Anna Broinowski has always known that truth can be stranger than fiction. When the filmmaker and writer first came face-to-face with Pauline Hanson on a hot 2009 Sunday in Sydney’s Sylvana Waters, she was struck by the politician’s larger-than-life presence.
Seven years later, Broinowski found herself trailing Hanson as she embarked on her ‘Fed Up’ campaign, which crisscrossed through rural Queensland. Her observations set the stage for the SBS documentary Please Explain as well as her new book, Please Explain: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Pauline Hanson — which spans Hanson’s formative fight against ‘90s multiculturalism as well as the present-day populism that delivered her into the Senate.
Although her observations provide a compelling account of Hanson’s evolution from the embattled owner of an Ipswich fish and chip shop to one of the most iconic politicians in the country, it also highlights the dangers of letting our understanding of a force as corrosive as Hansonism hinge on viral videos and soundbites.
Broinowski believes that Trump and Hanson were both able to use their status as reality TV stars to forge an intimate connection with future supporters and translate it into political power.
“You have a woman who started out as a single mother with four kids, running a fish and chip shop in Ipswich,” Broinowski tells SBS. “She’s suddenly is catapulted onto the national stage in a landslide upset win, the seat of Oxley in 1996. She’s then imprisoned for what, in my opinion, is a very dubious charge of electoral fraud but was offered redemption as a B-Grade celebrity on Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Apprentice. And she keeps trying until finally, 20 years later, she’s back in the Federal Senate. That’s a pretty extraordinary journey.”
Broinowski believes that Trump and Hanson were both able to use their status as reality TV stars to forge an intimate connection with future supporters and translate it into political power. She also says that she was attracted to Hanson’s story because it mirrors Australia’s transition from a nation that celebrated inclusiveness to a nation obsessed with borders — one whose media and politics increasingly skew right.
“Since the ‘90s, Australia has slid into a much more divided, conservative, cautious, scared place,” she says. “My book is my attempt to understand what has happened in Australia in the last 20 years. It’s not just about Hanson but about how John Howard used Hanson’s populist rhetoric to swing the country, towards his non-progressive agenda.”
She explains that Hanson plays on her image as an underdog. “In her maiden speech, she declared herself an unpolished politician, a woman who’d had her share of life’s knocks but she’s now a very wealthy woman. She owns multiple properties but still votes consistently against the most underprivileged in society including single mothers who’ve survived abusive marriages.”
Hanson’s contradictions are among the most compelling elements of Please Explain. The politician’s resolve to leave two violent marriages, raise four children and build a business — rising at 4 am to source fresher fish than her competitors! — could be lifted from a feel-good feminist movie, if you overlook her vile ideologies. Broinowski was taken aback by the odd moments of camaraderie she felt with Hanson. In terms of politics, though, “there was no affection”.
"In her maiden speech, she declared herself an unpolished politician, a woman who’d had her share of life’s knocks but she’s now a very wealthy woman."
“Hanson is a good host, she cooks a great Thai chicken curry, she likes to joke and she’s a very hard worker, which you can’t help but admire,” Broinowski explains. “She criticises the boys club of politics and has a healthy dating and sex life which she’s not ashamed of. But her views on everything from Muslim Australians to refugees to climate change are based completely on ignorance.
“This is unforgivable in an Australian politician with a national platform. Before the burqa stunt, she would routinely post stunts on her Please Explain Facebook page to get likes. She refuses to talk to Muslim Australians and claims that even Muslims who are moderate are ‘sleeper cells’ — rhetoric that comes from nasty right-wing literature that gets mailed to her from America. She does have compassion. But she wants to go back to the cultural era of the 1950s. She only cares for Australians who she thinks are part of her tribe.”
Twenty years after Hanson entered Australian politics, our tribes are increasingly defined by our political values. Does Broinowski believe that it’s worth starting difficult conversations with those who disagree with us, even if they’re not prepared to see our point of view?
To understand how Hanson’s journey reflects Australia’s journey is important
“In this new age of media silos, everyone curating their own news and staying in their bias bubbles, it’s more important that we reach out and communicate with the people that we don’t agree with,” she says.
“If we don’t, the potential for conflict is that much greater. Hanson has one million supporters and they might be a minority but it doesn’t take much to ignite them.
“Everyone has a Hanson supporter in their family and that’s the place to start, around the kitchen table. To understand how Hanson’s journey reflects Australia’s journey is important. Hanson hasn’t changed since the ‘90s but Australia has.”
Please Explain: The Rise, Fall and Rise of Pauline Hanson is out now and is published by Viking.
Please Explain screens on SBS On Demand on October 7.