There’s worse news every day.
Thursday, 15th of September: in her maiden speech to the Senate, Pauline Hanson declares that Australia is “in danger of being swamped by Muslims”.
Sunday, 18th of September: speaking to a forum of European conservatives, former Prime Minister Tony Abbott describes the influx of refugees to Europe from “Middle East and Africa” as a “peaceful invasion”.
Wednesday, 21st of September: an Essential poll of 1000 people suggests that 49% of Australians want to ban the migration of people of people of the Islamic faith to Australia. A further 11% aren’t sure either way. If the poll is accurate, those of us who oppose such a measure are in the minority.
How did we get here? It feels bizarre to have to say this, but Australia forcing immigrants away on the basis of their religious beliefs — whether Muslim, Atheist, Hindu, Buddhist or Jewish — would be a colossal human rights abuse, medieval bigotry on a modern scale. I challenge any one of those 49% to tell me of a single instance in history where a decision like this hasn’t been a prelude to brutality. I challenge them to convince one of Australia’s many children with Muslim families why they shouldn’t be afraid.
From Brexit to Trump, the global resurgence of nationalism is surreal past the point of parody; a bad trip, a fever dream. In Australia, it’s plain embarrassing. The politics of prejudice usually only threatens to overwhelm liberal establishments in times of economic desperation or physical fear, but Australia hasn’t had a recession in over twenty years and has never had a Islamist terror attack on its soil. Never has a nation flirted with fascism with so little excuse.
This morning, there were women in Australia who fastened their scarves, brushed their teeth and put extra tissues in their handbags in case someone spat at them on their way to work. What will happen to them if some unhinged dickhead with an ISIS-themed Twitter account decides to buy some fertiliser from Bunnings? What will happen to this country if there is an attack? Gone are the halcyon days when vicious Islamophobia was exclusive to skinheads with placards. Now the mainstream is happy to hate – from millions of voters to former PMs.
For me, nothing encapsulates this more than Pauline Hanson’s excruciating “catch up” with Tony Abbott. From Abbott’s vaguely threatening hand gestures to Hanson forgetting one of her three lines, it truly is an exquisite piece of experimental cinema. Two T1000s malfunctioning over tim tams. Nurse Ratchet and Voldemort gritting their teeth through a speed date. A viper and a scorpion stuffing up an amateur theatre audition. So, how did we get here?
History, they say, repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. From the time I was four till I turned sixteen, John Winston Howard used hatred and fear to sell this country off in pieces. He turned working voters — his battlers — against their own economic interests by stoking and exploiting the racism of white Australians. His favourite weapon, before 9/11, was Pauline Hanson: a fascist in favour of restoring the white Australia policy who flashed in the pan of populism before a rapid fall. Ever the chessmaster, Howard harnessed Hansonism from a distance, supporting One Nation’s ideas through subtlety and subtext. He never denounced Hanson until he had to, borrowed her words, stole her policies and won four elections in a row.
Then, after she’d served her use, John Howard and his media allies brought Pauline Hanson down. Once with a fifth of the voters in Queensland behind her, the face of racism in Australia ended up locked away with the ignominious dregs of society. But as well as competing on Dancing with the Stars, Hanson went to prison. And the person who put her there was Tony Abbott: the slick, smug, attack dog of the Liberal Party’s right.
He was rabid. A few years before Hanson felt the cold bite of hand cuffs and Daryl Somers’ moist little hand, Tony Abbott savaged her in parliament. In one 1998 speech he described One Nation as “an unstable political menage a trois linking the two Davids (David Oldfield and David Ettridge), D1 and D2, with an antipodean version of Eva Peron.”
The misogyny in this barb, and most of his others, was calculated so that any man might miss it. This was a speech about the shonky finances of a fascist party. But Abbott, himself an ideological fascist funded by corrupting vested interests, had no problem with that beyond realpolitik — after all, if Hanson hadn’t lost her Liberal preselection for saying out loud what many in the party believed they’d both be buddies on the bench. No, Abbott decided to humiliate Hanson for the far worse crime of being a woman. A divorced woman. The “menage a trois” line — which Abbott used multiple times — was snarling, slanderous slut-shaming with built-in plausible deniability. It was both a dog whistle and a wolf whistle, loud enough for anyone to hear: she’s probably fucking them too.
People are fond of saying that Abbott must be intelligent if he was Rhodes Scholar, so lets give him credit — that sexual slur is intertwined with a class-based attack. Hanson had just been nationally embarrassed for not knowing what “xenophobia” means, so it seems pretty likely that Abbott’s historical references and florid vocabulary are designed to shame and confuse. Just watch his delivery. He savours and sneers each word; an elite private school boy mocking a high school drop out by spitting over her head.
Twenty years later, they make up. Why?
People sometimes compare the Rudd and Gillard saga to a Shakespearean tragedy, but I think the strange failure of the Liberal succession would make a better play. A king rules for a lifetime and brings a nation under his yoke. When, at last, the old man is vanquished, hubris-bleached knuckles still clasped around his sword, the monarch’s house is inherited by his two feuding sons. Each have half of the patriarch’s traits, taken to their extreme: the elder is subtle patrician, an eloquent political pragmatist; the younger is a fanatic, a blunt and shameless demagogue. Both are undone by their own fatal flaws — Malcolm hesitates two much, Anthony to little. And while each detests the other, neither can break free of his grasp. A malting lion and a rabid jackal are locked in fatal conflict, jaws forever about each other’s throats. Whomever is on top is brought low by his shadow, his lacks made stark by his brother’s overabundance of the same. The shadow will do whatever it takes to triumph.
So Abbott slinks off to drink coffee with the devil, and neither he nor the devil knows which of them is selling their soul. Just as Howard danced with One Nation through absences and nods, Abbott says it outright, leering down the camera. History, they say repeats, itself, first as tragedy then as farce. One man’s Machiavellian gesture is echoed in the vengeful flailing of a lesser one.
When the head of a liberal democracy gives tacit support to a white supremacist party, it’s easy to dismiss this as a singularity. When Abbott does the same it doesn’t seem so tacit, and when half of Australians agree with him starts to look like a trend. Afterall, we are one nation. Another great crack appears in the levy; spidery, sprawling and white as a gleaming scar.