The level playing field: Hansonism, globalisation, racism

The level playing field: Hansonism, globalisation, racism
Race and Class
Suvendrini Perera
October 1998


The success of Pauline Hanson’s extremist One Nation Party has led to a shift in Australia’s political agenda away from multiculturalism and indigenous rights, legitimising racism, and fostering hostility toward racial and ethnic minorities. Although Pauline Hanson is rhetorically opposed to globalisation, she actually relies on it as she has appropriated and reworked the discourse of globalisation. A connection between globalisation and opposition to minorities is expressed by Hanson.

`Free Trade is Jesus Christ and Jesus Christ is Free Trade’, proclaimed a Victorian bureaucrat, Sir John Bowrigg, in 1855.[1] These days, the proponents of free trade are, it would appear, far less exclusive in their credos; the contemporary patron deities of global trade make up a determinedly pluralist pantheon. From the United Colours of Benetton to IBM’s subtitled commercials of rustic Italian convents and serene Tibetan monasteries, multinationals have gathered multiculturalism — or at least its most obvious symbols and signifiers — into their mighty embrace.

This is a seemingly contradictory phenomenon, by which the very forces that seek to override national and cultural boundaries simultaneously promote the pleasures (and profits) of local difference. In Ecofeminism, Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva cast some light on this strange embrace, arguing that within globalising economies:

    Local cultures are deemed to have `value’ only when they have been
    fragmented and these fragments transformed into saleable goods for a world
    market. Only when food becomes `ethnic food’, music, `ethnic music’, and
    traditional tales, folklore, and when skills are harnessed to the
    production of `ethnic’ objects for the tourist industry, can the capital
    accumulation process benefit from these local cultures.

    While local cultures are thus dissected and their fragments commodified,
    these atomized parts are then re-unified in the global supermarket, thereby
    procuring a standardization and homogenization of all cultural diversity.
    Cultural relativism is not only unaware of these processes but rather
    legitimizes them.[2]

The commodification of `ethnic’ cultures in the `global supermarket’ both informs and is informed by the ways in which minoritised racial and ethnic groups are organised and managed within individual states. It can be argued that the quantifiable economic benefits attached to `cultural diversity’ have played a role in supplanting older policies designed to assimilate minorities into a homogenised nation state; in this sense they may be said to have allowed a space for the assertion of hitherto prohibited rights and identities in societies newly recognised as `multicultural’.[3] This new space, however, is, by the very conditions of its possibility, a highly restricted one, circumscribed by the demands and pressures of a state whose institutions and power structure remain overwhelmingly monocultural.

Attempts by racial and ethnic minorities to exert control over their cultural resources soon reveal the limits of multiculturalism in the officially multicultural state. Demands from within this space for autonomy over cultural resources and products can be immediately delegitimised by the invocation of `wider’, collective, national or even universal interests. As the land, cultural and natural resources, identities and even genetic material of indigenous peoples become ever more desirable properties in the economy of globalisation, for example, the interests of `science’, `national development’ `progress’ or `humanity’ are invoked to deny or overwrite their ownership. As Mies and Shiva again point out, these appeals to transcend `local’ minoritised racial and ethnic bodies and identities in the `wider’ interest are only camouflage for the narrowness of the dominant local interest:

    In the dominant discourse the `global’ is the political space in which the
    dominant local seeks global control, and frees itself of any local and
    national control. But, contrary to what it suggests, the global does not
    represent universal human interest but a particular local and parochial
    interest which has been globalized through its reach and control … In
    this decisionmaking, the communities who pay the real price … have no

Subjected to constant demands to transcend or override their racial and ethnic identities in the `wider’ interest, the `communities who pay the real price’ confront a simultaneous commodification and erasure of their cultural resources. It is in the context of the simultaneous erasure and reification of racial and ethnic difference in the discourse of globalisation that this essay situates the recent rise of racist politics in Australia.

With close to a quarter of the vote in the June 1998 state government election in Queensland going to the extremist One Nation Party, racism may be said to have now acquired an unprecedented level of legitimacy in Australian politics. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation ltd., to give the party its full name, campaigned on a platform of economic protectionism and the abolition of multiculturalism,[5] native title rights, and the Anti-Discrimination Act, thus openly linking opposition to globalisation with an agenda of, in effect, racial discrimination. Two of Hanson’s most publicised speeches were her attacks on the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI) and the recent, non-binding UN Draft Declaration on Indigenous Rights. Hanson used virtually identical language to denounce these two very different documents — the one enhancing the reach of multinational corporations by prohibiting `discrimination’ between foreign and national forms of investment, the other attempting to provide minimal support for indigenous peoples who remain the most marginalised and discriminated-against section of any population. In Hansonism’s skewed vision, both these moves represented a renunciation of Australians’ autonomy to sinister outside forces.

