How an anti-immigrant outsider with a flair for the dramatic became the yuge-est thing Down Under.
In September 1996, a 42-year-old woman with striking green eyes and short, powerfully puffy red hair stood nervously behind a podium, gathering herself before addressing Australia’s House of Representatives for the first time. Pauline Hanson, a twice-divorced mother of four, had come a long way. For nearly a decade she’d run a humble fish-and-chip shop in Ipswich – historically an industry-rich suburb of Brisbane. She grew up there, alongside six siblings, in a working-class home. Over much of her time as a small business owner, the country was mired in a dreadful recession, fueling great discontent for the left-wing-controlled government. But unlike other demoralized Aussies, Hanson, who’d only attended school until the age of fifteen, took action, earning a seat in her local city council in 1994. That development opened the door to a victorious candidacy for a seat in the House of Representatives two years later.
However, on that September afternoon, as the House Speaker called on Hanson to take part in an Australian political tradition and greet Parliament with her “maiden speech,” representatives of the Liberal Party, which had once named her their candidate, walked off the floor, turning their back on her for a second time. Shortly before the election, the Liberal Party – Australia’s prime conservative camp in their two-party system – publicly dis-endorsed Hanson after she wrote a letter to a local newspaper asserting that Aboriginal Australians receive excessive benefits when compared to white citizens. She remained on the ballot, though, due to insufficient time for the party to name a replacement. In spite of the snub, Hanson won the seat, pulling in votes from the Liberal Party electorate, independents, and even disillusioned left-wingers.
“I come here,” she finally began, addressing the scattered, male-dominated sect, “not as a polished politician, but as a woman who has had her fair share of life’s knocks.”
She discussed how proud she was to be standing there, hiccupping several words like a sheepish middle-school salutatorian onstage at graduation. She said her life as a single mother had deeply informed her politics. “My view on issues,” she said, “is based on common sense.
“I won … largely on an issue that has resulted in me being called a racist,” she continued. “We now have a situation where a type of reverse racism is applied to mainstream Australians by those who promote political correctness.”
A couple of gruff hear, hear’s rang out across the floor. Picking up steam, she added, “I may only be a ‘fish-and-chip-shop lady,’ but some of these economists need to get their heads out of their textbooks and get a job in the real world. I would not even let one of them handle my grocery shopping.” This remark prompted a smattering of laughter.
Then she uttered the words that would make this arguably the most famous speech in the history of Australian Parliament. “I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians,” she said. “They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos, and do not assimilate.”
She called for immigration to be “halted in the short term” and for an abolishment of the Australian policy of multiculturalism. Though Hanson would later say she didn’t anticipate the attention or wittingly seek it out, this little fish-and-chip-shop lady had just become the biggest name in the Australian politics pond, her words with the power to spur crashing waves of bitter protest and virulent support.
* * *
Late 1996 in Australia, documentarian Anna Broinowski says, “was the closest we came to a sort of pseudo civil war.” Broinowski recently produced a film chronicling Hanson’s career in politics, featuring news clips stating that violent attacks against Asian-born Australians doubled or possibly tripled in the months after Hanson’s speech. “Blood was shed,” Broinowski says, adding that there were death threats made against Hanson, prompting security details for her protection anytime she stepped out in public. (Hanson’s team even prepared a video – which was eventually leaked – of her announcing her assassination to Australia, should the event ever come to pass.)
Dennis Atkins, chief political correspondent for The Courier Mail newspaper, says of Hanson’s disdain for Asian immigrants: “She didn’t like the fact that there were so many Asian faces on the street. It was no more sophisticated than that.”
Atkins adds that when he traveled to countries such as China, Malaysia and Indonesia, he had to answer for Hanson’s fire and brimstone. “The first question I was asked was, ‘What’s the story with Pauline Hanson?’ Sometimes they’d ask me straight away, ‘Why do you hate us?’”
A month after her maiden speech, Hanson was profiled on the Australian version of “60 Minutes.” Interviewed by Tracey Curro, Hanson said the government should not provide welfare to single mothers with more than one child, urged Australia to withdraw from the United Nations, and denounced public celebrations of homosexuality.
