Fraser Anning got just 19 first preference votes as a candidate for Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party at the 2016 election.
This should’ve been enough to render Anning an irrelevance. Yet recently the Queensland senator has commanded more column inches than any other political figure, and certainly far, far more than he deserves.
His presence in the Senate and thus in a position to use taxpayers’ funds to advance an extreme right-wing agenda is the result of his accidental elevation from the unwinnable No.3 spot on the Hanson Senate ticket to membership of the upper house.
This followed a High Court finding that the hardly less odious One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts was ineligible under section 44 of the constitution.
Let us hope Anning will soon return to the obscurity he deserves at the hands of Queensland voters in elections due in May when he puts himself forward as representative of a newly registered party.
That said, his participation in a neo-Nazi rally in Melbourne against “African gangs’’ speaks to a wider issue that cannot simply be ignored.
This is the continuing resurgence of the anti-immigration nationalist right in Australia and its implications for the stability of a two-party system now under considerable stress.
Mainstream parties are shedding votes by the bucketload to populist forces mainly – but not exclusively - on the right. Support for non-mainstream tendencies is motivated significantly by anti-immigration sentiments or, put another way, fear of the “other’’.
We could describe this as a darkness in the country’s soul.
Professor Ian McAllister of the Australian National University, whose 2016 Election Study is the most authoritative survey of voters' attitudes, reports that dissatisfaction with Australian democracy is at four-decade highs. This is partly attributable to disaffection over immigration linked to concerns about job security, income disparities and poverty in which more than 3 million Australian are living below the breadline, according to the Australian Council of Social Service.
In the forthcoming election, McAllister has no doubt that immigration will motivate voters. In his analysis of the Brexit vote he told me he had been “bowled over’’ by his finding that immigration was “50 times’’ more important than anything else among those voting to leave the European Union.
Australia’s political class should beware this sort of finding.
While it would be a mistake to exaggerate the significance of a few attention-seeking louts stirring up trouble on the St Kilda waterfront in Melbourne, what cannot be put aside is contentiousness over the immigration issue.
The Hanson phenomenon might have been suppressed – or dog-whistled into relative submission – during the John Howard-era following his declaration that “we will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come’’. However, the immigration issue is now back with a vengeance.
These days, it is not as though Hanson is without her enablers on the broad right.
Talk radio and populist television provide an echo chamber for her crude anti-immigration message. She is nurtured on these outlets. She is rarely challenged in a way that exposes the vacuousness of her remedies. She is not held to account for her more outrageous claims.
What distinguishes Australia from other jurisdictions where populist anti-immigrant sentiment is running high is the absence of a charismatic figure to give voice to these sentiments: such as a Donald Trump, or a Viktor Oban in Hungary, or a Matteo Salvini in Italy, or a Nigel Farage in the UK.
But this is not to say the emergence of a more marketable standard bearer on the right won’t happen given schisms that exist within the conservative movement.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has been a persistent advocate for reduced immigration levels whereas his colleagues in government have been reticent on the issue.
What is clear is the Liberal Party is facing one of its most challenging moments since its formation in 1944 out of the embers of the United Australia Party. Insiders talk about an “existential’’ threat to its survival.
This is probably overstated, but it is also the case that tensions between the party of Robert Menzies’ moderate and conservative wings are such that, while unlikely at this stage, it would not be surprising if new alignments emerged in the event of an electoral drubbing.
Attitudes towards immigration and the continued incarceration indefinitely of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru as hostages to domestic Australian politics would be part of this debate.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison initially produced a weak response to the St Kilda protests, out of concern, no doubt, not to antagonise the immigration-sceptic right in advance of elections given the likelihood of preference deals pending to prop up vulnerable Coalition candidates. He stiffened his remarks subsequently when it became clear that his first reaction was inadequate. This was necessary in view of repulsive anti-Semitic elements to the protests.
All this should be a reminder to a timid political class that immigration in all its manifestations, including the refugee intake, needs to be assessed holistically rather than in a piecemeal manner.
What should be instituted is an extra-parliamentary inquiry into population – including optimum levels of immigration and the best means for Australia to honour its refugee resettlement obligations.
Furtive policymaking in which the “ceiling’’ for net overseas migration is ratcheted down to a “target’’ without explanation is not satisfactory.
Failure by the political class on both sides to address the immigration issue transparently fosters a breeding ground for repugnant characters like Anning.
We can do better than this.