As Pauline Hanson: Please Explain! went to air this week, I was glued not to the big TV in the Chippendale pub where production company CJZ was hosting the cast & crew, but to a blurry feed on a friend’s mobile showing Hanson, live, watching the film.
I’d filmed Hanson on four shoots in 2015, and before that, interviewed her several times off-camera about her extraordinary roller-coaster journey: from her fish & chip shop, to federal parliament, to prison, to mainstream “redemption” on Dancing with the Stars and – as of one month ago – to the federal Senate - where she’ll be representing the people of Queensland for the next six years.
I’ve traipsed through Rockhampton cattle yards with her, downed burgers and Bundy with her in FNQ pubs, discussed the far-right, anti-immigrant tracts she subscribes to in short-haul flights and long-haul road trips, followed her up the cyclone-smashed dunes of Great Keppel Island, watched her rip off her radio mic in fury and storm off set, and studied her for days through the crystal clear lens of our camera – so it’s fair to say I’m familiar with Hanson’s reactions: both to things she does like, and the things she doesn’t.
For this reason, it was riveting to watch Hanson in her Facebook “echo chamber”, watching herself being “herself” in our take on her story. Like a DVD commentary on an instant feedback loop, but in mime. I’ve yet to hear what Hanson said in her interjections during the broadcast (it was a noisy pub) – but I was relieved to see that by the time the credits rolled, she didn’t totally hate the film.
That may sound weird if you don’t work in documentary: but let me Please Explain.
While I don’t agree with Hanson politically on most things (a fact I told her at the start of our journey), she’s no different to the main subject of any other long form documentary: she had shared her intimate memories with us, and carved weeks out of her life to do so.
"I knew Hanson would be cross with parts of the film"
Thanks to the forensic research of archivist Naomi Hall, we’d unearthed an extensive library of footage from Hanson’s career. We not only interviewed Hanson, we took her back to key locations from her life, so that DOP Luke Peterson could “match” her present-day self remembering how these locations had affected her twenty years ago. From the Ipswich Civic Center, where she’d launched One Nation; to Waco Womens’ Prison; to her first house in Silkstone, Hanson had cooperated for our camera – despite having a sore ankle and a Senate campaign to run.
I felt, as all nonfiction filmmakers feel – an obligation to honour the trust she’d shown us during this process, by communicating her story as authentically as possible. My main target was not Hanson, but the forces that cynically used her sway in the late ‘90s for their own political ends – particularly the LNP’s four-term prime minister, a man now intent, despite the damning findings of the Chilcot Report, on styling himself as Australia’s pre-eminent “elder statesman”, John Howard.
I knew Hanson would be cross with parts of the film – even watching her mute during the screening, it was clear that she was. I’m willing to bet she hates the scene where she sings the national anthem at the Reclaim Australia rally for example – because, as she admitted in one of our first shoots, she would have “quite liked to have been an entertainer”, but she “didn’t have the voice.”
After the screening, when I was back home doing a post-mortem with journalist Margo Kingston, I called Hanson on a whim, and asked if she’d “still have a drink” with me. She replied, a bit tersely, that she would. For what it’s worth – whether or not your subject likes your film, if they’ll sit down in a pub with you after they’ve seen your film you’ve passed what I consider a crucial documentary ethical test.
As editor Nikki Stevens, co-writer Michael Cordell and I decided early in the edit, it was not our job to “bury” Hanson and her views (the media has already done that several times over in the past twenty years) – but to air them – and the views of the leading Indigenous, multicultural and media commentators in the film who oppose to them – so that Australia, at this crucial juncture in its evolution as one of the world’s most successful multicultural societies, can flourish and grow, rather than become mired in the division and anguish that erupted the first time Hanson surfaced.
Hanson’s re-election, two decades after her notorious 1996 maiden speech, is proof that Australia is not immune from the anti-elitist, anti-immigrant populism now surging around the world, inflamed by the likes of Trump, Le Pen and the Brexiters. She’s our own far-right “anti-politician”; the Anglo/Aussie-battler’s Trump.
If we reject her views and those of her supporters outright, if we scorn and ridicule her rather than debate and disprove her statements in a rational way, if we just “shut her down” again, we run the risk of regressing to the fractured, volatile place Australia was at the height of One Nation’s influence in 1997/1998: when Hanson could not even speak in public without violent clashes exploding around her. Clashes which, from the hours of archive we studied to make the film, looked a lot like civil war.
Broadcaster Alan Jones observed, tellingly, in a part of his interview that didn’t make the film: “Australia is getting older, but I’m not sure it’s growing up.”
Hanson’s views - on Climate Change, refugees and Muslims in particular - are adolescent in their simplicity. To neutralize them this time round, the mainstream media and our politicians would do well to take a mature and non-sensationalist approach.
And now I’ll climb off the soapbox. I am a filmmaker not a journalist, and as such, the best insights I can offer on Hanson have evolved around what happened during the shoot.
There are too many bizarre and shocking things to cover in detail here – so instead, I’ll share a key but revealing scene – again, one that didn’t make the film.
On our last week of shooting, after visiting Hanson’s old Ipswich fish & chip shop (which is now run by the Vietnamese-Australian migrant Thanh Huyhn), Hanson invited me to her farm for dinner.
