The argument that protests against populist racist politicians like Geert Wilders are a bad idea ignores the lessons of Pauline Hanson’s demise, argues David Glanz
Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who will be speaking this month in Sydney, Melbourne and Perth on “Freedom, Islam and the West”, has generated a global following by spouting the foulest Islamophobic racism.
Wilders has argued for a “raghead tax” (a 1000 euro fine for wearing the hijab, described by him as “making the polluter pay”) and proposed that the Dutch army fight “street terrorists” (i.e. youth of Moroccan descent) at home instead of in Afghanistan.
He has compared the Koran to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and called the Prophet Muhammad a paedophile. He wants to abolish the first article of the Dutch constitution, which declares all citizens equal, and replace it with one identifying the “Christian-Jewish and humanist” tradition as the dominant culture.
His Party for Freedom (PVV) won nine out of 150 seats in 2006 and 24 in 2010. In the 2012 elections it lost nine seats and a third of its support, but still gained more than 950,000 votes or 10 per cent.
In Australia, Wilders has his supporters. His speaking tour is being organised by the Q Society, an organisation that believes “the further Islamisation of our nation must first be stopped, and then reversed”. The visit is backed by Liberal Senator Cory Bernardi.
It might seem obvious that anti-racists need to mobilise to ensure that Wilders’ racism is challenged in each city. Every public meeting should be met with protests.
But some are raising the argument of “free speech” to defend the speaking tour. It’s no surprise that right-wing Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan is among them. “People are entitled to loathe Wilders, or shun him. They are also entitled to support him, or hear him,” he wrote.
Former Immigration Minister Chris Bowen granted Wilders a visa, saying: “I’ve taken the view that he’s a provocateur who would like nothing more than for me to reject his visa so that he could become a cause célèbre.”
But support for Wilders’ right to visit and speak has also come from figures further to the left. Adam Brereton, associate editor of newmatilda.com, argues: “In an ideal world we would welcome [Wilders] to Australia with open arms so he can be torn to shreds in the arena of public debate.”
Keysar Trad from the Islamic Friendship Association said Muslims should ignore the event. Greens Senator Richard Di Natale, who has sharply criticised Wilders’ racism, says: “I think by denying Geert Wilders a visa there is a potential to give his cause more oxygen; we don’t want to do that.”
Such views reflect the belief that ignoring racists deprives them of publicity, thereby marginalising them. But we need to look no further than the experience of dealing with Australia’s own populist racist leader to see that this is not true.
The rise of Hanson
Pauline Hanson was elected to federal parliament in 1996 for the seat based on the Queensland town of Ipswich. She was a racist when pre-selected by the Liberals (her former husband confirming that “she always referred to Aborigines as black bastards”) but was disowned by them only when her anti-Aboriginal remarks attracted media attention once campaigning was under way.
Hanson proclaimed her election “a victory for the white community”. Her attacks on so-called Aboriginal privilege made her a magnet for racists across the country. Her meetings began to attract large crowds, laying the basis for the One Nation party to be launched the following year.
Her appearances were soon met with protests. In October, hundreds forced a Hanson meeting at Melbourne University to be relocated. Weeks later, 4000 marched through Brisbane on a Unity Against Racism rally.
In early 1997, 10,000 demonstrated in Sydney, 30,000 in Melbourne, and thousands more in Adelaide, Ipswich, Rockhampton, Hobart and Canberra.
In Perth, 2000 rallied outside a Hanson meeting and 1000 more surrounded a One Nation breakfast event the next morning. Three protesters climbed on to the function centre roof and unfurled a land rights banner. Hanson described it as “the worst 24 hours of my life”.
But others argued against mobilisation, while some supported rallies but opposed attempts to shut down Hanson’s meetings, citing freedom of speech.
They argued that racism should be defeated through reasoned argument and that protesting gave the advantage to Hanson. This position ignored two crucial facts.
The first is that the mass media is owned and controlled by the rich and powerful, those who benefit from cuts and privatisation and therefore have an interest in fomenting racism to distract attention from their own crimes.