The explicit linkage between opposition to minority rights and to globalisation in Hanson’s platform forced the country’s two major parties, virtually indistinguishable in their commitment to globalising the economy, into feats of contortionism designed both to distance themselves from Hanson and simultaneously to appeal to some of her supporters. In this context, the adoption of an anti-racist position occasionally served as both a decoy and a surrogate for attacks on Hanson’s economic views. Unlike the 1996 general election in which racism remained largely implicit, pitched, as one analyst put it, at the subliminal level of a dog whistle,[6] in the 1998 state election, `race’ became the issue through which all other questions were addressed and filtered, thus serving to divert and distort the focus in particular ways.

Desperate acrobatics on the policy front were especially evident in the case of the Liberal/National government, which shares much of One Nation’s hostility to multiculturalism and indigenous rights, but is utterly committed to an economic programme of privatisation, competition and joining the big boys on the fabled global playing field. Thus, we had the curious spectacle of the prime minister, John Howard, who on previous occasions has himself denounced the UN’s human rights initiatives, describing as almost `deranged’ Hanson’s attack on the UN charter on indigenous rights. Simultaneously, as the traditional party of `the bush’, the government’s strategy for dealing with Hanson’s appeal was to target Aboriginal land rights and native title claims as creating `uncertainty’ for farmers. Hoping to appease Hanson’s large level of support among rural voters and to divert attention from its own economic policies (which have caused an erosion of services, including the closure of country schools, hospitals and banks), the government refused to join with the Labor opposition in placing One Nation candidates last on its how-to-vote cards. These confused tactics, however, failed spectacularly to win votes for the National/Liberal coalition.

The Labor party, equally committed to an agenda of deregulation and economic rationalism while in office, has become in opposition more critical of some of the effects of these policies: mass privatisation, union busting in the interests of `productivity’ and `world’s best practice’, and the rapid decline of services to country towns. During the election, Labor laid claim to what it persistently described as `the moral high ground’ by openly attacking the racism of Hanson’s platform. Having fallen one seat short of a majority in parliament (partly because of Liberal/National preferences going to One Nation), Labor has now assumed government in the state of Queensland with the support of an independent member.

One Nation’s success — the party, incorporated little over a year ago, ended up with thirteen new members in the Queensland parliament — has given rise to a range of commentary that raises questions both about Australian politics and, more generally, the relations between racism, economic protectionism and globalisation. After the election, much of the media analysis, following the lead set by One Nation’s own self-representations, has tended to play down its racist platform and focus instead on economic issues. The most common interpretation of the election result is that it represents a `cry of pain from the bush’, buffeted as it has been in recent years by the effects of economic deregulation and globalisation. In response, the analysis goes, `the bush’ has simply turned on the most visible targets — who just happen to be `Asians’ and `Aborigines’. This consoling explanation of an almost incidental racism, as a by-product rather than a constitutive element of One Nation’s platform, is however complicated by those who see a connection between opposition to globalisation and support for a nationalist (and thus at least potentially if not implicitly chauvinist and anti-minority) agenda. A recent column in the Age newspaper, by the left-of-centre Kenneth Davidson, carried the plaintive headline, `It’s come to this: only Hanson defends the nation state’, while a recent letter to the editor from the chairperson of one of the local ethnic communities councils (an organisation for representatives of various ethnic groups) urged the return to more interventionist economic policies, on the grounds that racism against ethnic and racial minorities was the logical consequence of globalisation.

What is the nature of the relationship between anti-globalisation and pro-racist positions? And how is this relationship demonstrated by the success of Hansonism in Australia? Any answers to these questions need to recognise the tensions and contradictions that are historically constitutive of the process of globalisation, intimately interrelated as it is with the discourses of liberalism and free trade.[7] Shortly after the extent of support for Hanson in the Queensland election became known, and while prime minister Howard remained characteristically silent about the startling success of One Nation, two significant sources voiced their strong opposition to these developments. The first was a spokesperson for Citibank, warning that the adoption of Hansonism could damage Australia’s economic standing worldwide; the other was Jeff Kennett, the premier of the State of Victoria — one of the most determined advocates of privatisation and economic rationalism in Australia. He was soon followed by the federal treasurer and deputy Liberal leader, Peter Costello, another notorious economic `dry’, who went so far as to say that the principle of opposition to Hansonism must be upheld, even if it cost his party the general election. The staunchly anti-racist sentiments expressed by Kennett and Costello have been received with surprise by many commentators on the `progressive’ side of politics, who have expressed disbelief at finding themselves in agreement with two of Australia’s most aggressive economic rationalists.

