Pauline Hanson’s One Nation: The revival of populism in Australian politics

| July 12, 2016

Pauline Hanson has reappeared on the national scene and her party is likely to claim three seats in the Senate. Liam Lander explains why populist movements like hers exist and what impact in government One Nation could have.

In recent decades, there has been a significant increase in the emergence of populist movements throughout western democracies. Some of the most notable examples of this in today’s politics include the Tea Party movement in the United States, the “leave” campaign in the United Kingdom and perhaps most troubling, the unprecedented success of Donald Trump’s presidential election campaign. Australia is no exception, with the latest electoral results indicating that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party may claim as many as six (although likely 3) seats in the Senate.

Pauline Hanson is a controversial Australian political figure widely criticized as a racist, xenophobic social agitator. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation party is a nationalist political movement which campaigns on an ultra-conservative anti-immigration platform. One Nation experienced initial electoral success in the 1998 federal election, in which its opportunistic populist style resonated with many rural voters disillusioned with the acquiescence of the National Party to the economic rationalism of the Liberal Party Government. Similar conditions in the present political climate have given One Nation an opportunity to once again capitalize on the frustrations of rural voters.

Under what conditions does populism arise?

The central component shared by all populist movements is ideological obscurity and a rhetorical appeal to ‘the common people’. In its contemporary form, ‘new populism’ is defined as an unorthodox political movement that is stylistically confrontational and anti-establishmentarian in nature. Populist movements are divergent from the established political order and present a disillusioned element of public with an anti-intellectual alternative voice, which appeals to popular values that are often (but not always) right-wing and conservative. Canovan, (2004) describes populism as “[claiming] to represent the rightful source of legitimate power ­­– ­the people, whose interests and wishes have been ignored by self-interested politician and politically correct intellectuals” (p. 242).

What then is its relationship to democracy?

Abts and Rummens, (2007) observe a conflict in the shared claim of both populism and democracy to possess legitimacy through the sovereign rule of the people (p. 405). Abts and Rummens (2007) ultimately conclude that populism, though founded on the ideals of popular sovereignty, is socially less inclusive than the established institutions of democracy (pp. 219–422). This view is reflected by Plattner, (2010) who describes populism as democratically majoritarian, although to the exclusion of certain class, status or ethnic demographics (p. 88). It is the discriminatory nature of populism which undermines its credibility as a genuinely democratic political movement.

This exclusionism is largely due to the central anti-immigration and anti-establishment characteristics of contemporary populist political movements. The anti-immigration position of populist parties is radically nationalist, and regards immigration as an economic burden on the state, particularly on the welfare system. In addition, populists typically hold that immigrants are a threat to the cultural identity of the nation and the preservation of its way of life. These sentiments are at the core of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party policy, which is predominately focused on radically restricting immigration and scrutinising the civil liberties of Muslim Australians.

The re-emergence of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, holding a key power sharing position in a divided Federal Senate, will affect Australia’s international standing and its policies on refugee rights.

Why does populism exist?

There are a unique set of turbulent economic, social and political conditions in which populist movements are produced. According to economic historian Niall Ferguson (2015), populism is produced by five key ingredients: rising immigration, broadening inequality, public disillusionment with the political status quo, economic volatility and a demagogue.

All of these conditions have been met in the Australian context. A continuing rise in the number of international immigrants, particularly throughout Europe in the wake of Islamic State terrorism and the Syrian conflict, has heightened both cultural and international tensions, particularly in regards to national security. Aside from the highly divisive issue of border security, Australia also remained within the top ten recipients of international immigrant numbers throughout the developed world (United Nations, 2015).  Wealth inequality is a significant issue in Australia, in which the top 10% of Australian households possess 45% of the national wealth (Australian Council of Social Services, 2015). The wealth-gap problem has manifested itself through the housing affordability crisis – a key battleground of the 2016 federal election campaign. Public dissatisfaction with Australia’s ‘revolving door politics’ has clearly been demonstrated through voting patterns in the last two federal elections. Growing perceptions of corruption and maladministration, particularly within finance, trade unions, telecommunications infrastructure and governance itself, have also become a matter of public concern.

Consequently, the trend in informal voting rates has steadily increased nationally, and more micro-party candidates (including Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party) have secured cross-bench seats in the upper house of Parliament. In addition to the continuing pressures since the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, the issue of mounting government debt has also fueled anxieties about the stability of the Australian economy. Finally, Pauline Hanson has provided the emergence (or re-emergence) of a demagogue ­­–  a populist political figure whose presence will assuage the conservative grievances of an increasingly disillusioned public.

What are the potential ramifications of the Australian One Nation movement?

There is sound, historically grounded reason for concern about the impact of populist political parties in government. Ferguson (2015) warns against underestimating the capability of populists to achieve their radical programmes. Ferguson (2015) draws on the anecdotal example of Denis Kearney, an Irish-American Labor organiser and social agitator who was eventually successful in establishing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, proving the obligation of populist demagogues to fulfil their policy ambitions once in a position of power. This view is reflected by Albertazzi and McDonnel, (2015) who observe that contemporary populist movements in western democracies have demonstrated the capacity to form successful governments capable of delivering their policy objectives.

In comparison to the distressing prospect of a Donald Trump presidency in the United States, the significance of Pauline Hanson’s victory on the Senate ballot is far less acute. Nevertheless, it is unwise to dismiss or downplay the potential implications of this reality. The final electoral results for the Senate will not be known until August, but there is a distinct possibility that Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party will claim several seats. This is the first time since its short-lived popularity (ending in 2005) that the populist party has had a seat in the federal parliament. The resurgence of One Nation, alongside the growing number of Greens, Independent and micro-party members of Parliament, is symptomatic of widespread voter dissatisfaction with the Labor-Liberal two-party duopoly. As a consequence, the proportion of power held by Senate cross-bench has significantly increased.

The Liberal National Coalition is forecast to retain a tenuously slim margin in both houses of Parliament. In this case, the Coalition will need to negotiate with the cross-bench senators for support to ensure its functionality. Whilst it is unlikely that the Coalition will submit to the more radical elements of the One Nation’s political agenda, such as its proposed Royal Commission into Islam, it is possible that some compromise may be made to between the right-wing parties, in order for the Government to secure a working majority. Such a compromise may come in the form of immigration policy, in which both One Nation’s and the right-wing elements of Coalition’s policy may align.

The potential ramifications of a populist party in a position of power in Australian politics is not to be underestimated. It is clear that public disillusionment with the present economic and political situation has reached a new level. Many voters have lost faith with the major political parties, who have failed to effectively communicate with the public, and while this fundamental inadequacy remains unaddressed, populist movements and minority interest groups will continue to hold the balance of power in the Australian Senate.


  • Canovan, M. (2004). Populism for Political Theorists?. Journal of Political ideologies. 9(3). 241-252. DOI:10.1080/1356931042000263500
  • Albertazzi, D., & McDonnell, D. (2015). Populists in Power. New York, NY: Routledge.
  • Ferguson, N. (2015, June 6). An Evening with Niall Ferguson [Radio Broadcast]. ABC Radio National.
  • Plattner, M, F. (2010). Populism, Pluralism and Liberal Democracy. Journal of Democracy.
  • International Monetary Fund. (2015). Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective. Retrieved from:
  •  Australian Council of Social Services. (2015). Inequality in Australia: A Nation Divided. Retrived from: