Hansonism and the politics of spin

A talk to Politics in the Pub
Harold Park Hotel, Sydney, Friday September 4th 1998
Clive Hamilton

The astounding success of Hansonism is, as much as anything else, a product of the failure of spin. It is the result of the inauthenticity of Australian politics in the 1980s and 90s, and the ultimate inability of the spin doctors to sustain in the electorate a belief in the sincerity of political parties. The issue then is why Australian politicians are seen to be so untrustworthy at this point in Australian history.

Spin doctoring has become a highly sophisticated and apparently indispensable political art. Labor under Hawke and Keating used it to conceal the fact that it had stolen the conservative’s economic policies, and to exaggerate the differences between Labor and conservatives in order to hide their essential similarity. It used spin to persuade a suspicious and disbelieving electorate that economic rationalism was inevitable, that globalisation was an irresistible force. It used spin to convince the people that although the medicine may be unpleasant, the health effects would be wonderful.

Spin became essential in order to conceal the essential bipartisan on economic policy. This bipartisanship can be traced to the demise of the Whitlam Government. Whitlam’s election coincided with the profound events that initiated a new era in world history, the era we now refer to as globalisation. Whitlam and his fellow social democrats were prepared to take Australia out of the stultifying miasma of Menzies’ post-war cultural sink. But the Labor reformers were wholly unprepared for the new world that unfolded in the early 1970s initiated by collapse of the Bretton-Woods system of fixed exchange rates, the oil price shocks and the onset of stagflation. Whereas economic management had always been an important aspect of good government, now it became the touchstone of political success. The era in which the commentators look first to the reaction of the markets to judge their governments had begun.

A Labor Government that was economically naive arrived just when economics became the key to political success. The economic failure of the Whitlam administration left a deep scar on the Labor Party, and it defined an approach that Hawke and especially Keating were desperate to avoid.

Only Labor could have implemented economic rationalism so thoroughly for the conservatives would not have got away with it. Indeed, we are seeing that now as the Coalition retreats on some fronts. We remember the extraordinary confessions on the ABCTV series Labor in Power. Former Finance and Education Minister John Dawkins confided that Labor went to the business community for its policy ideas, and was even cautioned by business leaders to be more discreet in adopting its advice. We saw Treasury Secretary and arch economic dry John Stone saying that Treasury got up more of its agenda under Labor than it could ever have hoped to get up under the conservatives.

Labor survived for 13 years because it repeatedly undercut the conservatives policy positions leaving the electorate little choice.

The similarities between the main parties on economic policy have been rehearsed over and over − privatisation, contracting out, trade liberalisation, financial deregulation, labour market deregulation and so on. But there is a deeper convergence of worldview, one that remains taboo, and that is the growth project itself.

Spin, however, was not needed to persuade the people of the merits of the growth project, since the value of economic growth was challenged by no-one.

More than ever before, the rate of economic growth is the sole measure of policy success. Every newspaper, every day, quotes a political leader or a commentator arguing that we need more economic growth to improve our level of national well-being, to build a better society.

If GDP reaches or exceeds expectations, government leaders crow about their achievements. If it falls below expectations, the Opposition seizes on the figures to attack the Government’s poor performance. The fetish with the national accounts reached its zenith with Prime Minister Keating’s comment on one quarter’s figures: “This is a beautiful set of numbers”. Few were persuaded that the reality was as beautiful as the numbers.

But in the presence of sustained economic growth throughout the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Australians have been strangely restive. They are disgruntled, fractious and suspicious of the claims by politicians that the economy is doing well. There is a widespread perception, confirmed by social researchers such as Michael Pusey and Hugh Mackay, that life in Australia is not improving, but is in fact deteriorating. A wealth of survey and other evidence reveals that, while the economy grows inexorably, people have found that they must work harder and longer just to keep up, they feel more insecure about their jobs and their futures, they no longer believe in the post-war dream that everyone can make a better future for their children, and they feel less connected to their communities than ever before.

The political implications of this restiveness are of historic proportions. The allegiances that sustained the structure of Australian politics from the Second World War have broken down. Droves of working class people, traditionally loyal to Labor, deserted the party at the last election and went in search of an alternative.

To question the use of GDP is to pose a simple but extremely challenging question about economic growth − growth of what? While this is a question that has been put most forcefully by environmentalists, in recent years thinkers and commentators from the conservative end of the political spectrum have begun to challenge the preoccupation with ‘economic reform’ and by implication the growth project itself. Writers such as B. A. Santamaria, Robert Manne and Gerard Henderson have been asking whether the social costs of the policies of economic rationalism have been worth the putative benefits. The US researchers Cobb, Halstead and Rowe have made this observation on the discomfort with the growth obsession shared by the environmental and social conservative camps:

Much as this pursuit [of growth] turns ancient forests into lumber and beaches into sewers, so it turns families into nodes of consumption and the living room into a marketing free-fire zone. Both camps speak from the standpoint of values against the moral relativism and opportunism of the market.