Any simple understanding of a necessary relationship between the rise of racism and the consequences of rapid globalisation is complicated by the example of Victoria, the state of both Kennett and Costello, where polls reveal that Hansonism so far has gained the least ground, despite the all-too-evident consequences of the state government’s relentless pursuit of economic deregulation. In this sense, Victoria may indeed present a satisfying instance where unambiguously anti-racist leadership by the state premier has encouraged popular anger to target, not racial and ethnic minorities, but his policies of globalisation and deregulation themselves.

To posit some simple form of the equation Hansonism = anti-globalisation = pro-racism is to ignore the extent to which Hansonism itself is also implicated in, and indebted to, the processes and discourses of globalisation; simultaneously, this equation misses the marked ambiguities within the processes and discourses of globalisation themselves towards issues of multiculturalism and racial/ethnic differences. Toni Morrison has forcefully asserted that anxieties of race and belonging provide an underlying continuity to, and are in fact constitutive of, modernity’s seemingly opposed discourses of globalism, nationalism and transnationalism:

    The overweening, defining event of the modern world is the mass movement of
    raced populations, beginning with the largest forced transfer of people in
    the history of the world: slavery … The contemporary world’s work has
    become policing, halting, forming policy regarding, and trying to
    administer the movement of people. Nationhood — the very definition of
    citizenship — is constantly being demarcated and redemarcated in response
    to exiles, refugees, Garstarbeiter, immigrants, migrations, the displaced,
    the fleeing, and the besieged. The anxiety of belonging is entombed within
    the central metaphors in the discourse on globalism, transnationalism,
    nationalism, the break-up of federations, the rescheduling of alliances,
    and the fictions of sovereignty. Yet these figurations of nationhood and
    identity are frequently as raced themselves as the originating racial house
    that defined them.[8]

The nature and extent of Hansonism’s indebtedness to and implication in globalisation can be explored on a number of levels. At the level of marketing, One Nation’s self-representations of itself as the party of the `little Aussie Battler’, of outback and country towns against urban and international `elites’, of impoverished farmers and struggling small businesses against corporations and multinationals, have passed mostly unchallenged. Yet a recent memoir by Hanson’s former adviser, the self-styled `dewog’ John Pasquarelli, reveals that this is a carefully crafted strategy targeting a niche market ready to consume artefacts and images of `the battler’ and `the bush’. For example, Pasquarelli credits himself with the inspiration of casting Hanson as a `fish and chip shop lady’, rather than the owner of a `seafood take-away’, as she would have preferred to describe it. It was, as he notes, a stroke of marketing genius that gave his then employer a priceless aura of true-blue Aussie authenticity.

Just as the image of Hanson as the quintessential `fish and chip shop lady’ and struggling single mother are belied by information about her financial status and the extent of her landholdings,[9] One Nation’s claims to represent humble, smalltown Australia are belied by its corporate structure and highly compartmentalised and regulated organisation.[10] Currently it is composed of two tightly controlled institutions, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation ltd. and Members of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation inc., the former a private company run by three directors, at least one of whom receives a commission from fund-raising proceeds. This director is a former fund-raiser for World Vision, a major player in the international aid industry; another is a former Liberal Party candidate for the Sydneyside seat of Manly, hardly the rural heartland of Australia. In spite of its grassroots image, One Nation displayed a mastery of sophisticated communications, marketing and fund-raising techniques in the recent state elections.

One Nation’s contradictory positioning is perhaps most evident in the way it feeds upon and appropriates the discourse of globalisation, even while simultaneously decrying it. An obvious, if so far unremarked, example is its adoption of the language of equality and `the level playing field’ in its policies on race and ethnicity. In economic’ terms Hansonism might oppose the attempt to create a `level playing field’, demanding a return to tariffs and protectionism for country industries because of the special circumstances of Australia’s non-urban population. Yet Hanson’s policies on racial and ethnic minorities rely precisely on the concept of a `level playing field’ in racial terms, arguing that multiculturalism and special programmes for Aboriginal Australians should be abolished because `all Australians’ must be treated `equally’.