Curro sat across from Hanson and laid out statistics from the country’s Department of Immigration. At the time, there were approximately 866,000 Asian-born Australians, out of a population that exceeded eighteen million.
Curro asked if it still sounded like Australia was “in danger of being ‘swamped.’”
“I don’t believe those figures,” Hanson replied, sharply. “As far as I’m concerned, they’re book figures.”
Curro then asked Hanson if she was xenophobic. Momentarily stone-faced, all Hanson could muster was a quick, but intense: “Please explain.”
“If we had memes in the late ’90s, that would’ve been a meme that had gone viral,” Atkins says of the country’s reaction to the exchange. For many, that moment summed up exactly why Hanson was not only deplorable, but unfit for office.
Others viewed it differently. “A lot of regular folks really identified with her,” Atkins says, “because you have this ‘smarty pants reporter’ trying to trip up a fish-and-chip shop owner.”
Simon Hunt, a media arts lecturer at the University of New South Wales, describes Hanson supporters as sufferers of “tall poppy syndrome,” an informal local term for people engaged in a culture where those of elite status must be denounced – or “cut down” like a plant – because they’ve been deemed superior to their peers. Tall poppy syndrome is “huge in Australia,” says Broinowski. “We love our sports people, but anyone in the arts or intellectuals are, as we say in Australia, ‘a bit up themselves.’ Hanson made it okay to wear your lack of education like a badge of honor.”
Hanson has never shied away from the fact that she is not a politician – she owns up to it. “Career politicians have no connection with the people,” Hanson told me in a recent interview. “They’ve just been going through life, silver spoon in their mouth … all of a sudden they’re in Parliament and telling people who are struggling how to live their lives.”
One thing she and those who abhor her can agree on is that her lack of political acumen and propensity for shooting from the hip are prime factors in her gaining any support.
“That’s what the people in America are seeing with Trump,” she offers. “They want someone who represents them … I think they should give Donald Trump a go.”
* * *
Hanson’s instincts in the late ’90s were only sharp enough for her to survive a single two-year term in office, during which she became a frequently derided punch line for many.
In her 1997 book Pauline Hanson: The Truth, she predicted that by 2050 Australia would be ruled by a Chinese-Indian lesbian cyborg named Poona Li Hung and said that gun control advocates had “retarded sexual and emotional maturity,” among many bizarre claims. Though that year she called the book “very informative,” she recently backtracked, saying four anonymous authors wrote it and that she’d never seen the contents until after it was published.
Simon Hunt was perhaps the country’s most renowned Hanson critic during her stay in the House of Representatives. A performance artist with a background in audio engineering, Hunt produced a song in 1997 using cutups of Hanson interview quotes to create lyrics over a dance track sample. In “I’m a Backdoor Man,” Hunt’s version of Pauline Hanson declares she is in fact a homosexual male and “very proud of it.” “I’m a backdoor man for the Ku Klux Klan,” one verse begins, “with very horrendous plans.”
The track found its way onto the Aussie radio airwaves, and thanks to caller requests was played constantly for ten days, before Hanson won a court injunction to have it temporarily removed. She claimed the song was defamatory because listeners could be convinced she was truly making those statements.
Hunt, a gay man who’d taken up the stage name “Pauline Pantsdown,” says he didn’t expect the mountainous attention at all. But for an encore he recorded “I Don’t Like It” a year later, releasing it in conjunction with his own run at a seat in the Australian Senate – a move he says was part protest, part publicity stunt. He legally changed his name to Pauline Pantsdown, and began parading around in drag, his outfits mirroring those Hanson would wear on the campaign trail in her bid for reelection.
“There were a bunch of journalists who, for a seven-week period, just had to follow everything Pauline Hanson did,” Hunt says. “Every time she’d make a statement they’d ring me up for a response. I think I was a breath of fresh air for those poor journalists.”
Hanson still holds a grudge. “He’s a complete ratbag,” she told me. She said he has been “mislead” and called his actions “pathetic.”
“He’s gay, I presume,” she continued. “If he wants to wear skirts and stockings and lipstick and red hair then he’s clearly got a problem, or he’s using it as an excuse to dress like me, but he’s really a transvestite or whatever. I really don’t think much of him at all.”