These issues lie at the core of the divisions between the new brand of libertarians, who adopt a hard-line defence of the free market, and the more traditional social conservatives who believe that the market should not be allowed to undermine the family and social cohesiveness. The two sets of beliefs are irreconcilable, yet they sometimes coexist in the one breast. This explains why Prime Minister Howard’s philosophy is so unconvincing; by putting his faith in the free market he undermines many of the social values he holds dear. The spread of market relationships into sport, community services, the education of children, the public service and the very structure of families themselves − indeed, the invasion of all aspects of people’s lives by commercial values − all of these erode the interpersonal bonds and shared values that sustain cohesive, nurturing and supportive communities. This is the core contradiction of modern conservative politics, including, and especially, that of the Labor Party.

The only way to resolve the contradiction is to challenge directly the obsession with economic growth and thereby to re-establish a balance between economic advancement and social cohesiveness and environmental protection. There is a substantial minority of the population that has serious difficulty making ends meet, but if we ask what most people really want it is not the things that higher economic growth will provide. They want satisfying and secure jobs, safe neighbourhoods, supportive communities, family warmth, confidence in their children’s future, a well-protected natural environment and a diverse but unified nation. Economic growth is not necessarily inimical to these, but the pursuit of economic growth at the expense of all else most certainly is.

In Australia, the Hawke and Keating Labor Governments fell under the spell of the doctrine economic rationalism − a doctrine that vests magical generative powers in private markets − and plunged Australia willy-nilly into the globalised world, convinced that to accept the discipline of the market was the only possible path.

Working people have been harangued by political leaders with a new and disturbing message. They must make sacrifices; they have been living beyond their means; financial incentives rather than social objectives are what really matter; they cannot rely on the state to support them; there is no choice but to integrate into the world economy; we must judge our economic policies by the reactions of foreign financiers; the sale to overseas interests of our assets is good for us (and besides is unavoidable); and, it is a mistake to assume a secure and prosperous future for our children. At a time when working people more than ever need their governments to protect them from the worst ravages of international economic forces, their governments have withdrawn their support.

But the rise of Hansonism is proof that the campaign failed. The advocates of globalisation have wholly failed to persuade the mass of ordinary people that the new world order is in their interests. Fewer than 10% of Australians favour free trade, 63% believe that income differences are too large, most are strongly opposed to increased foreign ownership, and a large majority are opposed to privatisation of publicly-owned assets.

In all of this change ordinary workers lost their political voice; their political and industrial leadership became distant and talked a new language. Society has changed radically around them in ways that make many feel uncomfortable in their communities. The wealthy seem ever more powerful, neighbourhoods are transformed in ways that are unfamiliar, and the political process has been annexed by professionals who speak in phrases that inspire mistrust. They have seen powerful insiders − business people and lobbyists − monopolising the ear of the Government. The Labor leadership spoke of making Australia an Asian nation, of the need to appease the credit rating agencies, of the glitter of the information super highway, and of the unceasing need for ‘reform’, a euphemistic code-word for increasing exposure to global economic forces.

The Liberal Party speaks the same language and, with the path clearly marked out by Labor, has now set about taking the process to unanticipated extremes. Working people hear their fears expressed by Pauline Hanson and many respond.

Hansonism is an expression of the contradictions of the growth project, its inability to deliver on its promise. It is the people calling the bluff. “If economic reform is so good for us, why do we not feel any better.”

By capturing 23% of the vote in Australia’s most conservative and least urbanised state, Hanson’s party has tapped into deep reservoirs of fear, alienation and economic distress in those segments of Australian society that have been most exposed to the ravages of globalisation.

Hanson supporters may be for the most part ill-educated, but it would be superficial to attribute their support for Hanson to ignorance. They support Hanson because they have been marginalised by scouring social changes that have swept over Australia in the last 15 years and by governments that have pooh-poohed their concerns as little more than reactionary atavism that will be swamped by history.

Globalisation and the obsequiousness of Labor and Liberal governments in the face of

‘inevitable’ change are the well-springs of Hansonism. While the conservative parties are now seen to have suffered a grave defeat in Queensland, the success of Pauline Hanson is in truth a shocking indictment of the Australian left.

We must ask ourselves why the popular reaction to economic rationalism came from the right rather than the left. Why did the left, which had for years been pointing to the perils of economic rationalism, fail so miserably? In part it was due to the fact that the most influential segment of the left, the left of the Labor Party, caved in. The left of the Labor Party allowed itself to be bullied into submission throughout the Hawke-Keating ascendancy. In the absence of coherent alternatives, and lured by ministries and the opportunity to fiddle at the margins, the left simply capitulated.

The ministers convinced themselves of the old story: ‘It’s better to have a bit of influence in government, than none at all in opposition’. But the presence of John Langmore, almost alone, should have reminded them that they could have dug their heels in on certain totemic issues, such as resisting the wave of privatisations which will be seen historically as an appalling mistake without any redeeming merit. But in the face of Keating, the left was cowed and beaten.