The media gave Hanson’s maiden parliamentary speech, in which she declared Australia was “in danger of being swamped by Asians”, banner headlines, catapulting her to national fame overnight. She became a celebrity, the “battler” who spoke up for “ordinary Aussies”.
The second is that racist words left unchallenged lead to racist deeds. The price for Hanson’s rise could be measured in violence. Two Filipino women in Toowoomba were spat on. Singaporean soldiers in Townsville were beaten up. A Chinese woman in Sydney was bashed with a hammer.
Thomas Teng and his retired father were bashed late at night in Canberra. “We didn’t know them at all. They attacked us because we were Asians,” Teng told the Canberra Times. The federal Race Discrimination Commissioner reported receiving an “unprecedented” number of complaints.
In 1996, Australia was the only country to register a rise in racist attacks against Jewish people. “The increase has to be seen in the overall context of an increase in racist incidents … over the last 12 months,” a Jewish spokesperson said. “Obviously the race debate and the rise of One Nation has been a significant factor in all this.”
In 1997, within months of One Nation opening its Sydney office in Manly, a Chinese laundry nearby was firebombed. Graffiti said: “We hate gooks.” Laundry owner Sally Xie said: “Up until a year ago we never experienced anything like this.”
The rise of Wilders’ PVV party has led to similar crimes. According to researchers, there has been “a sharp rise in violent incidents against Muslims [in Holland] … all the more striking, since this trend goes against a general decrease in racist violence”.
There has been an increase in discrimination against job applicants, especially against young men with “Muslim beards” and Arab features. Attacks on mosques have increased, with incidents of arson, blood smears on walls and even a decapitated pig on the doorstep of a mosque in the town of Groningen.
As 1997 rolled on, the mobilisations against Hanson grew. In Geelong, 1000 protesters invaded a pro-Hanson meeting and shut it down. Organiser Sam Purcell described the scene: “There was an amazing feeling of victory even before the meeting started because so many people had turned up on a cold night at very short notice to say, ‘No—we don’t want this’.”
Anti-racists then poured into the hall, heavily outnumbering the Hanson supporters. Purcell said: “The organiser of the Hanson meeting tried to speak but was drowned out. The meeting had to be declared closed.
“The question of free speech has been raised. But I don’t think people who are inciting such racial hatred should have the right to ‘free speech’. I don’t believe that if you ignore people like Hanson they’ll just go away. Hitler didn’t go away.”
The media began to turn its fire on the anti-racists. Protesters were vilified, especially after a Hanson supporter was manhandled outside a One Nation meeting in the Melbourne suburb of Dandenong.
Success of protests
But the protesters were right to stand their ground. Hanson supporters began to slink away. Meetings shrank. Hanson’s adviser, David Oldfield, whined: “We are not stopping people from disagreeing with us. We’re asking them not to do it at our meetings.” As the momentum fell, Hanson supporters turned on each other.
The demonstrations did not bring the immediate end of One Nation or of Hanson, but they sowed the seeds of her demise. The party went on to score a dramatic but short-lived breakthrough in the 1998 Queensland elections, winning 11 seats. Hanson lost her seat in that year’s federal election but One Nation won a Queensland senate seat.
What the protests did succeed in doing was pinning the racist label squarely on Hanson and One Nation, and exposing the fascists who gravitated to the party.
Politicians like Brisbane mayor Jim Soorley attacked Hanson publicly as a racist. Sections of the media began to turn on her as Australian bosses and bureaucrats found that Hanson’s reputation was damaging their interests in Asia, and the Liberals tried to claw back votes.
The movement’s demand for other parties to put One Nation last on their how-to-vote cards was successful. Local councils such as Ashfield (Sydney) and Moreland (Melbourne) declared themselves “Hanson-free zones”.
Activists at the National Union of Students education conference voted to call on all affiliated campuses to follow suit.
By 1999, support for One Nation had fallen from 22 per cent to 5 per cent, the party was riven by splits and Hanson was finished as a serious political player.
Wilders will come and go, but Australia’s resident Islamophobes will continue to organise. The lesson of the Hanson period is that protests and demonstrations to oppose their filth are crucial to pushing them back.