Pauline Hanson is, sadly, deeply Australian

Comment

Senator Hanson giving her first speech in Parliament since being elected for a second time. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

Senator Hanson giving her first speech in Parliament since being elected for a second time. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

In 1997, Pauline Hanson's book The Truth envisioned that by halfway through the 21st century, Australia would be ruled by an Asian lesbian cyborg called Poona Li Hung.

The notion – since disowned by its putative author, who now testifies that the first time she read The Truth was after it had been printed and bound under her name – is one of those stray pieces of Hansonilia that might have been forgotten forever had the lady not got herself re-elected to Parliament (where presumably she keeps a watching brief on Labor Senate leader Penny Wong for latent signs of automatism).

On Wednesday night, Senator Hanson celebrated her return to politics with a speech full of verve and contumely.

Listening to the speech, I was reminded of a hoax email that has been circulating around the United States for years. In it, an Australian Prime Minister (sometimes it's John Howard, sometimes Kevin Rudd, sometimes Julia Gillard) addresses these remarks to Australian Muslims:

"This is OUR COUNTRY, OUR LAND, and OUR LIFESTYLE, and we will allow you every opportunity to enjoy all this. But once you are done complaining, whining, and griping about Our Flag, Our Pledge, Our Christian beliefs, or Our Way of Life, I highly encourage you take advantage of one other great Australian freedom, 'THE RIGHT TO LEAVE'."

When travelling in America, I have more than once been approached by an American and congratulated for the views of my prime minister who "said what a lot of people here are thinking". Mystified at first, I eventually found the hoax email and worked out what they were on about.

That "speech" had never actually been given by an Australian politician. But as of Wednesday, it has.

"If you are not prepared to become Australian and give this country your undivided loyalty, obey our laws, respect our culture and way of life, then I suggest you go back where you came from," Senator Hanson declared, along with a clutch of other chain-email staples like Muslim crime waves, Christmas carols being outlawed in primary schools, domestic murders being attributable to women lying to the family court, decent Australians being unable to use the roads because of all the immigrants and so on.

There was a wave of national revulsion to hear these sentiments broadcast with the implicit imprimatur of the Australian Senate.

Now, any politician whose stated aim is to fight Islamic extremists' irrational hatred and defend this country's qualities of freedom and tolerance but is happy to shred all those qualities on the way through is working on some pretty interesting logic, in my book.

Is it better for this rubbish to be circulated widely but covertly, unchallenged, through email chains? Or is it better to have it raised in Parliament and dealt with in the open?

I honestly don't know. Both alternatives are pretty hideous.

The fascinating thing about Pauline Hanson, though, is that she personifies – with spooky accuracy – a long and dark and deeply Australian tradition for dealing with immigrants.

That tradition is to hate and fear an ethnic group as it's arriving, and then – after 20 years or so – to forget about them and move on to the next lot.

Read George Megalogenis' excellent book Australia's Second Chance. It reminds us that the first ethnic immigrant group to attract a concerted public and media campaign was the 4000-odd Irish orphan girls who were brought to Australia in the late 1840s fleeing the Great Famine.

The Sydney Morning Herald led a campaign against the girls, who were feared to be stubborn, lazy and of bad character. But the settlers quickly assimilated them and turned their hatred on the Chinese, only to turn on the Irish Catholics, and then on the Italians (whom we threw into prison camps during World War II), and then on the Jews. Then the Vietnamese. Then the Chinese again. And now Muslims. Often, the fear is of lawlessness (Irish insurrection, Italian Mafia crime syndicates, the Triads, Lebanese crime gangs, Islamic State). Always, it's of otherness, of cultural incompatibility.

Twenty years ago, Pauline Hanson wanted us to worry about being swamped by Asians. Bang on time – evolutionarily speaking – she now boasts that her colleagues have married Asians, but it's the Muslims who really bother her.

What does all this teach us?

Two things. One: That there is nothing un-Australian about Pauline Hanson. Whether she's in the Senate or not, this lady represents a range of instincts that is written deep in our history.

Two: That this, too, will pass. And that the grit and forbearance shown by earlier generations of immigrants in the face of the Australian national hazing ritual will, in time, propel Australian Muslims to the final stage of the assimilative process: Having a go at the next lot.

Annabel Crabb is an ABC writer and broadcaster. @annabelcrabb

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