Hanson, Howard and the Politics of Exhaustion

This September will mark ten years since Pauline Hanson took her seat in Federal Parliament to deliver the speech that would extend her fifteen minutes of fame as a dis-endorsed Liberal Party candidate to a political movement. At the time, it wasn’t clear what impact Hanson would have, or what legacy she would leave. Many political commentators regarded the party as an expression of political atavism, the last screaming gasp of a style of politics that would be lucky to see the turn of the millennium.

And sure enough, lacking anything resembling party discipline or effective organisation, the whole thing self- combusted, after some initial successes in Queensland and New South Wales , at state and federal levels.

But the political demise of Pauline Hanson and the marginalisation of the party she founded, while no doubt inconvenient to those involved, didn’t stop Hanson’s policy vision from being realised. It’s now clear that Hanson and One Nation, far from being a political throwback, prefigured the politics that was to come.

If that sounds like an exaggeration, just note that the party that disowned her has now delivered on every single one of the substantive policies proposed in Hanson’s maiden speech.

ATSIC has been abolished and rights to native title have been whittled back to protect the interests of white landowners. Refugee policy has been re-fashioned in line with Hanson’s complaint, ‘If I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country’, the echoes of which could be heard in Howard’s Tampa election catch cry: ‘We decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’.

The government has taken a more aggressive posture towards the United Nations, particularly in regards to our human rights record and the environment. Add to this the attacks — both coded and direct — on multiculturalism, culminating in the street violence in Cronulla.

More is to come, with the government announcing a wide-ranging review of the family court, another target of Hanson’s maiden speech.

Not to be outdone, NSW Young Labor recently called for the introduction of some kind of national service — senior ALP figures qualified this by calling it civil service — yet another policy idea flagged by Hanson in her maiden speech.

So normalised has Hanson’s vision become in the current political climate that she can appear on ‘reality’ TV shows with other has- and never-been celebrities, and looks only slightly out of place.

Just how much the Coalition has pilfered from Hanson was bought home by a visit to One Nation’s website a couple of years back, when the homepage carried an angry complaint against the Liberals for stealing their thunder. The current home page of the NSW branch of One Nation has a variation on the same, using the commonalities between Howard’s policies on Indigenous issues, race and immigration and the demands made in Hanson’s maiden speech as reasons to vote One Nation.

It would be mistaken to conclude, however, that Howard isn’t his own man. While One Nation drew the rough sketch, it took a more sophisticated set of hands and more refined style to fill in the nuance and details. Moreover, the government pushed the agenda outlined by Hanson much further than even she could have anticipated — thus guaranteeing One Nation political marginalisation.

People who voted for Howard on grounds of economic management are incredulous when you tell them that having voted for Howard they also got Hansonism. Good economic liberals all, they just wanted low interest rates and a booming economy, the (mistaken) assumption being that culture and economy are separate from one another. You could thus vote for Howard on economic grounds with your social liberalism intact. The ease with which, for many people, social liberalism sits together with Howardism is only the most visible symptom of the extent to which contemporary politics has become exhausted, to the point where such fundamental differences are seen as having few implications for one another. This exhaustion extends beyond the Coalition to much of the organised left, evidenced by the ‘Coalition-lite’ brand of politics pursued by Beazley and the NSW branch of Young Labor’s call for civil service.

This exhaustion stems from the attempt to hold in place a way of living whose foundations have undergone or are undergoing profound shifts. Australian society, like that in other industrialised nations, has been re-fashioned along lines that allow the dominance of social relations abstracted away from proximate communities. This is carried in our approach to knowledge, our reliance on information technologies and our absorption into the global economy.

Unable or unwilling to convey a vision that incorporates that change or makes of it a future worth living, the dominant political reflex has been to deny such transformations or their significance (that often amounts to the same) and engage in a desperate struggle to hold together a world and a way of life whose time has past. Instead of a politics that actually grapples with the crises of the present moment we endure a parade of tired images and emptied notions.

John Howard’s Australia Day speech is only the most recent example of this kind of hollow rehearsal. Aside from historian-baiting, with his call for a ‘structured narrative’ in the teaching of Australian history to replace what he sees as the current postmodern ‘stew of themes and issues’, Howard’s speech also pressed all the familiar neo-conservative buttons.

After ten years of driving the domestic economy into the far reaches of neo-liberal globalisation, Howard can still talk of our ‘national family’, as though that organic image might, in itself, bind together a society increasingly stratified along the lines of individual interest, wealth and ethnicity; as though his theme of achieved Australian ‘balance’ — between public and private, unity and diversity, rights and responsibilities — might fill the holes left in actual Australian communities by relentless neo-liberal economism.

Howard noted in his speech that there was no test of ‘Australianess’, but neglected to then concede that this made his favourite epithet — ‘un-Australian’ — meaningless. In any case, he is confident he knows Australia , and the evidence of his deft populism from Tampa onward suggests he is right. Although, it may be that these ten years have been imprinted on Australia: now a place where individuality means a de-collectivised workplace agreement, where citizenship rights diminish in proportion to the significance of an international relation, in which unity is bought at the cost of the freedom of refugees, where the private interest of share-price eclipses the established systems of public accountability. Stitching empty political language over the enforced separation of culture and economy has been a winning technique for Howard.

However, it could be that the political exhaustion that thrust Hanson onto the stage and that has allowed Howard his virtually unopposed sway, is an interval drawing to an end. The quavering voice of Hanson’s maiden speech resonated with Australians who already felt the anxiety that came with the first wave of neo-liberal dislocation. Like Hanson herself, they were unable to identify the source of their insecurity and readily transferred it back onto the old scapegoats of Aborigines and an undifferentiated Asia .

The diffuse pressures of the global economy are materialising and showing themselves more directly. Others, aside from the jobless manufacturing worker, now know that neo-liberal globalisation hurts. The primacy of individual desire, central to ‘growing’ consumption, is now being connected to the problem of meaninglessness and the spread of depression. Likewise, social exclusion cannot now be discussed without also debating the contraction of state services and the polarisation of incomes. Even refugees have slipped from soft target to social problem, as they become part of the country that damaged them with years of detention.

Along with the recent movement of these problems out from under the neo-liberal common sense, the looming crises of climate change, continuous war and expensive oil are now beginning to grip. These put an absolute limit on a way of living that is based on the denial of limits. Together, these problems close to home and those affecting the entire planet will break the torpor of this period.

The terms of a previous politics will finally exhaust themselves as the dissonance between the culture and the eco-nomy becomes explicit and a language adequate to our predicament becomes essential. Then we will need a new articulation of our place in the world, one that relies on neither the globalist fantasy of the open horizon nor the consolation of a parochial enclosure.

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