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Pauline Hanson Is A Symbol Of Australian Democracy

The most offensive thing about Pauline Hanson has been the reaction her election has evoked from the Australian public.

12/07/2016 6:36 AM AEST | Updated July 15, 2016 12:57
Reuters
"Australia’s political leaders should not be so quick to dismiss Hanson’s rise to political relevancy."

The most offensive thing about Pauline Hanson isn't her unabashed xenophobia, her incorrigible disregard for cultural sensitivities, or her affront to the sensibilities of Western liberal political thought. No, truly the most offensive thing about Pauline Hanson has been the reaction her election has evoked from the Australian public.

Across all walks of political life, Hanson has been met with the same universal contempt; and unfortunately, that contempt has come to obscure the valuable role figures such as Hanson play in the development of political society.

Hanson's comeback is unmistakably a reflection of the populist phenomena sweeping the world; the same force which has given rise to Trump in the United States, Farage in the not-so-United Kingdom, and Le Pen in France (amongst many others). However, populism is not an exclusively right-wing phenomenon; Bernie Sanders, Syriza in Greece, and Podemos in Spain each attest to the success of populism on the other end of the spectrum.

While representatives from both populist strains are criticised for sitting at the fringe of their respective political wings, both have succeeded through their promise to represent the interests of the average citizen, their appeal to national (rather than international) values, and their successful critique of the state of establishment politics. Following this, while the substance of Pauline Hanson's policies may be unpalatable to many, the populist form of her political opposition is an important symbolic step in the direction of revitalising Australia's stagnant political culture.

First, populists are elected when voters realise how profoundly unrepresentative the modern democratic system has become. The emergence of a 'political class' far removed from the average constituent has produced a system which is democratic in name only. In reality, political participation tends to begin and end on election day, and local representatives are rarely more than a party mouthpiece.

The populist approach, in its appeal to the needs of the constituency as opposed to abstract conceptual discussion, has attempted to overcome the disingenuous nature of national politics. Instead of representing national interests at the local level, populists provide a voice for local interests at the national level. While Hanson's policies may be objectionable, her promulgation of this populist principle establishes an important precedent in the conduct of national politics.

Second, populists have been successful in identifying the breakdown of social cohesion as the scope of government expands. By failing to reconcile the increasingly internationalist outlook of government with the immediate domestic interests of citizens, the contemporary political system has overseen the failure of social integration. Political violence, terrorism, xenophobia, and the growing gap between rich and poor are all observable consequences of this.

The populist left and right have capitalised on the public perception of this widening political gulf and have oriented their policies towards bridging this divide. For the left, broadly isolationist tendencies and state-led economic policies are informed by the inequity of the class divide and consequences of austerity. For the right, harsh immigration policies and economic protectionism address emerging socio-political cleavages resulting from the real or imagined threat of immigrant crime and terrorism, and the relative decline of the national economy.

Finally, populists have expressed their dissatisfaction with the paralytically divisive nature of the political status-quo. The highly partisan nature of political debate has drawn attention away from relevant domestic issues and shifted it to the un-relatable issues of international trade, economic partnerships, the global fight against terrorism and the promulgation of democracy -- relatively universal concepts in the political mainstream.

The issue is not that domestically relevant political issues aren't being legislated on; it's that the debate surrounding them is so rife with obscurity, and so subject to manipulation by its political opposition, that the general public fail to engage with them. The way in which Obamacare was misconstrued by conservative media in the United States, or the way Turnbull's medicare policy was subject to an intentionally misleading, yet viciously effective, scare campaign by the Australian Labor Party, are examples of how schismatic the domestic political debate can be even on issues concerning the common good.

The rise of the populist parties on the left and right herald a positive shift in Australia's political culture; a move towards a system in which the political elite can be freely challenged in an arena formerly reserved for them alone. The views of Hanson may unequivocally violate the values of our inclusive and multicultural society; but her resurgence is undoubtably a reflection of the growing disillusionment and dissatisfaction segments of the Australian public feel towards the current state of national politics.

Australia's political leaders should not be so quick to dismiss Hanson's rise to political relevancy. Doing so may be a convenient way of reaffirming personal ideological commitments, but it doesn't address those fundamental motivating factors behind her election.

Whether the general public likes it or not, by providing representation to a substantial segment of the population who have until now been alienated from Australia's political system, Pauline Hanson is a symbol of Australian democracy. By mounting a successful challenge to the credibility of the nation's political class, Hanson's victory paves the way for a legitimate populist presence in Australia's political culture.

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