Middle Class Anxiety about Immigration and the Steps to Radicalisation

Hang around comfortably off middle class people in outer suburban regions for long enough, and you’ll hear various forms of the notion that Australia has an “immigration problem”.  Here’s how the sentences often go – with one of them coming from the aftermath of the Christchurch mass murder:

  • “I know we should open our arms to refugees, but look at how much development is happening”
  • “I can understand why my immigrant parents don’t like the new migrants – the new ones get more support from the government than they did”
  • “I don’t know how we can fit more people on our trains and roads”
  • “How could such a nice kid from country NSW turn into a mass murderer?”
  • “Headscarf people”
  • “Tiger mums”
  • “I know this isn’t politically correct, but…”

This is not just a fad, or a current trend.  It’s ingrained in the psyche of middle class Australians in these outer suburban areas who have bought houses, have secure jobs and have something they have been told to fear.  I have heard variations of these lines for the past two decades from otherwise sensible, educated people. They believe to their bones that increased and unstopped immigration will have a detrimental impact on their lives and the lives of their children.  This has been fed by the impact of a lack of infrastructure planning around roads and trains for decades.  Fiona Scott put this notion in its most explicit form on a 4 Corners interview in 2013, where she said that voters in the seat of Lindsay connected asylum seekers to traffic issues on the M4.  It was crude, but that is exactly what happens in BBQ conversations.  It’s significant that Scott Morrison spoke up to defend her at the time, talking up that link. That most of those migrants are of Muslim background is secondary to infrastructure based concerns… to some of them. For many in this category, their objection is based purely on the threat of increased numbers, invoking the NIMBY principle that is sparked by the building of high rise towers.

For these middle class people, there seems to be a pathway from this point of general angst about the impact of immigration to going full blown Fraser Anning. It’s useful to frame it as a set of steps:

  1. Watching Sunrise, reading news and having doubts about immigration numbers and their impact on traffic / transport
  2. Reading more news, watching Sky News from time to time, seeing Youtube, and having doubts about immigration from certain countries and their impact on “Australian culture”
  3. Articulating those doubts with others at gatherings and / or sharing articles on Facebook
  4. Supporting Pauline Hanson’s “bravery” in “saying what she thinks” and commenting on Guardian and ABC news posts, “just expressing concerns”, willingly watching Sky News After Dark more than once.
  5. Voting for One Nation, and looking for Jordan Peterson, Info Wars, Ben Shapiro and Milo content.
  6. Being a One Nation candidate and calling for vague  “action” on “Muslims” and “welfare recipients” and have at least one weird obsession (cf. Malcolm Roberts and Mark Latham)
  7. Going to fascist rallies and making explicit calls for action
  8. Starting your own fascist party (which could also be called Step 88)

Political Parties and Middle Class Anxieties

Most on this pathway that I have experienced are at Step 1, with a significant number at step two. Australia’s main two political parties know this.  Their focus groups, their polling tell them that this is not some passing trend. This is why we currently have two ways of dealing with this continuing issue.  The Liberal Party use it in their campaigning, such as this step one trigger that arrived in my Lindsay situated letterbox back in 2010.

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Labor continue to try to play the safe game of trying to neutralise this notion so it goes away and not become a way to lose them votes. It’s easy to accuse Bill Shorten of continually looking to check his notes, but he has little choice, especially on an issue like immigration. Polling continues to tell him that he has to be seen to be tough on migration if he wants to be in office. Otherwise, leaflets like those used in 2010 will come back, and continue to bite. None of this is new, and can be traced back decades. One such defining moment in that time, however, provides an explicit link between middle class angst and the vocalisation of that angst – the 1996 election.

The 1996 Election and a tale of two Liberal candidates without hope

For One Nation, their accidental creation in the aftermath of the 1996 election has allowed for a blooming well beyond Step 1. This is why it’s useful to consider how and when they were started.  In the 1996 election, neither Jackie Kelly or Pauline Hanson were expected to win.  Both were loose cannons, both had unsophisticated images and approaches to politics. Both of them had to run their own show to a large extent.

