LETTER FROM AUSTRALIA
THE SUCCESS of the popularist Pauline Hanson One Nation Party in the June Queensland State Elections has sent shock waves through Australian politics. One in four Queensland electors deserted their traditional mainstream political allegiance to vote for One Nation candidates in a protest that has the potential to continue rolling over the national landscape.
While it is the conservative Coalition parties that have most to loose from the One Nation, the Australian Labor Party is not immune from electoral impact from this new grassroots movement. Mainstream political leaders and commentators have been quick to denounce the success of One Nation in terms of threats to Australias reputation as a tolerant society. These threats more often than not evaluated in trading terms rather than any absolute commitment to values associated with a so-called liberal society.
The Archbishop of Brisbane, the Most Reverend Peter Hollingworth, a former Australian of the Year, described the Queensland election results as a protest vote that failed to provide stability. It was an outcome that was "not conducive to good order and stability in Queensland". "The problem in the State Election was that most Queenslanders did not have a clear picture of the future direction in which the parties would lead them, while One Nation has produced very little in the way of policy objectives," His Grace opinioned.
It has to be said that any examination of the testimony proffered by those who cast a One Nation vote leaves a very clear indication that they and over 25% of their fellow Queenslanders knew exactly what they were doing. They were rejecting the dominant mainstream parties and their mutual orthodoxy of inevitable change in society.
As much as the collective self-affirming elites of politicians, academics, commentators and social activists may wish to the contrary here was a heart-held belief that Australia was headed in the wrong direction and that ordinary people were excluded from the decision-making process.
Political leaders from the Prime Minister, the Federal Opposition Leader through to each and every State Premier issued assurances after the Queensland Poll that they "recognised" that people were "hurting" and that all parties had to "listen more" and "communicate better" the need for change. The problem is that there is an ever increasing proportion of the electorate that do not believe that the current governments, of both persuasions, are capable of listening.
Added to that cynical perception there is the reality that many people do not accept the message. It is not that the messengers need to communicate better the need for increased privatisation, corporatisation and the litany of economic rationalism that now dominates public policy. What has to be recognised is that a significant section of the Australian electorate do not swallow the whole brave new global world scenario.
On Election Night in the State Tally Room Pauline Hanson unashamedly proclaimed her belief that Australia should and could return to the values and lifestyles of the 1950s and 1960s. And as much as a bevy of economists, public policy makers and assorted other experts may decry that the clock can not be turned back there exists at present in Australia a not insignificant number of people who dare to differ and are voting with their feet on that belief.
In seeking to understand and thereby counter the One Nation phenomenon some commentators seek to explore possible links between One Nation and right-wing extremist groups, such as the Gun Lobby, in Australia and overseas especially the United States. Within sections of the media and academia there is also an attempt to paint this new political force in terms of the New Right and Religious Fundamentalism.
Certainly there are those within One Nation who would see themselves as Christians with a more fundamental viewpoint than the liberal ascendancy within most mainline denominations. It would be simplistic, however, to make such a sweeping generalisation of the range of people who are drawn to what is still a rather loose umbrella movement rather than a structured and defined ideological party.
The nexus between the One Nation phenomenon and religious life in Australia may be that there is a common contemporary experience between politics and the pulpit that is expressed in a turning away from the traditional, (with a small "t"), manifestation of political and religious practice and belief.
Since her election to the Federal Parliament some two years ago Pauline Hanson has not played the accepted role of a parliamentarian. The Speaker and Father of the House of Representatives, Ian Sinclair, has lambasted Mrs Hanson for her poor participation in everyday parliamentary activities and her preference for using the media to pedal her message. Mrs Hanson has retorted that she is not a politician and she is seeking to be a voice for ordinary Australians and that she utilises those avenues and vehicles, such as the mass media and in particular talk-back radio, that will help empower everyday Australians.
In the religious field Australia is experiencing a growing faith expression that looks beyond historic denominational structures and practices. In a keynote address to the United Evangelical Council conference on church planting, held in Sydney during May, the Rev Philip Jensen asserted "The gospel is more important than our church. The salvation of Australia is more important than our empires".
Mr Jensen, who is Rector of St Matthias, Centennial Park in Sydney and a powerhouse of the new aggressive evangelicalism, continued that "it was a scandal that churches argue over structures when 97% of Australians arent saved".
The Christian Research Associations 1995 study "Believe it or Not: Australian Spirituality and the Churches in the 90s" affirmed by the results of the 1997 National Church Life Survey point to the growth in a religious consumerism and a readiness for Christians to move between denominations and worshipping communities and practices. This loosening of adherence and denominational discipline is compounded by various sexual scandals that have plagued certain mainline churches and undermined authority and confidence. So it can be seen that as voters have expressed a capacity to move beyond the historic expressions and structures of political life, so too, those Australians who profess a faith contain a number who are also prepared to give expression to alternate manifestations of practice and support.
Prominent social commentator, Hugh Mackay, has identified the One Nation successes in Queensland as but one reflection of a wider and more diverse movement of disquiet within Australian society over the nature, rate and direction of change that has been gathering momentum over the last ten to fifteen years and is not likely to abate in the immediate future.
Martin Hislop is Anglican Chaplain to the University of Ballarat in the province of Victoria.
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