Shortly before the ’98 election, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation filed an appeal against the “I’m a Backdoor Man” decision, and Hunt was alerted that Hanson would appear in court to help keep the song off the radio. He hurried to the nearest airport to catch a flight and confront her in person, shoving clothes and makeup into a carry-on bag. He had to do his own Pauline Pantsdown makeup for the very first time on the plane that day, and the results – smudged eyebrows, uneven lipstick, excessive powder and all – were not enviable. “All the drag queens in the gay scene were like, ‘Ugh, who’s this?’” Hunt recalls. The injunction was upheld.
Despite the second hit single, Pauline Pantsdown was defeated in the election of 1998, as was Pauline Hanson. “We both failed,” Hunt says, and due to Australian law, he was not permitted to get his birth name back until three months after the election was over. Cameron Thompson of the Liberal Party, who bested Hanson that year, said that he was “focused on doing something for the people while she was doing battle with Pauline Pantsdown and running a three-ring circus with the media.”
But Hanson would not go gently into that good night, one that saw eleven representatives of her newly founded One Nation Party win seats in the House of Representatives. The fish-and-chip shop owner from Ipswich had created a movement.
* * *
Hanson, who ran in eight more losing campaigns for Parliament, wrote an autobiography, Untamed and Unashamed, chronicling her three-month imprisonment for electoral fraud in 2003, after she was accused of illegally registering her One Nation Party in the state of Queensland and accepting undue funding from the government. The court ruling was quickly overturned; Broinowski and Atkins agree it was unjust. Hanson summed it up in our conversation with: “I actually ended up in prison for my political views.”
Hanson frequently appeared on morning talk shows, finished in second place on the first season of the Australian TV version of “Dancing with the Stars,” and used Facebook to communicate legislative ideas.
Hanson told me the Australian media “sensationalizes everything” and uses her as a “punching bag.” “My whole credibility means a lot to me,” she added. “I don’t mind the tough questions … but if you want to put a spin on it, don’t ever come near me again.”
I asked what aspects of her platform the media has gotten wrong in the past, and after considering what, in her mind, is an uncountable number, she replied with a slightly humorous tone. “That I’m opposed to immigration… My immigration policy has always been on a zero-net basis,” she said, “to clean up our own backyard and the unemployment queue.” In other words, if “you have 130,000 leave our shores, you [can] bring in 130,000.” She denied the claim that she “hates Asians” and pointed out that one of the managers of her old fish-and-chip shop was an immigrant from Laos. (Today, the establishment is owned by Vietnamese immigrants.) She added that a current member of her staff is gay, and noted that if the public believed everything in the media, she wouldn’t have the robust support she enjoys.
Andrew Bolt, a popular conservative columnist and host of his own evening political talk show, says Hanson has the “courage to acknowledge problems that almost no other politician” will. Though he says he supports about half of Hanson’s policies, Bolt insists “most Australians know there’s a problem with immigration … and they’re sick of it not being addressed, and when people try to address it, they’re shouted down for being racists.
“People now are so sick of this muzzled debate,” he continues, “that, even if they don’t share Pauline Hanson’s solutions, they certainly admire her speaking up, and support merely the fact that someone is speaking up.”
Last year, Hanson agreed to allow Anna Broinowski and a film crew to tail her during her campaign for a seat in Australia’s Senate, or the “Upper House.” Broinowski says she was able to gain access to Hanson with a promise “to tell both sides of the story” and represent her fairly.
Hanson’s platform has been altered over the past twenty years. She replaced Asians at the top of her list of people who need to be kept in check with Muslims. (Aboriginals have remained a firm number two.) Officially, One Nation says of Islam that it “does not believe in democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press or freedom of assembly … Many believe that it is solely a religion, but the reality is that it is much more, for it has a political agenda that goes far outside the realm of religion … Its religious aspect is fraud…” Hanson has called for a royal commission tasked with investigating Islam and wants surveillance cameras installed in all mosques and Islamic schools.
Hanson insists she is only speaking for the people she represents, those upset with the growing number of Muslims in the country refusing to assimilate by, for instance, wearing burkas and declining to sing Christmas carols. “If they don’t want to be Australian,” she told me, “then they should go to a country that suits them better.”