The incompatibility of this demand for a `colour blind’ racial `level playing field’ with complaints against the unjust and inequitable notion of an economic `level playing field’ is part of the contradiction of Hansonism. Here Morrison’s insight, that within the discourses of both globalisation and nationalism are `entombed’ metaphors of the `anxiety of belonging’, becomes powerfully relevant. Rather than challenging the thrust of globalisation, Hansonism parallels it, advocating the erasure of ethnic and racial specificity in the interests of a `wider’, `Australian’ one. At the same time, however (and akin to the global market’s insatiable demand for ever more specialised ethnic products), it obsessively invokes, calls upon and (re)produces racial/ethnic differences in order to promote and consolidate its own identity. To the extent that this identity constructs a fortress Australia besieged by marauding Aborigines within and encroaching Asians without, Hansonism also represents, not a marginalised and bruised rural Australia swinging out wildly at any random target, but a continuation of the white supremacist ideologies that have dominated domestic and foreign policy since colonisation. Only, these are now able to mobilise a new vocabulary that battens simultaneously on globalisation, nationalism and liberalism.

The real success of Hansonism, and its most frightening characteristic, is this ability to enlist a range of discourses and representations that resonate with Anglo-Australia’s historical as well as current anxieties. In this aspect as well, it has learned the lessons of the global market, atomising and reifying the languages of protest, marginalisation and egalitarianism to promote its very different platform of ressentiment. Writing on Hansonism in the South African journal Argus, William Makgoba is quoted as saying that `the most profound differences between old and new racial language is that the latter operates by selectively drawing upon and reworking liberal and egalitarian principles for illiberal ends … By repackaging the language and ideals of liberalism, new racists … promote instability, social disharmony and lack of focus.[11]

As Stuart Hall has pointed out of similar movements in Europe and the US, the `retreat into the bunker of cultural and racist nationalism’ is quick to assume `respectable forms’ which exempt it from having to `recognize itself as such’, appearing rather as

    a defence of `Englishness,’ of `Britishness,’ and of `Americanness.’ How
    could anybody object to Americans, or some Americans, defending a certain
    kind of `Americanness’? Who could argue against the possible claim that
    American children might not speak `the American language’ first in American
    schools, and what is racist about that, what could possibly be racist about

Having literally wrapped herself in the Australian flag for her publicity photographs, Hanson proclaims over and over again her love for the country and her aspiration to be `the mother of Australia’. There flows from this her `natural’ maternal desire, like `any’ mother, to see `all Australians treated equally’ and her abhorrence of `special treatment’ for any one group. `And what is racist about that, what could possibly be racist about that?’

In the months since the Queensland election and in the lead-up to the general election of October 1998, much of One Nation’s publicity has focused on the gendered nature of Hanson’s appeal. While Hanson casts herself as the tough-but-fair Mum that every Australian needs, other representations have cast her as everything from Marilyn Monroe to a working-class Princess Diana.[13] A photograph of Hanson scooped up in the arms of a large, bearded supporter after the triumphant Queensland poll has been endlessly reproduced. Popular academics and media commentators have fallen over one another to offer analyses of Hanson’s sexiness, describing her in one instance as a shot of `Viagra in the bush’.[14] One Nation’s subtle but effective manipulation of public curiosity about Hanson’s gender and sexuality is yet another instance of its ability to target and repackage identities and representations, by tapping into a range of popular images and discourses.

This ability to reconfigure and rearrange identities, to select and promote isolated elements in decontextualised ways, again suggests Hansonism’s indebtedness to the processes and products of globalisation. As John Gabriel has pointed out, throughout the 1990s white pride movements have capitalised on the conditions created by globalisation, even as they decry a world in which, they claim, whiteness is increasingly under siege:

    Far from eroding whiteness, new global conditions, including the rapid
    expansion of telecommunications, economic restructuring, class and
    political fragmentation and what has been described as a crisis of national
    identity, have all assisted the reconfiguration of global white identities.
    Globalisation has also provided opportunities, in the shape of the
    Internet, for organisations and parties of the `far right’ to collaborate
    across North America and Europe and to merchandise their products

Indeed, the growth of Hansonism in Australia is inseparable from the development of white pride movements elsewhere in the West; its rhetoric is sometimes absurdly reliant on these sources.[16] In this sense, the Anglo-Australian identity so central to the platform of Hansonism is produced, promoted and reinforced by the process of globalisation, rather than being eroded or threatened by it.

The general election campaign of 1998 (currently underway at the time of writing) offers ample evidence of the ways in which the emergence of Hansonism has shifted the entire political agenda in Australia towards a reaffirmation of Anglo-Australia at the expense of indigenous self-determination and land rights, and of multicultural policies, and has created a climate of hostility towards racial and ethnic minorities. Whatever the outcome of the election, it is clear that, for those of us wanting to challenge the ongoing effects of Hansonism, some critical work to be done is a detailed examination of how it simultaneously feeds upon, reworks and reinforces the effects and aims of globalisation in the process of appropriating and repackaging the vocabulary of both liberalism and nationalism. An examination of Hansonism’s ideological collusion and collaboration with (rather than its rhetoric of opposition to) the discourse of globalisation would reveal, not its much-vaunted `difference’ from `mainstream’ political parties, but the extent of its continuities with them.


