31 July 2016
Reading something back in February made me doubt that how Australians vote for Senators would change at the election this year. As it turned out, Senate voting was changed, and I felt at the time that the politicians voting for this change might be wishing that they’d done nothing.
What I read back in February was that controversial political figure Pauline Hanson would be a Senate candidate in Queensland at the election. This made me doubt that Senate voting would change.
The reason is that, two decades since being unexpectedly catapulted into the world of politics and subsequently shaking the political establishment to its core, Hanson still remains a controversial figure. And as long as she loomed in the political shadows, I felt that the major political parties, especially the Labor Party, wouldn’t be keen to potentially make it easier for her to return to Parliament. The Liberal-National Coalition had a series of internal splits over her after she arrived on the political scene, but the Labor Party refused to tolerate her and basically denied that she had any legitimacy whatsoever. As such, I was inclined to believe that she could return to Parliament after the means of voting for Senators changed.
Her arrival came amid a time of revolt among voters. It was in early 1996, when Paul Keating was Prime Minister and Labor had been in office for thirteen years. Voters had never liked Keating, but in 1993 he’d managed to win an election against the odds when he successfully scared them into thinking that the Coalition would make their lives less bearable. At the time, Australia was recovering from a recession, and major economic reforms from prior years had seen the country’s economic base change. Inevitably, many people across the country lost their jobs, but new jobs weren’t always appearing where old jobs had been lost, so these jobless people had no sense of economic security. Around this time, there was also a great deal of social and cultural change, in terms of immigration intakes and how people of different religions or races or cultures fitted in here. Although seemingly noble, these changes left lots of people feeling like they were no longer in the country that they’d called home, and there were perceptions of minority religions and races getting special favours from governments regardless of need. It was true that lots of people of these minorities had their needs, but many of them were also able to get by and didn’t need taxpayer-funded assistance to fit in. These changes in both economic and social terms made countless people feel uneasy and ignored.
Worst still, as far as social and cultural change was concerned, there seemed to be a tendency for politicians and academics and other so-called “elites” to slap down anybody questioning the behaviours of these religious and racial minorities, by describing any such questioning as racist. This tactic shamed and frightened people into keeping their mouths shut. Preventing such questioning or debate was part of something known as political correctness, which had become somewhat fashionable over the prior years.
When Bob Hawke was Prime Minister, in the years before Keating defeated him in a leadership challenge, playing the “race card” became a common tactic when questions or criticism emerged over immigration issues and minority group issues, but it seemed to become more common under Keating. Shutting down any kind of “racist” debate might’ve been noble, but countless people felt uneasy about the behaviours of many minorities, and the refusal of Keating and other elites to address these concerns caused public anger to build up, albeit silently.
In 1996, just before a Federal election came, journalists became aware of Hanson having written a letter to a local newspaper in Queensland, which had comments subsequently deemed to be racist. Running for a seat in a former industrial centre with unemployment problems, Hanson caused a stir when she won it. Troubled locals saw Hanson as arguing that politicians were ignoring their problems but willingly helping people of certain minorities, and they responded accordingly, regardless of what others thought.
Hanson went on to be critical of governments’ support for various minorities, at what many people considered the expense of the majority, and support for her grew, right across the country. She formed her own political party as a result.
While Labor denied the legitimacy of Hanson at once, the Coalition was divided over her. Many Liberals shared Labor’s condemnation of her, and some Nationals also did so, but many other Liberals and Nationals were prepared to tolerate her. The reaction of John Howard, who became Prime Minister at the same time as Hanson entered Parliament, was arguably to ignore her. At one time he saw fit to describe some comments that she’d made as “deranged” – soon after, there was an election in Queensland, and her mob won eleven seats in State Parliament. This top-down condemnation arguably increased that support.
Although Hanson later lost her seat, she kept coming back to contest elections, and despite losing, she didn’t give up.
Now the prospect of Hanson having an impact on politics again might stir elitism. Just as she brought elitism out two decades ago, the idea that she brings it back now would ring true as such.