There’s a meme that’s been doing the rounds online for a few years: a top-hatted dog sits at a kitchen table with a mug of coffee as flames engulf his house and smoke billows throughout the room. In the next panel, the dog is shown in close-up; he’s smiling and the speech bubbles reads, ‘This is fine.’
It’s a handy metaphor for thinking about how politics is often reported in Australia. The 24 hour news cycle, the constant polling, the appetite for scandal and intrigue, the imperative to report the day-to-day minutiae, the isolation of Canberra and the close bonds between journalists, political staffers and MPs mean journalists and commentators often lack the perspective to place events within a broader context.
Politics, in this sense, is just shortsighted managerialism; the goal is victory at the next election. There can be no vision for building a better society. It’s all risk-management. Everything’s fine until it’s all coming down.
Recent election reporting in America was unquestionably plagued by many of these same problems. ‘Experts’ were almost universal in their pronouncement that Trump couldn’t win. Then, once elected, many of these same pundits — still dumbfounded as to how they could have got it so wrong — turned to warning the public not to normalise him or his behaviour.
But, again, that ship had sailed: Trump, by virtue of being elected president, had already been normalised in the very way they were cautioning against.
Lagging fashionably behind as is our wont, this week it was the Australian commentariat’s turn to warn against a process that has already occurred. Writing for The Conversation, Michelle Grattan intoned, ‘One Nation has now been “normalised” in the Liberals’ firmament of political players’.
The article is about the Western Australia Liberals’ preference deal with One Nation, but, as Gratten points out, it speaks to a broader national trend. She quotes cabinet minister, Arthur Sinodinos, who told the ABC: ‘They [One Nation] are a lot more sophisticated; they have clearly resonated with a lot of people. Our job is to treat them as any other party.’
But this is not the beginning of the normalisation of Hanson and One Nation — it’s the end, and Sinodinos, as John Howard’s former chief-of-staff, has played a not insignificant role in it. In a piece for The Monthly, Dominic Kelly highlighted how large swaths of the rightwing commentariat have embraced the ‘more mature’, ‘disciplined’ and ‘principled’ Hanson 2.0.
Despite this rhetoric, for the Right, appeasing One Nation has always been a balancing act. They’re guided by one question: How much racism is permissible before it has to be condemned?
As a settler colony, racism is intrinsic to Australia’s history. It’s manifested itself in many forms and its victims have been numerous and varied, but it’s been ever-present. Hanson has built her career on this: she rose to prominence attacking Aboriginals, then Asians and, now, Muslims. Her racism is born out of a kind of nationalism — it’s undoubtedly genuine, but it’s always opportunistic, as is evidenced by her willingness to change her targets based on the national mood. More significantly, it’s an imperative. Without it, Hansonism couldn’t exist.
She is not, despite what Sinodinos claims, having more success now because her party is more ‘sophisticated’. She is, rather, capitalising on a broader and increasingly prevalent sense of alienation and disillusionment within the culture. She has an intuitive sense of this, but she doesn’t seem to understand it in any meaningful way. Her praise for Putin, for example, was more about toeing a Trumpian line — an effort to be his Australian equivalent — than any actual thought-out political position.
As the economy has been deregulated and many of the traditional roles of government have been outsourced to private contractors, governments have found themselves impotent in the face of the growing tide of insecurity, disaffection and pessimism. At the same time, the atomisation of society has meant that many of the communities — churches, unions, clubs, etc. — that people once turned to for support no longer exist in the way they once did.
This fragmentation poses a threat to stability and undermines the government’s ability to rule. In their quest to foster a sense of national unity, they often exercise one of the few powers they have left — control over their borders.
Tellingly, it was the Tampa debacle, more than any other event, which has shaped the current debate about boat-borne refugees in this country. It happened during an election campaign and then Prime Minister John Howard, aware that a perceived threat would inevitably create a greater sense of national unity (a boon for the incumbent), deliberately conflated the incident with the threat to national security. The Labor Party, led by Kim Beazley, feared being wedged on the issue — he equivocated and, with that, lost any chance to take a principled position. Since then, both parties have been equally depraved and immoral in their demonisation of refugees as potential criminals and terrorists.
Career politicians don’t, of course, articulate these sentiments quite as crudely as the likes of Hanson, but they convey them in other ways. By locking refugees up in what are essentially prisons, for example; or sending the navy to deal with them, despite the fact that they — in over-crowded, leaky boats — pose no military threat; or by claiming that they’re violent or that they throw their children overboard and are, therefore, unfit to be granted citizenship.
People pick up on these cues, as indeed politicians intend them to. But Hanson comes right out as says the things that politicians have long implied — the things that they long considered un-sayable. For this, she’s held up by some parts of the electorate as a truth-teller; unbridled by ‘political correctness’ and willing say what everyone’s apparently thinking. And well may they be thinking these things, but that is in no small part because that’s the agenda both major parties have been pushing for over a decade now.
The mistake pundits make when asking whether One Nation has been ‘normalised’ is to see them as an aberration — as a breaking with the political order. But One Nation is an extension of it — the inevitable by-product of decades of racialised, anti-immigrant politics.
The flames of hatred and division have long been burning in Australian politics. And everything is not fine.
(This was originally published in Eureka Street on 16th February, 2017.)