Jackie Kelly became fairly good at using the Liberal anti-Muslim dog whistle. She attracted formerly Labor swing voters in Lindsay with her approach. This is why she was popular enough with John Howard to make her a minister.  Her template of the Mum With Ordinary Concerns has been used widely ever since.  Kelly kept that act going successfully until 2007, when she resigned, and her husband abandoned using the dog whistle in trying to help her successor win in 2007 through the  passing around of fake Islamic pamphlets. The real Jackie Kelly, however, was revealed in 2015 and 2016. In 2015, during her own campaign for the state seat of Penrith, she spoke out against the building of an Islamic prayer hall, then in 2016, she threw her support behind the rabidly anti-Muslim ex Liberal councillor Marcus Cornish. Cornish is running again in the 2019 state election, parading his views that Penrith needs to “inoculate” itself against Muslims.  Fortunately, he does not attract a massive vote, but the fact he exists speaks to the existence of a racist rump in that area.

Hanson, however, never had the embouchure for blowing the whistle in the first place.  Freed of Liberal Party discipline after they expelled her, she spoke for that which was largely unspoken outside lounge rooms and BBQs.  And as a result, she attracted former Labor voters in Oxley in droves. She still does attract Labor voters, which is something too often forgotten.

Hansonism – A vague movement that spawns franchises

There’s been a lot of words written since about the sporadic success of Hansonism and how it’s difficult to chart, that perhaps we need to “listen” to her supporters.  She’s not that complex or mysterious. Hanson’s not some outlier extremist, she is a voice of the middle class in the outer suburbs and now rural regions, vaguely scared of things they don’t understand, especially Islam. That’s why her targets have changed from Indigenous people and Asians.  There’s no secret as to why outlets like Sunrise feature Hanson so often – her vaguely argued “I say what I think” set of cards plays well in the houses of the comfortably positioned middle class.  These are the same middle class people who are also against “layabouts” (unemployed people, refugees) getting more “handouts” – Hanson has a rich vein of material in that regard as well.

The thing that marks everything Hanson does, however, is that it’s all vague. It’s words. It’s never actions. That’s because Hanson herself has no skill in enacting any kind of change. Her party’s policies are almost completely without substance and are cut and pasted from the internet.  In addition, Hanson herself is not that complex either. She has become one of the most successfully opportunist populists of our time. She offers nothing in parliament, except a veneer of respectability – she generally votes with the Coalition, and doesn’t do anything much about the issues about which she opines. That doesn’t seem to matter to her supporters, who seem to be largely channelling a protest vote about the two major parties “not doing much” about immigration numbers.

What One Nation offers, however, is something like Harvey Norman, McDonalds or Gloria Jeans.  It offers a chance for other possible franchisees to try to hitch their wagons to her brand.  The main difference, however, is that most want to leave when they realise how shambolic the party truly is.  There are others, however, who see the chance to be opportunists with their own brand variations. We are currently seeing the result of two such franchise directions.

The Mark Latham NSW Franchise

In NSW, Mark Latham has realised that all he needed for something to do that would pay a lot of money and give him a platform was to open a NSW Hanson Outlet. He doesn’t see the need to branch out too much.  Latham hasn’t changed that much, except that he has ditched the dog whistle.  He wasn’t that successful at blowing it, though. His schtick as a Labor politician was complaining about how outer suburban people are forgotten by “Canberra”. A central part of that was talking about the phenomenon of  “white flight” – Anglo – Celts moving to Campbelltown and Penrith, so to “escape” multiculturalism.  He has been talking about ever since he became the Member for Werriwa in the 1990s.  This is from his Facebook “Outsiders” page, when he was siding with former Labor leader Luke Foley, when he discussed the phenomenon in one of his stranger moments as leader. Latham, however, gave it his trademark racist spin.

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When he most likely enters the NSW Parliament, Latham and Hanson will probably have little to do with each other – but they don’t need to.  He’ll walk into the Legislative Council, be ready to do absolutely nothing but do some racist rants, issue occasional threats about the balance of power and chase his own weird obsessions.  And walk home with a lot of money.   His twitter feed reveals how he has gone down that path. It’s easy to see how that could be successful with his target voter – the middle class voter who has the Step 1 and 2 concerns about culture, over-development and traffic.

