How not to win with race politics

Things must be bad for Australian conservatives when their favourite newspaper The Australian editorialises on the great days when Pauline Hanson and One Nation were a political force. This is an exercise in intellectual conservative pseudo-populist fantasies. It declares that:

it is necessary to recognise two big misrepresentations that have been made about the rise of Pauline Hanson and One Nation. The first misunderstanding that was given a great deal of weight in the media is that One Nation’s primary concerns were racially based. In reality, One Nation was more an expression of downward envy about what was mistakenly seen as more generous government assistance for “insiders”, including immigrants and Aborigines. The second mistake is the belief that John Howard slew the One Nation dragon by stealing its political ground…the Left’s attitude to the poor, under-educated One Nation voters became one of contempt rather than a desire to help lift them from poverty.

Whatever you think of One Nation, and I think their policies were uniformly disastrous, their voters at least deserve the respect of being taken at face value. This conservative nostalgia seems odd when it recalled that One Nation almost tipped John Howard out in 1998 and that in Queensland where One Nation was most influential its political legacy has been to make Labor  the natural party of government. It is true that a race-based and ethno-centric politics can be advantageous for the political right, but it extremely difficult to run such a politics from opposition. In the late 1980s the Liberals flirted with a racial appeal but it repelled more voters than it attracted. In 1996-98 One Nation, not the Liberals, were driving the race debate. A basic principle of politics is that oppositions win elections by mounting a broad non-polarising appeal to appear as better providers of consenaual collective goods: rising incomes, community safety, better services etc. In 1996 the Liberals made gains across the social spectrum, Howard did not win by a strategy of racial polarization. After 1996 both the left and the right would spin their myths. The right would count it as a populist revolt against the dreaded elites the left would see an empowerment of Anglo-Saxon racism etc. The race debates of the late 1980s and 1990s spiralled out of the Liberals’ control and alienated middle-ground voters. The intellectual right was attracted towards Geoffrey Blainey in the 1980s and Pauline Hanson in the 1990s, and fantasied that they spoke for an imagined silent majority, but they did not. The US provides a similar example. There the radical right has set the immigration agenda, but their rhetoric about Mexican reconquests of the south-west and the Hispanic peril is so extreme that it alienates voters who might be susceptible to a softer ethno-centric appeal, whilst at the same time it mobilises the Hispanic population against the Republicans. Ditto for Australia, if the Australian right allows the immigration agenda to be set by John Stone, David Flint, the Cronulla rioters and Camden protesters it will condemn itself to permanent opposition. What may occur in Australia (as it has in the US) is that the activist base of the right is imprisoned in an echo-chamber of delusion imagining that it speaks for a majority. We saw this with the trade union bogey at the 2007 election. It is apparent with the US Republicans who devote vast attention to making Nancy Pelosi a bogey women to completley no effect.

One thought on “How not to win with race politics

  1. [...] Robinson gives a serve to some rose-tinted memories of One Nation and Pauline Hanson. He also feels that Craig Emerson has unholstered some meaningless babble criticising the [...]

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