Pauline Hanson, a senator Down Under, wants to make Australia great again. Like Donald Trump in the US, she doesn’t mind sounding politically incorrect while stoking fears about immigration.
“We are in danger of being swamped by Muslims who bear a culture and ideology that is incompatible with our own,” she warned last September in her “maiden speech” to fellow lawmakers, which came a few months after winning enough votes to represent the state of Queensland. She called for a “moratorium” on Muslim migration into Australia.
But unlike Trump, Hanson isn’t new to the political arena. Two decades earlier, she delivered a similar talk after winning office the first time around. Then, she warned about not Muslims but Asians, while also complaining about multiculturalism, reverse racism, foreign aid, and welfare for Aboriginal people. Hanson lost her seat in the next election.
“She’s doing today what she did in the 1990s,” says Duncan McDonnell, a professor at Griffith University. “You can basically take the word ‘Asian’ and replace it with ‘Muslim.’” Part of her skill, he adds, is knowing how to read the fears of those “who feel left behind by mainstream politics.”
Hanson’s political resurrection also speaks to the fact that many Australians—despite a sound economy—feel disenfranchised and are rejecting mainstream establishment parties. When Hanson was asked why she thinks her popularity is on the rise, she said it’s because the voters have “had a gutful” of the major parties.
Hanson leads One Nation, a right-wing nationalist group once considered fringe in Australian politics. Perhaps her most defining cultural addition to Australia is the catchphrase “please explain.” That was Hanson’s reply after being asked in 1996 whether she was xenophobic in an interview with 60 Minutes.
In the ’90s “Hanson unleashed a Pandora’s box of violence and division on the progressive country,” says filmmaker Anna Broinowski, who made a documentary about Hanson called Please Explain. It was as though “an alien had entered the citadel.”
One Nation did well in the 1998 Queensland state election, garnering a nearly a quarter of the votes. But Hanson lost both her seat and control of the party that year.
She was jailed for electoral fraud in 2003, which one federal minister said made her Australia’s first “political prisoner.” She won an appeal, however, and her convictions were overturned.
Now, after almost two decades in the political wilderness, Hanson is back and more powerful than ever.
Her return is explained partly by a quirk of Australian politics: last year’s “double dissolution” federal election, in which all senators stood for election at the same time.
“Double the number of senate seats up for grabs also means the ‘quota’ of votes required for a senate seat is reduced,” according to Adam Webster, a professor at the University of Oxford. “This makes it easier for minor players to win a seat.”
But Hanson’s ability to ride the anti-establishment sentiment of voters was clearly another factor.
“People feel they have no sense of choice,” says Frank Mols, a professor at the University of Queensland. “They want somebody to identify with, and that person is Hanson.”
Take Gary Morris, a small-business owner living in Laidley, a town just west of Queensland’s capital Brisbane. He comes from a family of Labor voters—think the Democrats in the US— but he’s now one of the staunchest supporters of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party.
“In her own way, she wants to make Australia great again,” says Morris, who runs an eatery called Eagle Rock Café. “From bobby pins to bulldozers… manufacturing has starved to death in this country.”
Morris isn’t alone. Away from the affluent cities of Sydney and Melbourne, it’s not hard to find people warming to Hanson’s message. And while not everyone agrees with all her views, her “straight talk” on immigration has found an audience.
“Immigrants coming into this country are treated like kings,” Morris added. “What I like about Pauline Hanson is her message about equality for everybody. Some groups are being treated a lot better than those who have [lived] their whole life in Australia.” “Hanson is running on the politics of envy.”
“Hanson is running on the politics of envy,” says Mols, “whether that be of a left-elite or immigrants.” He notes that Hanson, in her second foray into politics, is finding support among relatively affluent voters—people like Morris.
That runs counter to conventional political thinking.
“There is this narrative of populism being a working-class affair, that it needs an economic crisis to thrive: When the economy is down, support goes up. This isn’t the case… The rise of populism is completely independent of the economy.”
It’s not the economy, stupid
Indeed, by most measures Australia’s economy is doing well. The nation’s central bank, the Reserve Bank of Australia, forecasts GDP growth of about 3% this year and next. A recent uptick in commodity prices means a “taxation windfall for the federal government” and there’s even talk of lifting interest rates as soon as the second half of next year.
Record-high property prices mean the average Australian house is among the most valuable in the world. Add to this a relatively low unemployment rate and you have an economy that most of the Western world would envy.
“The average Australian is now significantly wealthier than the average American or Briton,” Bloomberg recently noted.
Australia has largely avoided many of the factors blamed for Trump’s rise. While America watched the collapse of its manufacturing sector driven by shifting flows of labor and capital, Australia enjoyed sustained prosperity thanks to a once-in-a-generation mining boom driven largely by demand from China.
That same mining boom allowed its economy to escape the effects of the global financial crisis.
Even now that the mining boom is over, Australia’s economy remains largely intact, buoyed by property prices and a rebalancing of the mining industry. Mining investment has given way to mining exports.
To be sure, some economic slowdown has played a part in One Nation’s rise. As with Trump’s rise in the US, the strongest support for One Nation is in regional areas that show signs of economic distress.
The areas that enjoyed the benefits of the mining boom for the last decade, including towns like Laidley where Morris lives, are now suffering from its decline.
A “tipping point”
But experts who spoke to Quartz say cultural change, not a shifting economy, is what’s driving a resurgence of Australian populism.
This is what academic Pipa Norris from Harvard refers to as the “tipping point” and a “reaction against progressive cultural change.”
These voters “resent being told that traditional values are ‘politically incorrect’ if they have come to feel that they are being marginalized within their own countries,” she noted (pdf, p. 29) in a recent working paper.
Despite the relative success of Australia’s immigration system, it is clear there is an element of unease about Australia’s shifting ethnic composition.
“One of the lasting impacts of these mining booms is that when they are on they attract a lot of people who come to your country, and then when the mining boom is over, most of them stay,” Bob Gregory, an economist from the Australian National University, said recently.
Hanson, like Trump, is a big fan of Vladimir Putin.
“He is very patriotic towards his country, the people love him, he is doing so well for the country,” she recently said. “So many Australians here want that leadership here in Australia. They want a leader here to stand up for the people and fight for this nation.”
Of course Australia isn’t alone in seeing a increasing nationalist sentiment. The UK voted to leave the EU largely out of anti-immigrant sentiment. In France far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen is running a strong second. Alternative for Germany, a far-right populist party, is resurgent in Germany.
Indeed McDonnell says a more apt comparison for Hanson is with populists in Europe, like Dutch politician Geert Wilders.
“I don’t buy the Australian Trump idea,” he says. “The English-speaking world didn’t invent mainstream populism. It’s been going on for decades.”
Meanwhile, Australia’s parliamentary system means One Nation’s legislative power is limited. Its four senators sit on the cross-bench, with which the government of prime minister Malcolm Turnbull must negotiate to pass legislation.
Despite much hype in the lead-up to the West Australian election this month, One Nation failed to deliver in what was seen as a test for its broader appeal.
“The Trump-style revolution has not yet made its way to Australia,” Josh Butler wrote after the election.
But in some ways Hanson has already achieved what she set out to do, says McDonnell.
“She’s changed what’s acceptable for politicians and the public to say or do,” he says. “The center-right are now saying things about immigration they wouldn’t have said decades ago.”
McDonnell points to a poll (pdf, pg. 7) from Essential Research just after the election last year which found that 62% of voters agreed with the statement, “I might not personally agree with everything (Pauline Hanson) says but she is speaking for a lot of ordinary Australians.”
“Even if she fails,” McDonnell says, “she’s won by changing the debate.”