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  • The Production of a Founding Event: The Case of Pauline Hanson’s Maiden Parliamentary Speech 1
  • Sean Scalmer (bio)

On 10th September 1996 at 5:15 PM, a new member of the House of Representatives in the Australian Federal Parliament rose to make her maiden parliamentary speech. The policy issues raised were voluminous - in order of reference: the apparent existence of “reverse racism,” welfare payments to Aboriginal Australians, multiculturalism, bureaucracy, immigration, unemployment, foreign debt, living standards, family law, privatization of government assets, foreign aid, the United Nations, government investment in large-scale development projects, national military service, interest rates, and the (apparently threatening) status and size of Asian nations surrounding Australia. The speech was also characterised by a close examination of the member’s personal history of single parenthood, ownership of a small business, and own self-confessed “ordinariness.”

The speaker’s name was Pauline Hanson, and the speech can be thought of as a kind of ubiquitous “banal event” erupting out of the everyday of the late twentieth century, in a way that has recently been detected by Wendy Brown. 2 To initial media observers, the speech was represented as a passing phenomenon, and the event was signaled with the name and person of Pauline Hanson in a way that bore close resemblance to those other media events signaled by the names of Jennifer Flowers, Rodney King, and Hill-Thomas.The contemporary intellectual industry devoted to the reading of such banal events whirred into production with a range of “customized theory,” 3 and creative and diverting interpretations. Hanson was rapidly constructed as an evanescent figure of “media-enhanced iconography,” with whom media consumers could identify for no more than “a moment in history, if at all.” 4 Her political prominence was estimated to last for six weeks or so, at best. 5 However, the customized, theoretical script did not run as anticipated. The maiden speech did not remain a “banal event,” defined by Brown on the basis of its disconnection from “a larger historical force or movement.” 6 On the contrary, it has increasingly been represented as the founding event inthe birth of a powerful new political movement: Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party.

Formed in April 1997, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party is now represented in two State Parliaments and in the Senate of the Australian Federal Parliament. In elections in the state of Queensland during June 1998, it won 11 seats in the lower house, and attained 22.7% of the state-wide vote. Since that time, electoral support for the organisation has flagged, and earlier predictions that the Party threatened the stability of the two-party system now appear overstated. 7 Nonetheless, One Nation clearly represents a powerful new institution in Australian politics - populist, anti-immigration, anti-market, anti-multiculturalism, anti-political. Through the Party’s burgeoning presence, the politics of race and of opposition to globalisation have attained an increasing prominence within political life. Indeed, like other political parties of the extreme-right, One Nation’s importance lies not only in its direct electoral support, but in its influence on the dimensions of political debate, on the policy positions of the major parties, and on ethnic relations within broader society. 8

However, if the strength and implications of Pauline Hanson’s support resemble that of the far-right in other countries, such as Le Pen in France, and David Duke in the United States, then her dizzying political trajectory is nonetheless distinctive. If her political program, her attacks on the “special treatment” of racial minorities, and her exploitation of national myths is typical of similar figures in other countries, then her rapid elevation to political prominence has no obvious counterpart. 9 Rather than a long-term process of institution-building on the far-right of politics, it is Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech that looms as the founding event in the history of this movement. Before the speech, there was limited public exposure and no Party organisation at all. After the speech, a new battle had begun.

Indeed, for Hanson’s partisans, her maiden parliamentary speech is a kind of declaration of independence. Sixteen thousand copies were apparently printed for distribution in the...

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