In a candid moment captured by Broinowski, Hanson stands in front of a television station’s remote camera crew waiting to connect with a morning talk show host for an interview via satellite. One of the crewmen traipsing about, referred to only as “James,” has a deep olive complexion and dark features. Hanson is informed of the first topic to be discussed in the interview: refugees from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. She looks at James and says sarcastically, “Oh, my favorite topic.”
She then asks James if he is a refugee, and he bluntly responds, “No, Aboriginal.”
“Really?” Hanson says, her voice an octave higher. “I wouldn’t have picked it. It’s good to see that, you know, you’ve taken up this, and working.”
When this knock against Aboriginals’ work ethic was made public, “there was sort of a collective rolling of the eyes” throughout the country, Dennis Atkins, the Courier Mail reporter, says. He adds Aussies are “no longer shocked by what she says.”
Broinowski stops short of calling Pauline Hanson a racist, but instead “a culturalist,” saying Hanson has a maternal, 1950s view of what Australia should be. To that, Hanson laughed. “What’s wrong with the ’50s?” she asked me. “We had less crime, less murders, we had families that were united, we didn’t have the abuse, domestic violence, the family breakups … Do I want no crime? Do I want harmony? Yes. I’ll have the ’50s back anytime, thanks.”
* * *
This past July, Pauline Hanson was elected to the Australian Senate, along with three other One Nation Party candidates. “Personally, I didn’t think the ducks would line up for Pauline Hanson,” Atkins says, “but, unfortunately, they did.”
Mark Kenny, chief political correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspapers, believes Hanson pulled off this latest upset due to a combination of factors. “The [economic] growth rate in Australia right now is not too bad,” he says, “but there’s a sense of disenfranchisement; [people think] ‘we’re not getting the benefits of it.’” Kenny adds that “the major parties are no longer seen as providing all the answers. The sort of life-long loyalties [to them] seem to be eroding with every election.”
But Hanson primarily credited the voters themselves with her victory. “The people are starting to wake up,” she said. “They’re finding their voices, they’ve become better informed, more politically astute.”
Bolt, the conservative talk show host, says, “What is done to her wins her support more than what she actually says or does.” He feels that like Donald Trump, Hanson takes relentless “abuse” from the media for saying things that other “gutless” politicians likely think, but refuse to state in public.
The Liberal Party was not able to gain majority control of the Australian Senate this year, in part because Hanson and three other One Nation Party members won seats, giving them considerable pull in the Parliament’s Upper House. To get legislation through the Senate, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of the Liberal Party will deftly have to secure votes of representatives from minor parties, such as the left-wing Greens – whose platform resembles that of the U.S. Green Party – and the far right’s One Nation Party.
Mark Kenny says Turnbull needs to build bridges with One Nation to avoid “unpalatable compromises all the time.” This was made evident when Turnbull, who after saying Hanson was not welcome in Parliament, was forced to, somewhat ceremoniously, provide her with his phone number. “Whether Turnbull has the disposition [to work with One Nation],” Kenny continues, “and if One Nation decides to negotiate in good faith as opposed to grandstanding, that remains to be seen.”
Hanson isn’t holding her breath. “I don’t believe [Turnbull] is suited to be Prime Minister,” she says. “I’d be a lot stronger and tougher on things than he is to get this country out of the mess that we’re in.”
* * *
Twenty years after her famous speech, Hanson addressed the Australian Senate for the first time on September 14, 2016, announcing smugly, “I’m back, but not alone.”
Many people have lauded her campaign victory as a comeback. Hanson added, “I call it standing up and fighting for what you believe in and not allowing the bastards to grind you down.” She once again attacked Australian leaders for not stepping up in the face of political correctness to provide change for the benefit of her country’s citizens. She wondered aloud how they could oversee such high unemployment rates and debt, failing infrastructure, and the destruction of farming sectors. She decried the impact of globalization on Australia, and claimed that many citizens are “afraid to walk alone at night in their neighborhoods.”
“I said we were in danger of being swamped by Asians,” Hanson reminded everyone who likely remembered quite well. “Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims.”
The Greens, en masse, walked off the floor.
“I thought it would take three years for me to get rid of them,” Hanson told me. “But it only took a few minutes.”