Pauline Hanson has garnered significant Senate support in NSW, especially in the closest Coalition-held seats in outer-suburban, provincial and rural areas. Photo: Tertius Pickard
Of the many shocks the federal election over the weekend brought, the outcome that least shocked me was the likely hung parliament. Indeed, it's an outcome I feel is reflective of a voting public disillusioned with the current government, but not entirely comfortable with the opposition forming government either. Coupled with what's shaping up to be a rather ad-hoc Senate, it could lead to an interesting few years of skilful negotiation for whichever party does form government.
But somewhere during the count, I started swearing I was having a bad flashback sequence. As the coverage announced it looked certain Pauline Hanson had gained a Senate seat along with potentially another couple of One Nation candidates, I became convinced we had slipped back to 1996. It's not a time in Australian politics I think we should be proud of and it's certainly one I think we shouldn't be returning to.
Pauline Hanson and the views she expresses are too often seen as a cause rather than a symptom of a greater social ailment.
Simply put, One Nation candidates do not gain seats in a vacuum. Back in 1996 she was originally elected as an independent, after initially being endorsed as a Liberal candidate (they removed their support of her just before the election following comments she made regarding government assistance programs specifically for Aboriginal people).
Hanson then went on to make her maiden speech in parliament, which became notorious due to the anti-Asian immigration views she espoused along with continuing attacks on Indigenous programs. At the time, she was widely condemned by the parliament and the media.
Despite the condemnation, Hanson's speech held appeal for a section of the community who had long felt sidelined by previous government policies on social welfare and multiculturalism.
While anti-racism activists picketed Hanson's political gatherings, her popularity in nationalist and racist groups seemed to grow.
Although Hanson lost her seat in 1998, the newly formed One Nation Party continued to run candidates and in 1998, won 11 seats in the Queensland Government. They had some success in other states but their popularity started to wane as their policies became more and more absorbed into the platforms of the Howard Coalition Government; a tactic used to ensure Howard maintained his "battlers" which were perceived to have been crucial in winning him the 1996 election. Due to this, One Nation ceased to be a real political force.
Last week, on Monday night's Q&A, Professor Marcia Langton was asked by the panel anchor Tony Jones why she thought Indigenous affairs had barely featured within this entire election campaign. She responded that she felt that "both sides of politics don't want a backlash from the racist backblocks". It was a view I could only partially agree with given the history of One Nation in this country.
Since Hanson's first election, rather than simply avoiding backlash, politicians have actively drawn on the racist undercurrent of Australian society to win elections. The deliberate focus on "stopping the boats" following the Tampa Affair in 2001 is one jarring example of this happening. Worse, it proved successful and has become a standard tactic used by both the Coalition and the Labor Party in subsequent elections.
The Northern Territory Intervention, while not an election winner for the Howard Government in 2007, barely drew on the tabled "Little Children Are Sacred" report and instead set about compulsorily acquiring land and sending army tanks into remote Aboriginal communities while highlighting Indigenous depravity; a view a lot of Australians were unlikely to question.
It's deeper than this though. For years, we have seen racism bubbling away, yet politicians and the media continue to neutralise it. The rise of various nationalist groups such as Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front and the True Blue Crew, while extreme manifestations of this socially-embedded racism, also do not occur in a vacuum. They have been buoyed by several years of anti-immigration policy; demonisation of minority communities; years of attacks on Indigenous autonomy and social programs.
Indeed, some of our current politicians have actively supported their rallies. While these racist sentiments should be something a civilised society works to combat, the people involved have instead been referred to as "regular Aussie mums and dads" on current affairs shows. In addition, society remains reticent to accept its own national foundations as inherently racist. It shouldn't be so difficult to call an invasion an "invasion" 228 years after the fact.
Many Australians perceived the downfall of Hanson and One Nation as the end of racism in this country, but that could not be further from the truth. Instead, Hanson's ideas became mainstream politics, and we have been trying in vain to undo the damage ever since. So as I ponder what her re-emergence means while listening to old Powderfinger songs which so accurately captured the political situation back then in the late 1990s, I can only fear what we are heading towards next.