politics

"Absolute fools": Why Pauline Hanson unleashed during an interview on Today.

“Hogwash”. “Rubbish.” That’s what Pauline Hanson thinks of accusations that she’s a white supremacist. It’s a label that’s stuck ever since her infamous “xenophobic” interview back in 1996, but never more firmly than this week.

On Monday, the Queensland One Nation Party Senator tabled a motion that declared “it’s OK to be white”; a phrase popularised by neo-Nazis.

In a sensational day in Parliament, the motion was only narrowly defeated after attracting support from Government Senators. But don’t worry, folks; they didn’t actually mean it. It was just… how did they put it? Oh yeah, an “administrative error”, one they quickly backed down from and apologised for following widespread backlash.

The Prime Minister described the vote as “regrettable”. The Government’s Senate Leader described it as “severely embarrassing”.

Well, this morning on Today, a particularly fired-up Pauline Hanson had a few choice words of her own.

“They’re absolute fools. They really are,” she told host Karl Stefanovic. “The way the Liberal Party and National Party have acted over this is ridiculous. They should have let it go. They should not have said anything about it, and there wouldn’t have been a problem with it.”

So how did the Australian Senate get so close to endorsing a white supremacist slogan?

Start from the beginning. What was the motion about? And why were they voting on it?

Motions are formal proposals by members of Senate that can range from endorsement of an issue of domestic or foreign policy, to the introduction of bills or referral of a matter to a special inquiry. Roughly 50 of these occur every sitting week.

In this case, Senator Hanson simply asked the Senate to "acknowledge: (a) the deplorable rise of anti-white racism and attacks on Western civilisation; and, (b) that it is okay to be white.”

The motion was defeated 31-28 on Monday, but only thanks to opposition from Labor, the Greens and crossbench senators Derryn Hinch, Tim Storer, Stirling Griff and Rex Patrick.

So Government Senators agreed with Pauline Hanson on this?

Well, not initially.

See, when notice is given of an upcoming motion, the Government asks the relevant ministerial office to advise on the issue. In this case, it was the office of Attorney-General Christian Porter.

When Senator Hanson's motion was first lodged back in September, the Attorney-General's staff advised that it should be supported. This, Porter claims, was a mistake and one that occurred without his knowledge.

"It was interpreted in my office as a motion opposing racism," he said in a statement this week. "The associations of the language were not picked up. Had it been raised directly with me those issues would have been identified."

ADVERTISEMENT
Attorney-General Christian Porter. Image: Getty.

At the time, the Government's leader in the Senate, Mathias Cormann, rejected the advice of Porter's office, and the Senate leadership concluded that the Coalition ought to vote against the motion. However, on the day the vote was due to take place - September 20 - the Senate ran out of time and the vote was pushed back.

So how did they end up 'accidentally' siding with her?

When Senator Hanson's motion resurfaced this month, Porter's staff once again advised a vote in favour. And this time - apparently without Cormann's knowledge - the Coalition listened.

Echoing the advice of Porter's office, Liberal senator Anne Ruston made a short statement to the Senate ahead of the vote, declaring “the Government condemns all forms of racism”.

And together 23 of them voted in favour. Small business minister, Michaelia Cash. Trade minister, Simon Birmingham. Indigenous affairs minister Nigel Scullion. Even Kenyan-born Liberal senator Lucy Gichuhi – the first person of black African descent elected to Australian Parliament.

Video from the chamber captures Senators from the Labor and Greens yelling “Really? Really?” at Coalition Senators across the chamber as the vote was taking place.

Mathias Cormann was not present for the vote, and according to journalist Michelle Grattan reportedly only learned of his colleague's support for the motion after it occurred.

ADVERTISEMENT

But the damage was done. Headlines had already appeared locally and overseas about the Australian Senate's close call.

Cormann called a press conference on Tuesday to apologise and declare the issue had "slipped through".

“Yesterday, as a result of an administrative process failure, the government senators in the chamber ended up, on advice, voting in support of the motion," he said. "As Leader of the Government in the Senate, I take responsibility for that error and I’m sorry that that happened. It is indeed regrettable.”

They even staged a do-over vote on Tuesday, in which Coalition Senators voted against the motion.

But Labor wasn't buying the excuse.

Opposition Senate leader Penny Wong declared it "a pathetic attempt at a cleanup", while Opposition legal affairs spokesman, Mark Dreyfus, took aim at Porter and his team.

“[The Attorney-General is] in charge of the Racial Discrimination Act and interpreting other complex legislation. Does he seriously expect Australians to believe that he couldn’t interpret what Senator Hanson’s motion meant?

“This is not something the government can just shrug off. This is government senators being seen to endorse a battle cry of the white supremacy movement inside the Australian parliament. It is appalling."

FROM OUR NETWORK
00:00 / ???