We stopped at Coles to get ingredients, and Hanson, in a lilac cotton frock and matching three-inch pumps, looking like a Desperate Housewives star crossed with a Madmen extra, sashayed through the veggie aisles, looking for a “nice, plump eggplant” for her Thai chicken curry.
I asked if she needed lemongrass, and she shot me the little grimace she uses when I’ve been particularly offensive: “Of course not! There’s lemongrass in my garden!”
I was jarred by how much this exchange clashed with the iconic image of Hanson the media has embedded in my mind. Hanson the avowed anti-Asian crusader, shopping for ingredients for a Thai curry.
Hanson the woman who brought us “we are in danger of being swamped by Asians”, being such a fan of Asian cuisine, she cultivates lemongrass in her veggie patch.
Then again, even back in the ‘90s, Hanson saw nothing wrong with new migrants bringing “different foods” to Australia, as long as they assimilated into the “Australian way of life.”
My understanding is that this “way of life”, for Hanson, is indelibly fused with the nostalgic sepia tones of her 1950s childhood, when she would hand-grind the mince for her father Jack’s rissoles in the family take-away shop: a place older Brisbane locals still tell Hanson - when they meet her in the street - made “the best burgers in Wollongabba.”
The “Australia” Hanson wants to protect is a place of white picket fences and golden wheat fields, shot through a Pro Hart filter – with strapping Aussie blokes styled by RM Williams, and Slim Dusty on the soundtrack. A time when whites and blacks knew their place, Greeks and Italians raised their children monolingual to assimilate, and the laconic Aussie sense of humour was the only humour around.
A land of Dinky Di patriotism, uncomplicated by guilty preoccupations with its genesis in the bloody oppression of Australia’s First Peoples. A country fuelled by the self-sufficient ingenuity that gave the world Vegemite, Holden, Ugg boots, the Hills Hoist and Arnotts – all brands which Hanson correctly predicted in 1997 would cease to be Australian-owned, as globalization took hold.
The second thing that jars about Hanson shopping for Thai ingredients in Coles, at least the way I’ve described it, is that I’ve singled out her lilac frock. This is up there on the sexist-objectification-of-female-politicians scale. What gives me the right?
As the Member for Oxley in the supposedly “politically correct” ‘90s, Hanson was mercilessly objectified for her ultra-feminine sartorial choices. On slow media days, the Canberra Press Gallery would cast their eyes around the suit-heavy House of Reps and single out Hanson (whose “bumble bee” twin-set is still the stuff of hustings-fashion legend), as “the best dressed woman in parliament.”
In 1998, while campaigning to save her own seat – and her audacious army of 161 One Nation candidates – from being annihilated by the Big Parties’ collusion on preferences in the federal election, Hanson was snapped stepping off a Cessna as the wind blew her skirt, Monroe-style, above her thighs. She tilted her head and flashed a defiant smile, and the leading broadsheets had a field day: plastering the image front page across the country under headlines along the lines of ‘great legs, shame about the policies.’ You get the idea.
Hanson was one of the most famous – and famously pilloried - female leaders of a political party, long before another strong-minded redhead usurped the crown. And the similarities between Gillard and Hanson don’t end there: despite being opposed politically, both were victims of vicious gender-focused attacks by a cabal of male broadcasters and politicians, who were determined to undermine their credibility, power and support.
These attacks, interestingly, were spearheaded both times by a singularly manly MP from Manly, Tony Abbott.
Thankfully, male politicians are no longer above being savaged for their own fashion fails: as writer David Marr once quipped of the older Abbott’s tendency to flaunt his red budgie-smugglers at every possible photo-op, “never has so much been seen of so very little.”
Hanson, if you caught her at a relaxed moment, might giggle at Marr’s jibe: she appreciates a brutal Aussie put-down as much as the next true-blue patriot. As she reveals in the film, she also blames Abbott for the events that led to her languishing on a concrete slab for three months at Wacol women’s prison.
But those days are behind the Senator now, and so, one might hope, are the political chatterati’s belittling obsession with her wardrobe. With One Nation poised to bag 1-2 more Senate seats alongside her own, Hanson is no longer being treated as she was twenty years ago - as a redneck freak, a Fish & Chip shop lady who’d accidentally stumbled into the corridors of power, an aberrant “political tourist”: she is being treated, correctly, as a bonafide politician.
So why do I single out Hanson’s lilac frock in Coles? Because it encapsulates who she is: a woman with a 1950s sensibility, now clad in the legitimacy of New Millennial power. During our shoot, I tried – and failed – to persuade her that as a single woman who’d run her own small business and raised four children with little help from their fathers, as a female politician who’s stood up, repeatedly, to what she calls the “Boys’ Club” of politics, she’s a textbook feminist. She shot me that trademark grimace and said “I’m not a feminist! I like to be treated like a lady.”
It doesn’t matter how nuanced your argument is with Hanson, or how well corroborated your sources: her absolutism doesn’t waive. As she said the night we drank her favourite tipple, Bundy & Dry (aka the “ginger bitch”) by her pool, and I tried to convince her that Climate Change is real: “I’ve learnt as much in life, Anna, as you did out of your text books.”