisting racism (instead of pandering to it with Aussie jobs quackery and blaming 457 visa workers for the problems of capitalism). There is no strong left wing political organisation or movement capable of independently mobilising workers and others. Without these two elements, the political space can be filled by reactionary populists and demagogues identifying Indigenous people, Asians and Muslims as the problem, rather than capitalism itself.
On top of that, both major parties have been identifying the other in oh-so-subtle ways, avoiding the language of racism while giving racism direction and life. While the othering cannot directly blame Aborigines or non-whites, it can, as Keating did in 1992, lock up asylum seekers. Or it can, as Howard did in 2007 with Labor’s full support, invade Aboriginal lands and steal Aboriginal children in the name of "rescuing" them.
Once Keating began the process of demonising refugees, it became a race to the bottom among the two major parties. They outbid each other in terms of demonisation and its corollary, cruelty. The gulags on Manus Island and Nauru and the abuse of children, women and men there, is testament to that. The refoulement by boat of asylum seekers fleeing from dictatorial regimes or war, is another example.
Hanson’s resurrection is a logical outcome of decades of nudge-nudge, wink-wink racism from the elite and their failure to deal with the economic uncertainty that is 21st Century capitalism. That racism and inability to sooth the fears of working and middle class people threatened by change also spawned Reclaim Australia and its fascist infection, the United Patriots Front.
It is not only Hanson who has spoken at Reclaim Australia rallies. Coalition MP George Christensen spoke at one of their rallies this year too. Given the middle class and some working class support for Hanson and for Reclaim Australia, there is the potential for this movement to move towards proto-fascism, wrapped in the flag, and the virulent othering of Muslims, Asians and Aboriginal people. This is especially the case when (not if) the Australian economy declines further in the next few years, as the global recession continues elsewhere, and seeps further into the Australian economy through lower resource prices and a slowing Chinese economy.
The other "other" in the eyes of the Australian ruling class is the trade union movement. The Great Recession is beginning to hit Australia. While strike levels are at almost historic lows and the share of national factor income going to capital at almost historic highs, the continued existence of unions like the CFMEU and its commitment to defending its members, their jobs and their wages, is a threat to the ruling class’s SDAisation of the rest of the union movement, and the consequent decline in wages and jobs as a counterbalance to declining profit rates.
The Australian Building and Construction Commission and the aim of Turnbull to smash the CFMEU through new laws passed by a joint sitting, after all the pretext for the election, is in tatters, with the result in the Senate almost guaranteeing its failure.
With the resurgence of a radical racialised right around Hanson and her fellow travellers in the Reclaim Australia movement and a Coalition Government, these are dangerous times for Australian politics.
The left has to unite with the aim of smashing Hansonism and all those currents leaching off it. That means building a mass movement to smash this cancer in the bones of the working class. It does not mean substituting ourselves for that mass movement by indulging in physical confrontations.
We have to begin to build that mass movement against racism and Islamophobia now. We have to get our unions involved. We have to make sure we are strong enough in the future to send these dangerous reactionaries packing whenever they raise their heads in public spaces. And we have to defend Muslims, refugees, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples against the attacks of the "respectable" racists who have given the kiss of life to Hanson forces.
Hanson et al now have the platform of parliament to spread their filth. We, as a mass movement, must take the platform of the streets and of the workplaces to spread the ideas and to take the actions that stop them.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License
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