I first wrote about Pauline Hanson in 1997. She was then a newly elected Australian MP whom the liberal media – indeed most of the Australian political establishment – openly despised.
Hanson had been selected as a Liberal Party candidate in the 1996 elections but was dis-endorsed because the party was embarrassed by her opposition to special government assistance for Aborigines. She won the Queensland seat of Oxley anyway, despite it being an Australian Labor Party stronghold, and went on to form the One Nation Party.
Journalists and commentators made much of the fact that she had previously owned a fish and chip shop. She was seen as bigoted and uneducated and therefore not worthy of a seat in the Australian parliament. It didn’t seem to occur to her detractors that the bigoted and ignorant, in a democracy, are as entitled to representation as anyone.
Hanson wasn’t helped by the fact that she came from a state that many liberal Australians considered racist and socially backward. All this made her the target for a lot of mockery and thinly disguised intellectual snobbery. When a TV interviewer asked her whether she was xenophobic, it was clear Hanson didn’t know what the word meant. The howls of derision could be heard from Brunswick to Balmain.
Her conservative stance on Asian immigration and Aboriginal rights made her even more of a pariah. At One Nation meetings, she and her supporters were abused and pelted with missiles. Ironically they were branded as Nazis, a label that could more accurately have been applied to the people trying to silence her.
I pointed out in my 1997 column that while the media and the political establishment were busy pouring scorn on Hanson, she was steadily building voter support. In the 1998 Queensland state elections, One Nation won 23 per cent of the vote.
Notwithstanding all the derision heaped on her, Hanson shrewdly exploited her “outsider” status. There remained a significant body of old, conservative Australia – some would say redneck Australia – that liked what she was saying.
More than 20 years on, a lot has changed. A flawed human being who arouses intense feelings from friends and foes alike, Hanson has been through some turbulent times.
A gang-up by the major parties ensured she lost her parliamentary seat in 1998, despite winning the biggest share of the vote. She was later expelled from the party she founded and was imprisoned for electoral fraud, although her conviction was quashed on appeal.
Subsequent attempts to revive her political career were dogged by conflict and controversy, but in 2013 she was reconciled with One Nation and by 2016 she was back in Canberra as a senator for her home state.
One thing that hasn’t changed in all that time is the Australian media’s visceral loathing for her. While Hanson remained in the political wilderness she could be treated with lofty disdain. But with her return to the corridors of power, elements of the media seem to be back in “Get Hanson” mode.
Evidence of this is a recent book called Hoodwinked: How Pauline Hanson Fooled a Nation, by Canberra press gallery doyenne Kerry-Anne Walsh.
If that name rings a bell with some readers, it’s probably because Walsh is a regular Friday morning commentator on Radio New Zealand’s Morning Report. But judging by reviews of her new book, Walsh – who previously wrote an overwrought and highly partisan account of how former Australian Labor prime minister Julia Gillard was supposedly shafted – has done nothing to erase doubts about her ability to comment impartially on Australian politics.
One review on a left-wing website carrying the imprimatur of the Catholic Jesuit order applauds Walsh for “dismembering” Hanson. The same review, incidentally, continues the relentless disparagement of Hanson’s background as a fish and chip shop proprietor, as if that negates any right she might otherwise have to be taken seriously.
A less admiring review in the Spectator Australia by maverick former ALP leader Mark Latham, who is something of an outsider himself, describes Walsh’s book as 300 pages of non-stop abuse.
Latham says Walsh’s first sentence sets the tone, describing Hanson as looking like “she’d been slapped with something wet and smelly from the old days, when she ran a fish and chippery”.
Ah, there it is again: the fish and chip shop. The Canberra commentariat won’t let anyone forget it. It’s a striking example of how contemptuous some of the media elite have become toward ordinary people.
From what I’ve read of her, I don’t think I like Hanson, but I like media gang-ups even less.
A tough but dispassionate journalistic assessment of Hanson would be entirely legitimate, but Walsh’s book sounds more like a toxic rant. One otherwise sympathetic reviewer described it as “depthless, open loathing”. Not much has changed in 21 years, then.
Karl du Fresne, a freelance journalist, is the former editor of the Dominion-Post. He blogs at karldufresne.blogspot.co.nz.