By ALAN CONNOR
Does anyone care much that Pauline Hanson is leaving Australia, and reportedly looking to set up home in Britain?
Evidently, the answer is an emphatic “yes”. The story caused a flurry of media interest in Australia and England.
It even brought the promise of a warm welcome from the far-right British National Party, something which it does not normally extend to new arrivals from overseas.
The line taken in much of the coverage was that the woman who once railed against Asian immigration looked set to become an immigrant herself.
It only struck me late that some of the overseas interest in her planned departure from Australia might have been predicated on two flawed assumptions: first, that she still has a significant following in Australia; and second, that she is still a significant political figure. Neither, of course, is true. Far from it.
Pauline Hanson has become a figure of fun, a modern-day “reality celebrity”, who remains famous for once being famous – many would say infamous. You are more likely to see her on shows like Dancing with the Stars than on serious-minded news or current-affairs programmes, and the fact that the story of her departure came out in Women’s Day gives you a sense of the kind of turf she now occupies in the media landscape.
She has been relegated to the gossip columns after once demanding space, and consideration, in the opinion pages.
Still, it was not that long ago that she was the most talked-about politician in Australia – just 13 years ago, in fact, when she delivered her explosive maiden speech in parliament.
In it, she claimed: “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians”, a statement which got the switchboard of parliament in Canberra buzzing, with many admiring callers asking for copies of the speech.
Back then, she was a highly significant political figure, with a highly energised following.
Her One Nation party attracted almost one million primary votes in the 1998 federal election, which was more than the Democrats and about the same as the National Party. After the 1998 state election in Queensland, her home state, the party could even boast 11 out of 89 seats in the Queensland assembly, having gained over 20% of the vote.
Her fall, of course, was swift. She served just one term in parliament as the Oxley MP, and quickly became known as the “Oxleymoron” when her plain-spoken way of speaking veered into inarticulacy. Many Australians can still recall her hapless answer when asked on the current affairs show Sixty Minutes in 1996 if she was xenophobic.
“Please explain”, was her quizzical response. Even if many still liked the message, the messenger herself was well on the way by then to being discredited. It was one of the reasons why Hansonism, if it truly merits that description, proved to be such a fleeting phenomenon.
I have long been intrigued by a simple historical counter-factual, and I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What would have happened if Hanson had known what was meant by the term “xenophobic”, and had not contributed so compellingly to her own demise?
What would have happened had the country not seen her famed “death video”, another YouTube favourite, in which she addressed her fellow Australians from beyond the grave in a speech intended for broadcast in the event of her political assassination?
What would have happened if she had continued to be taken seriously, as the then prime minister John Howard most certainly did at the time?
Rather than censure her or speak out against her, Howard said in October 1996 that “some of the things she said were an accurate reflection of what people feel”. It was a long while before he took her on.
My sense, as I have written before, is that the big post-war story in Australia on the race front is how successfully multi-cultural this country has become without much of a violent backlash. But Hanson was part of a very different storyline in which an undercurrent of racial intolerance percolated to the surface.
Perhaps the question of whether she lives in Australia or not is largely beside the point. On the political front, she has already left the building. – BBC