Australians have demonstrated some curiously contradictory behaviour in recent months. On the one hand they have opened their hearts and pockets to millions of Asian neighbours. On the other they have elevated Pauline Hanson to the status of national media personality. This apparently contradictory behaviour, begs closer analysis and a re-examination of the “Hanson phenomenon”.
Ms Hanson is now a fully fledged media personality. She may only have garnered around 100,000 votes in her recent bid for a Senate seat but she is front page news over at The Women's Weekly. According to the Weekly, a “landslide of viewer votes” kept her in front of enthralled Australians to the very final episode of Channel Seven's top rating Dancing with the Stars. Thus, in the increasingly circuitous world of cross promotion that can make overnight stars out of almost anybody, there followed more television appearances in Weekly advertisements touting news that Pauline had a “Hot New Lover”. The result was the front page Weekly splash that is the ultimate accolade to full blown personality status.
Not since Cheryl Kernot's somewhat ill-fated magazine experience with a red feather boa have we seen such a frenzy of girlie delights from a politician. But then, Pauline apparently no longer sees herself as such. No, our Pauline - and she is well and truly very much all ours whether we like it or not - has emerged from the chrysalis of her dreams and nightmares to embark on a different phase of her life. Australians, she says, “have seen the entertainment value” in her. Pauline has moved on.
Ms Hanson has always denied accusations that she is racist. No, she says, I am not a racist. I simply want “everyone to be treated the same”. That statement sits somewhat oddly against her 1996 One Nation launch in Ipswich when she urged Australians to guard against the possibility that they one day might all be eating rice. Not forgetting her maiden speech that year when she called for a radical review of immigration policy and abolition of multiculturalism because Australians were “in danger of being swamped by Asians”. Hanson did Australia's reputation overseas incredible damage. And she continued to do so throughout her tenure as Member for Oxley and beyond. But she cannot be held solely responsible.
Hanson broke every rule of political correctitude that Prime Minister Bob Hawke, and subsequently a more fervent Paul Keating, had striven to impose on a nation with an international reputation for calling a spade a shovel. 1996 was the year that saw Australians vote Paul Keating and Labor out of office and usher in a new era of Liberal longevity under John Howard. Later analysis of that epoch changing election revealed that Australians did not like Keating. While they believed he was a strong, intelligent leader and reasonably sensible and honest, he was also regarded as arrogant and not entirely dependable.
Perhaps some recalled that it was Hawke and Keating who had taken an already shaky relationship with some of our Asian neighbours to new lows. Leaving aside the shameful example of Australia's singular recognition of East Timor as part of Indonesia, Hawke was also fond of trumpeting his personal support for Israel on the international stage - thus regularly giving offence to the many millions of our Muslim neighbours.
It was Hawke who gave offence to China after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre by giving all of its citizens then in Australia the right to remain here without reference to their political ideology, methods of entry or reasons for being here. It was Hawke who questioned international condemnation of Burma's military junta. It was also Hawke who gave deep offence to Malaysian Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1986 when he described the execution of two Australians convicted in Malaysia of drug smuggling as a “barbaric” act.
Keating compounded that problem in 1993 when he described the Malaysian Prime Minister as “recalcitrant” after Mahathir announced he was boycotting the inaugural Asia-Pacific Cooperation Forum summit. With examples such as these is it any wonder Australians might eventually question the true value of political correctitude?
Remaining with the Malaysian example, research by Drs Siva Muthaly and Janek Ratnatunga identifies four “phases” in Australia's worsening relationship with Malaysia during the latter decades of the 20th century. They describe these as “The Drug Traffickers Phase” (Hawke), “The Drug Recalcitrant Phase” (Keating), “The Racial Bias Phase” (Hanson) and “The Millennium Phase”. This last refers to the Howard Government's somewhat unfortunate public expression of its desire to play “deputy sheriff” in the region following its intervention in East Timor. Whilst the first two “phases” might be regarded as Malaysia specific, the latter two were not. Their impact reverberated around the region - giving voice to doubts that Australian rhetoric matched reality.
Ironically, many of the warning signs about Australian comfort zones had already been posted by Professor Ross Garnaut in his seminal Australia and the Northeast Asian Ascendency Report to Prime Minister Hawke in 1989. On page one of that report Garnaut warned that the task facing Australia with regard to changing relationships with Asia was “a huge one” and the “path ahead is long. The danger is that Australians will think too soon that they have changed enough.” Then, on page two, he pointed to a fact many Australians may have known or suspected - that immigration was “larger relative to population in Australia than in any other country on earth”. Further into the report Garnaut also noted that compared to the strength of Asian cultures and identities there was a “softness” in the Australian “definition of nationality” but that Australia “should be firm in maintaining its own values in implementing its own policies in areas which have human rights dimensions, including immigration, information and education”.
Garnaut's observation about immigration and nationality are significant and should have raised alarm bells 15 years ago. They didn't because they were buried in a much larger report urging Australians to engage more closely with Asia. A report released, as Garnaut himself noted, just months after Tiananmen Square and the fateful decision by a tearful Hawke to permit around 40,000 Chinese nationals to remain in Australia - changing in one fell swoop the national immigration balance and so redressing the non-Asian percentages which so worried our political leaders. But was it fair? Doubtless the millions then suffering in East Timor and the countless camps which have been home to generations dotting the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Burma would think not.
To put the impact into perspective, the 40,000 post-Tiananmen cases stood in marked contrast to the 550,000 refugee and other humanitarian cases Australia accepted in the 46 years between 1945 and 1991 - the year in which the UNHCR estimated the global refugee population at 17.2 million and Australia was holding 224 “boat people” in detention. Even the number of dispossessed Vietnamese admitted into Australia over the 26 years between 1975 and 1991 totalled less than 125,000 people.
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