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But with the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre, we are learning that words have an impact. And that we need to be taking the broadcast of those words more seriously.  Even Latham understands that, even if the timing of this tweet, coming as it does after a promotion of his anti – Islamic media work, reveals his craven hypocrisy.

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The Fraser Anning Fascist Franchise

With the Fraser Anning franchise, however, what we are seeing is a straight out fascist variation.  His deplorable opportunism in attempting to cash in on the Christchurch tragedy shows how naked that is. Posts like this that are now also popping up on social media shows us what kind of man he is.

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Anning. however, is not that unusual in terms of being uncomfortable around People of Colour. Facebook is full of such stories and sentiments, as are our BBQs and some lunchtime conversations (though, fortunately, I have not been personally privy to those). Anning is, however, practising in his everyday life what others may just briefly think. He is free of any morality around respect and decency.  He is the conclusion of what happens when casual middle class racism is left unchecked.

Anning has gone to Step No.8 on the pathway.  He is now the person willing to act while Hanson calls just for vague action. And right now, Anning is now using the Christchurch massacre to try to start his own fascist party in not just Queensland.  Hence why he is travelling to Victoria, attempting to continue cash in on Peter Dutton’s African Gang efforts (which was just another part of the Liberal Step 1 and 2 middle class playbook), and then adding his own anti-Muslim rhetoric. And beating up a 16 year old who was armed with an… egg.

Anning Egg1

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There will be a debate about this moment, but I’m not in the business of being a privileged middle aged man telling a 16 year old to stop being passionate about stopping fascism.  It is, however, a moment that Anning may either regret or use in his ongoing campaign. He may not get into parliament this time around, but that won’t stop him. He will see this upcoming Federal campaign as the beginning of his movement. Whether it will be any more successful than other iterations of fascist parties, such as Australia First, time will tell. Personally, I think it will fizzle like all other such movements – ego almost always causes these nascent fascist groups to implode. But their very existence, time and again, shows us that we won’t be rid of such strains of racism any time soon.

What of the Middle Class, Christchurch and the 2019 Election

Getting back to the people mentioned at the start of this, I need to be clear that I don’t think such people will necessarily:

a. Vote for Pauline Hanson or her various franchisees like Latham

b. That they will in any way support Anning’s rhetoric and actions

Most of the ones I have met are at Steps 1 and 2.  Such people are horrified by the actions in Christchurch.  Many would be likely to be attracted to the view, however, that the Grafton based murderer was a “good kid who went wrong”, rather than part of a wider online radicalisation process that is currently occurring.  It’s easier to swallow the lone wolf theory than to accept that the problem is at the heart of Australian culture and society.

I can see how these generally pleasant, friendly and affable people have got to that first step, especially if they work hard in their every day life. They don’t want their hard earned comfortable lifestyle to be “threatened”  by change.  It is part of a generally unacknowledged privilege borne of the false consciousness that life was harder in the past and that people today are too “soft”.  It is also part of a continuing desire for the “comfortable and relaxed” lifestyle John Howard promised in the same 1996 election that introduced us to Pauline Hanson and Jackie Kelly.

It is clear for people in that category that the kind of middle class angst about immigration, development, population and “others” is a toxic mix that bubbles under the skin of these middle class swinging voters. They want to raise the drawbridge, so their castles can remain protected from the unknown.   That attitude and desire not going to change anytime soon, and both Labor and the Liberals know this.

What can be hoped from the horror of Christchurch perhaps, is that the anti-Islamic rhetoric may now dissipate in its heat. The recent statements by Miranda Devine and Michael Smith might point to that, though it could also be the creeping realisation that their previous hateful rhetoric does have an impact and that they need to cover themselves.

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All of this would be cold comfort to the families currently in pain, but maybe it could act as a way of progressing our society beyond at least one piece of national xenophobia. There is no way, however, that any of this is going to go away as an issue or trend in the near future.