On Sunday morning after the Federal election, millions of Australians rightly woke up in horror to find that Pauline Hanson has made a comeback to Federal Parliament after 18 years.
Social media soon lit up with posts of disbelief and ridicule. One holidaying Facebook friend wrote "Good morning Australia! I hear you voted in Hanson back. Should I just stay here in NZ?"
Soon Hanson was branded in posts as the Red Witch of the North like the Game of Thrones character.
I had the same instinctive reactions too. I grew up in the 90s in Australia when Pauline Hanson made her maiden speech warning that the country was in danger of being swamped by Asians. It was a speech which drove many Asian Australians, including myself to become politically active. I remember growing up thinking she was our public enemy number two (enemy number one being whoever invented Kumon and made millions of kids suffer).
As a young adult working in the multicultural sector, I was one of her vocal critics. In 2011, I publicly questioned her motives for being a serial candidate when she unsuccessfully contested multiple elections over the 18 year period. She told me to get on my bike and ride home. Problem was, Australia was my home and I had never learnt to ride a bike as a child.
Today though, I have a less black and white view about Hanson and people generally. I still think her policies are wrong and unworkable, but I no longer feel she's evil incarnate.
It would be tempting to ridicule Hanson and her supporters as simply uninformed, stupid or racists. But the fact is Hanson has been elected with a quota in her own right fair and square. She didn't bend the rules, she didn't send sms texts on the eve of the election, and she wasn't handed a safe seat by party power brokers. And she's succeeded after 18 years of setbacks, including jail time, an experience which would have made most other people give up.
If Hanson has been resilient, so too has been her supporters. There's been consistently 10 per cent of the population in NSW and Queensland who have routinely voted for her each election.
After eight years as an elected councillor in the City of Ryde in Sydney's North West dealing with a diverse range of constituents, I've learnt that most people aren't so one dimensional, and shouldn't be pigeon-holed into either the enlightened and prejudiced. I know for a fact for example that there are some elderly voters in Ryde who have voted for me (an Asian face) in past council elections but also sympathise with Hanson's views.
Unfortunately so many arguments happen online in our world today between people who have never actually met each other in real life. My experience is that few prejudices actually survive face to face interactions. For example, Hanson would probably consider my home suburb of Eastwood as one "swarmed by Asians" (and that would be correct as a matter of purely reading statistics on the demographics). But life is not just a bunch of statistics. What she's missing having probably never been in Eastwood in person, is seeing the lively streets during market nights and the wonderful Chinese and Korean foods sold during Lunar New Year, and seeing how all communities come together to celebrate a strange sour green apple during the annual Granny Smith Festival.
On that note, I have a friend (Asian) who makes a conscious effort of inviting a non-Asian neighbour to celebrate with him in Eastwood each Chinese New Year. Ultimately, I feel the right response to Hanson 2.0 does not lie in ridiculing her comeback or trashing her supporters, but rather in small generous acts like these, multiplied by millions in neighbourhoods and workplaces across the country. I suspect it still wouldn't change Hanson's own personal views on migrants. But if Hanson 2.0 declines again in the future, it will not be because she's shouted down by vocal critics, but because enough of her supporters decide to vote differently when they realise there's a better way where we can all peacefully co-exist.
Justin Li, 34, is a former deputy mayor in the City of Ryde and has been an independent local government councillor since 2008. He is also editor of Humans of Eastwood (modelled on Humans of New York) publishing stories of ordinary people from multicultural Eastwood in Sydney's North West.