Keating was a strong leader. The left is saddled with a fear of strong leadership, perhaps a hangover from the ultra-democratic politics of the 1970s. If you want to capture the popular imagination, it is better to have wrong ideas strongly held than no ideas at all.

Hanson is powerful because she appears to be a strong leader, in the mould of Jeff Kennett. The Democrats have not won the Hanson constituency despite having a similar, if much more carefully thought through, economic agenda. The Democrats suffer from a fatal weakness; they are wet.

Now the revolt against ‘economic rationalism’ has finally burst through from the right and with it have come some very unpleasant side-issues, notably those of Aboriginal welfare, immigration and guns.

Much of the disquiet that has accumulated since the early 1980s – when the Labor Party began its 13 years of uninterrupted rule – became focussed on Paul Keating, especially when he was elevated to the prime ministership in 1992. Keating was the moving force behind hard-line economic liberalisation throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and the foremost advocate of Australia as an ‘Asian nation’. His arrogant dismissal of popular unease, and his barely concealed message of ‘Trust me, I know what’s good for you’, earned him widespread hostility from those on the margins of the globalised society. It is no exaggeration to suggest that Paul’s legacy is Pauline.

Many supporters of Hanson have been traumatised by social and economic change over the last two decades. But instead of being congratulated for their forbearance they have been dismissed for their stubborn unwillingness to embrace the brave new world of global culture, free trade and Asian integration. Hanson has become the lightening rod for their resentment.

Unquestionably the most disturbing aspect of the rise of Hansonism has been the surfacing in some segments of Australian society of a virulent hostility towards Aboriginal people. Many Australians have been deeply shocked by this, and rightly so. Pauline Hanson has tapped into a mother lode of hatred of Aboriginal people that runs through the history of white settlement. Appalling as this irruption of racism has been, it would be a mistake simply to dismiss it as a product of ignorance and try to suppress it. The issue is more complex and any reasonable assessment must spread the blame more widely.

On taking office the Howard Government mounted a sustained and cynical campaign to discredit the institutions of Aboriginal welfare and the processes of self-determination and reconciliation, culminating in Howard’s shameful refusal to apologise on behalf of the nation for the policies of forced removal of Aboriginal children from their parents. The Prime Minister invited the outburst of racial hatred through the calculated persecution of the ‘Aboriginal industry’ and his attacks on the ‘black arm-band view’ of European settlement.

It is a puzzling yet incurable feature of human history that the oppressed frequently turn, not on their oppressors, but on the more oppressed. Rather than targeting the real perpetrators of their discontent − the corporations, the currency speculators and the political apologists for globalisation − some of Hanson’s supporters, like poor whites in Southern USA, have turned on those even more powerless and marginalised.

It is not excusable but it is a human pattern and the answer to it must go further than condemnation in order to confront the real concerns that lie at its root. To characterise Hanson’s supporters as ‘red-necks’ is to avoid admitting that her success grows out of real community pain.

For more than two years, Pauline Hanson has attracted extensive coverage in the Asian media for her opposition to immigration and especially her crude characterisations of Asians. But it has to be acknowledged that there has been majority opposition to high levels of immigration to Australia since the emergence of mass unemployment in the late 1970s. The argument of the political establishment that high levels of immigration do not lengthen the job queues is simply counter-intuitive.

For some in the Hanson movement there is undoubtedly a deep strain of anti-Asian sentiment and one of the most disturbing manifestations of the rise of Hanson has been the increased prevalence of racist incidents on the streets, especially in Queensland. But again it would be facile to dismiss Hansonism as an antipodean manifestation of white supremacism. In some parts of Australia, new and sudden concentrations of immigrants from Asia have required considerable cultural adjustment on the part of established communities. This is always a difficult and stressful process, especially when communities are beset with economic insecurity.

In a milieu of slick, grey-suited politicians engaged in an endless charade, Hanson’s lack of education and her ordinariness are the essence of her appeal. The fact that she is a woman allows her supporters to excuse themselves for abandoning compassion. The greatest threat to Hanson’s political fortune may well be the corruption of her political innocence, a process now well in train.

The remarkable emotional reaction to this anti-politician is entirely explicable. She shuns the double-speak and pretences of the main players and speaks to people directly at the level of their feelings. Perplexing as it is for sophisticated city dwellers, Hanson attracts powerful emotional responses. In regional centres, men hug her, women weep and children seek her autograph.

Predictably, the policy establishment characterises this as the triumph of emotion over reason, a triumph that will turn into deep disillusionment once One Nation is confronted with the hard decisions that parliamentary seats demand. But it would be an error for the mainstream parties simply to hope that ‘reason’ will prevail. The fear, insecurity and alienation of the marginal people are real, and so is their willingness to trust their fate to a leader who speaks directly to them. The conditions that have given rise to their emotional state remain, and will probably worsen, and the election campaign now upon us provides little hope that the answer to Hansonism is nigh.




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