Hanson wants your vote (again). Please explain

6 June 2013

She's ba-aack. Again.

Love her or loathe her, you can't deny Pauline Hanson's tenacity. After numerous unsuccessful attempts to gain office since 1998 - two NSW state elections (2003 and 2011), one Queensland state election (2009), and four federal elections (1998, 2001, 2004 and 2007) - but who's counting? - Hanson has once again thrown her hat into the ring, announcing that she will run for a seat in the NSW Senate in September's federal election.

But there's a twist this time.

After dalliances with running as an Independent and with the short-lived Pauline's United Australia Party, Hanson has rejoined One Nation, the party she co-founded in 1997 with the 'two Davids' - Ettridge and now shock-jock Oldfield.

Is it a case of déjà vu? Will Hanson and One Nation rise again, like a phoenix from the ashes?

Probably not and here's why.

The Australian political landscape in 2013 is looking quite different to that of 1997 in a number of important ways.

Firstly, the 'shock value' of Hanson's populism doesn't really seem so shocking these days.

A number of her policies and viewpoints have now been 'mainstreamed' into slightly more palatable forms by both the major parties.

Indeed, Hanson - with good reason - accused John Howard of stealing some of her policies in the early 2000s, and this legacy of 'One Nation lite' hangs over both Labor and Liberal parties, particularly in their policies on asylum seekers.

Secondly, it's not just her policies that have been mainstreamed.

Hanson's populist style - outspoken, politically incorrect, anti-intellectual and always allegedly of 'the people' - is not just her territory anymore. It has been adopted in a number of ways by the PM-in-waiting, Tony Abbott, and a number of his supporters, including Scott Morrison and Cory Bernardi.

This adoption of her vernacular and style dilutes her own appeal.

Thirdly, there are a number of viable populist parties who will be competing for the populist vote come September.

It's no secret that both the major parties are on-the-nose with voters at present, and there will be a proportion of the electorate who want to punish them.

However, while One Nation might have been the only visible minor party on the right to attract protest votes in the late 1990s, the emergence of Bob Katter's Australian Party and Clive Palmer's United Party will likely knock some of the wind out of One Nation's sails this time around.

Katter is a savvy operator who has Hanson's old-school protectionism without the overt racism down pat. Palmer's grab-bag of policies might attract votes from those with confused ideological preferences, but who like the sound of someone who says he speaks for 'the people' a lot.

Either way, the protest vote will be split by these three Queenslanders.

But…we shouldn't write her off yet.

Much of the media attention on Hanson portrays her as silly or as a redneck. She's not.

Hanson has been carefully 'mainstreaming' her own image over the past few years by taking up every media opportunity possible - including appearing on the Celebrity Apprentice, Dancing With The Stars, A Current Affair, and perhaps less gloriously, an ad for Donut King.

The effect has been to smooth out her public persona, make her more approachable, more 'safe', more sellable. For this, she is probably seen as less 'dangerous' than in her halcyon days.

This all being said, there was a weird sense of déjà vu in Hanson's media performances on Monday. It was the same wavering voice and awkward cadence; the same mix of protectionism and thinly-veiled xenophobia; and even the same old phrasing - illegal immigrants 'swamping' our shores, and allegations of 'the constant attack on our Australian way of life'.

Then there was the bizarrely out-of-touch radio interview in which she claimed she had gone to "the social media" to interact with "the young ones" who were "fingering their pads" on their phone. "I'm with it, mate!" she said.

Yes, with it, indeed.

So what do the experts say?

The ABC's chief election expert, Antony Green, doesn't rate Hanson and One Nation's chances. He argues that the refusal of major parties to direct preferences to One Nation, as well as the party's rather inglorious record of infighting and disunity, will ultimately hurt them.

The only chance they really have, he argues, is if they do extremely well in first preference votes.

The real effect of Hanson's return - if she can get enough media coverage to air such views - will be to push the discourse further to the right, further into the populist realm of panic and crisis.

However, if the media's half-hearted shrug at her return on Wednesday is anything to go by, it might just be déjà vu all over again.

Benjamin Moffitt is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Government and International Relations, and the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights.

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