Thanks to Joseph Pugliese for his contribution to this essay.

[1] Quoted in Benedict Anderson, `Murder and progress in modern Siam’. New Left Review (No. 181, 1990), pp. 34-5.

[2] Maria Mies and Vandana Shiva, Ecofeminism, (Spinifex, 1993), p. 12.

[3] An example is the document on `Productive diversity’ produced by the Office of Multicultural Affairs under the previous Keating Labor government: `In a world where every competitive advantage must be fully exploited, productive diversity — utilizing Australia’s linguistic and cultural diversity to economic benefit — offers a practical resource which no organization … can afford to ignore … in order to … increase access to export markets, develop domestic niche markets, improve productivity’. (Office of Multicultural Affairs, `What is productive diversity?’. April 1995). Here multiculturalism is shown to be thoroughly structured by the contradictions generated by the idealised and coercively assimilative demands of a homogeneous nation state (`Australia’) and the law of the market, in which `diversity’ is scripted as a commodified resource which will offer the nation the commercial edge.

[4] Ecofeminism, op. cit., p. 9.

[5] In Australia, multiculturalism refers specifically to a cluster of government policies introduced by Labor and Liberal governments in the 1970s, and represented as opposing the previous policy of assimilating racial and ethnic minorities. Hanson’s objections to `multiculturalism’ focus on its most innocuous manifestations for example the appearance of shop and street signs in languages other than English. Presenting a rather alarming glimpse of her cognitive capabilities, Hanson has said that without signs in English she didn’t know whether she was `walking into a butcher or a hairdresser’.

[6] Noel Pearson, Chair of the Cape York Land Council and member of the Indigenous Working Group on Native Title, commenting on the Liberal/National Party’s campaign in the 1996 General Election. For a discussion of the 1996 campaign and its aftermath, see Suvendrini Perera and Joseph Pugliese, `”Racial suicide”: the relicensing of racism in Australia’, Race & Class (Vol. 39, no. 2, 1997), pp. 1-20.

[7] Although, as Bernard Semmel has demonstrated, `the essentially mercantilist assumptions and objectives embodied in … “classic” … imperialism were far from absent in the thinking [that] erected the system of free trade in the last half of the eighteenth and in the first half of the nineteenth centuries’, historically free trade has also encompassed both anti-imperialist and anti-racist positions. In the nineteenth century its supporters distinguished the pacifist, reformist ends of free trade, often identified with abolitionist and philanthropic interests, from the overtly expansionist aims of empire, in turn identified with the evils of monopoly capitalism. See Bernard Semmel, The Rise of Free Trade Imperialism: classical political economy, the empire of free trade, and imperialism, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1970), p 5.

[8] Toni Morrison, `Home’, in Wahneema Lubiano ed. The House that Race Built (Pantheon, 1997), p. 10.

[9] See discussion in `”Racial suicide”‘, op. cit., p. 10.

[10] For example, members of the party are not allowed to make contact with other members and access to the membership list is tightly controlled. Rather like the shareholders in multinational corporations, members of One Nation ltd. are not allowed to attend party meetings without giving seven days written notice.

[11] Quoted in James Norman, `One Nation’s race for policies’ The Big Issue (No 50, 1998), p. 6.

[12] Stuart Hall, `Subjects in history: making diasporic identities’ in Lubiano, op. cit., p. 297.

[13] See, for example Andrew Stevenson, `Pauline Hanson: sex symbol’, The Daily Telegraph (20 June 1998), pp. 26-7.

[14] See Graham Little’s review of Two Nations, `She’s not there’, Age (29 August 1988).

[15] John, Gabriel, Whitewash: racialized politics and the media (London, Routledge, 1998), p. 183.

[16] For example, the brief adoption by Hanson of attacks on single mothers receiving welfare benefits. In the US context, from where it was obviously lifted wholesale, this is inescapably a raced issue; in Australia, however, it is understood to relate more to ordinary (i.e., Anglo) `battlers’. When One Nation realised the negative impact this particular form of scapegoating was having among its target constituency, the denunciations of single mothers ceased abruptly.

About @ndy

I live in Melbourne, Australia. I like anarchy. I don't like nazis. I enjoy eating pizza and drinking beer. I barrack for the greatest football team on Earth: Collingwood Magpies. The 2024 premiership's a cakewalk for the good old Collingwood.
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