BOOKS: Anna Broinowski’s Please Ex­plain. Chris Womer­s­ley’s City of Crows. Maja Lunde’s The His­tory of Bees.

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Fly-on-the-wall footage of out­ly­ing so­cial groups – alt-right po­lit­i­cal par­ties, bikies, squat­ters – is a sta­ple of doc­u­men­tary film. It re­quires a lot of straight-faced swal­low­ing of pre­pos­ter­ous no­tions, in the hope the re­sult­ing film is seen as rel­e­vant as well as bizarre. Please Ex­plain is the book of Anna Broinowski’s doco of the same name, screened by SBS in July last year. She’d spent seven years, off and on, trail­ing Pauline Han­son through the po­lit­i­cal wilder­ness (fol­low­ing her high point of 1996-98 when she’d won a house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives seat and her new One Na­tion party a gov­ern­mentchang­ing bloc in Queens­land’s par­lia­ment).

Broinowski struck lucky. The same month her film showed, Han­son made her great come­back, win­ning seats in the se­nate for her­self and three oth­ers. The Bri­tish had just voted for Brexit, the United States Repub­li­cans were about to en­dorse Don­ald Trump. Marine Le Pen and coun­ter­parts were on the rise in Europe. Was Han­son about to cap­ture a new pop­ulist wave in Aus­tralia?

Po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tists are hard at work try­ing to an­swer Han­son’s trade­mark ques­tion. Broinowski doesn’t get into psephol­ogy. Her main an­a­lyt­i­cal point is that, as with Trump, Han­son’s deft use of so­cial me­dia now al­lows her to by­pass con­ven­tional me­di­a­tors of pol­i­tics. Her sup­port­ers like Han­son be­cause she says what she thinks with­out em­bar­rass­ment at be­ing thought ig­no­rant or racist – what they them­selves think. She’s riv­et­ing to watch, Broinowski says: “Her bloody-minded re­fusal to be fet­tered by ei­ther ac­cu­racy or spin is as breath­tak­ing as it is eerily ab­so­lute.”

For her core sup­port group of “older An­glo-Aus­tralian men” in re­gional Aus­tralia, Han­son ex­erts a feral sexuality, re­call­ing the lizard-woman of Wake in Fright. Her mail in­cludes earnest pro­pos­als of mar­riage from strangers, her in­box re­plete with ex­plicit sex­ual propo­si­tions. They later hated an­other red­head, Ju­lia Gil­lard, with the same sex­u­alised in­ten­sity be­cause she em­bod­ied main­stream cor­rect­ness.

Broinowski’s strength is her por­trayal of this mass re­la­tion­ship, from ac­cess the film­maker won in 2009, when, with cards laid down at a meet­ing in Syd­ney’s Syl­va­nia Wa­ters – nou­veau riche lo­cale of the ABC-BBC’s early ex­am­ple of re­al­ity TV – Broinowski de­clared her­self “a pro-refugee, pro-en­vi­ron­ment, prorec­on­cil­i­a­tion leftie who had grown up in Asia and dis­agreed with al­most ev­ery­thing she said”. Han­son ap­pre­ci­ated the di­rect­ness. Maybe she thought she could con­vert the city film­maker. At times in the com­ing years − dur­ing testy en­coun­ters over rounds of Han­son’s favourite tip­ple, the Bundy and dry known as a “gin­ger bitch” − Broinowski thought she could con­vert Han­son, per­suad­ing her to drop the racial scape­goat­ing and con­cen­trate on the gen­uine pain of those hit by glob­al­i­sa­tion, mar­ket-based re­form and en­vi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion.

The for­mer Fair­fax jour­nal­ist Margo Kingston also thought this when she tracked Han­son for her 1999 book Off the Rails. “She’s not evil,” Kingston wrote. “She’s ig­no­rant.” A suc­ces­sion of male ma­nip­u­la­tors strove to keep her this way, no­tably the smooth for­mer dive shop owner from Manly, David Old­field, who ad­vised her covertly from 1996-97 from his po­si­tion on Tony Ab­bott’s staff and as her se­cret lover (though he de­nies a sex­ual re­la­tion­ship).

The Lib­er­als and Na­tion­als also took a Machi­avel­lian ap­proach. John Howard, whom Broinowski re­gards as Han­son’s

“chief en­abler”, re­fused to at­tack her or her ideas di­rectly. In her maiden speech Han­son de­clared in her now-fa­mil­iar qua­ver that “’Straya” was in dan­ger of be­ing “swamped by Asians” and that “if I can in­vite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to say who comes into my coun­try”. Not long af­ter, Howard said he was glad the “pall of cen­sor­ship” had been lifted and Aus­tralians could “now talk about cer­tain things with­out liv­ing in fear of be­ing branded as a bigot or a racist”. In 2001, he was fa­mously declar­ing: “We will de­cide who comes to this coun­try and the cir­cum­stances in which they come.”

Tony Ab­bott took it on him­self, Howard swears to Broinowski, to nob­ble Han­son. As Kingston teased out, Ab­bott sup­ported a dis­grun­tled One Na­tion can­di­date, Terry Sharples, in his le­gal chal­lenge to One Na­tion’s reg­is­tra­tion as a po­lit­i­cal party in Queens­land and its right to some $500,000 in re­funded cam­paign ex­penses. “You have my per­sonal guar­an­tee you will not be fur­ther out of pocket as a re­sult of this ac­tion,” Ab­bott wrote to Sharples, be­fore as­sist­ing him with pro bono lawyers and a slush fund called “Aus­tralians for Hon­est Pol­i­tics”. Then Queens­land premier Peter Beat­tie ex­tended the max­i­mum penalty for elec­toral fraud from six months to seven years, so that Han­son might be hit with the one year or more jail term that would dis­bar her from par­lia­ment. She got three years, and served 11 weeks in Bris­bane’s Wa­col pri­son be­fore her charges were quashed on ap­peal. Among fol­low­ers, it made her a mar­tyr.

Howard now ar­gues he didn’t want to ex­ag­ger­ate Han­son’s threat or la­bel her sup­port­ers as racist. He dis­putes Broinowski’s as­sess­ment that with her elec­tion in 1996 “mul­ti­cul­tural Aus­tralia was plunged into a state of pseudo civil war”. This has some va­lid­ity (com­pare Hil­lary Clin­ton’s “de­plorables” gaff ), though Howard’s later dog-whistling is less ad­mirable.

Now we have Ab­bott pick­ing up Han­son’s theme of “po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” run ram­pant. He’s not racist, but showed him­self an as­sim­i­la­tion­ist when he cut sup­port for “life­style choices” in re­mote Abo­rig­i­nal set­tle­ments. Han­son is “a bet­ter per­son to­day than she was 20 years ago”, he says.

As for Han­son, ev­ery­one’s given up try­ing to change her. Abo­rig­i­nals and Asians no longer turn out to demon­strate out­side her meet­ings. For­mer men­tor John Pasquarelli calls her “in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­do­lent”. Broinowski tries vainly to get her to min­gle at Lakemba, then hears her say: “Where are the good Mus­lims lead­ing quiet lives – why aren’t they stand­ing up say­ing some­thing?”

How far she can take her wil­ful ig­no­rance re­mains to be seen. She likes One Na­tion can­di­dates to “have a bit of the mon­grel in them” and is thus con­stantly let down. And anti-es­tab­lish­ment pop­ulism can go the Bernie San­ders or Jeremy Cor­byn way as well. JF

Vik­ing, 272pp, $34.99

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