Pauline Hanson and the politics of demonising difference

Senator Pauline Hanson has once again used the strategy of demonising the different to further her political agenda. Over the years, she has demonised Asians, Muslims, and refugees. This time her target is disabled children, who she accuses of wasting teachers time in the classroom, and so holding back the education of “our children.”

In the face of the barrage of media criticism, she now claims she has been taken out of context. But the full speech is available on the Parliamentary Hansard record, and her meaning is plain. But so is not to do her an injustice, here is the relevant section of the speech in full:

There is another thing that we need to address, and I will go back to the classrooms again. I hear so many times from parents and teachers whose time is taken up with children—whether they have a disability or whether they are autistic—who are taking up the teacher’s time in the classroom. These kids have a right to an education, by all means, but, if there are a number of them, these children should go into a special classroom and be looked after and given that special attention. Because most of the time the teacher spends so much time on them they forget about the child who is straining at the bit and wants to go ahead in leaps and bounds in their education. That child is held back by those others, because the teachers spend time with them. I am not denying them. If it were one of my children I would love all the time given to them to give them those opportunities. But it is about the loss for our other kids. I think that we have more autistic children, yet we are not providing the special classrooms or the schools for these autistic children. When they are available, they are at a huge expense to parents. I think we need to take that into consideration. We need to look at this. It is no good saying that we have to allow these kids to feel good about themselves and that we do not want to upset them and make them feel hurt. I understand that, but we have to be realistic at times and consider the impact this is having on other children in the classroom.

We cannot afford to hold our kids back. We have the rest of the world and other kids in other countries who are going leaps and bounds ahead of us. Unless we keep up a decent educational standard in this country we will keep going further backwards and backwards, and our kids will not be the ones who are getting the good jobs in this country. They will be bringing in people from overseas and filling positions in this country that belong to our children. Our education is very important, and I feel that it needs to be handled correctly and we need to get rid of these people who want everyone to feel good about themselves. Let us get some common sense back into our classrooms and into what we do. Like I said, One Nation has spoken to many areas. Have we got it right? I hope we have got it right, because it is very important.

There are so many issues here that it’s hard to know where to start. Wedge politics works by playing on people’s fear of the other, and it almost always operates without any basis in fact. There is simply no empirical support for the fear that including people with disabilities harms other children. On the contrary, there is now overwhelming evidence that, if done well, inclusive education benefits all children; that “together we learn better.” It is not only that diversity in the classroom helps to establish values of respect, generosity, and compassion, nor that it helps us to see that disabled people aren’t so different after all (although if this is all it did, it would be enough!) But the evidence has also found that focused and differentiated classroom instruction and management helps all students to do better. Indeed, Hanson imagines that she is harking back to a better day, when teachers were not “sidetracked” by the “burden” of disabled difference. In reality, the good old days weren’t so good. Not only did exclusive education have a detrimental impact on disabled children, it turns out that the old-fashioned educational model of “one size fits all” in the classroom actually fitted very few people.

As usual, Hanson isn’t one to let the evidence get in the way of her political agenda. If she was really concerned for “our children” – which includes those with disabilities – then she would be advocating for an increase in resources to enable inclusive education to work as it should. But her brand of wedge politics is not about the issue at hand, it’s about stoking the fire of fear that always attends to difference. It’s inevitable that we fear the person we know little about. And what’s more depressing than Hanson is that she doesn’t so much inform the values of a significant number of Australians, but reflects them. She is a mirror, a cipher, for so-called everyday Australians. And that makes me sad.

Except, in this case I hope she’s gone too far. I hope that in 2017, Australians don’t think of the disabled as carnival freaks, welfare cheats, classroom burdens, and a social virus that need to be sequestered from mainstream society, so that they don’t infect us with their abnormality. I hope that Australians will recognise that people with disabilities aren’t the fearful other, but are one of us; our mothers fathers brothers sisters and friends. I hope that the mere suggestion of excluding them from the classroom, or any other social space, makes us mad. So mad that no matter what our political persuasion, we tell Hanson that enough  is enough; that when it comes to disability, Australia will not be divided.

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • PM
    June 22, 2017 at 8:57 pm

    I am reticent to reply as I know I cannot out debate you. However:
    I have taught in Spec Ed schools & mainstream ones for 30+ yrs. While the politics of integration are great the financial assistance promised when integration was occurring in the 90s has never occurred.
    This money would have been needed to provide extra support that those with ‘needs’ has.
    In 2015/16 I was at a Qld Christian school. While the just opened new building had wheelchair access, heaven the child if they needed the toilet. It was 4 child-proof gates, a steep ramp away plus the return trip. Ridiculous design.

    Any single child, with or without, the labelled ‘needs’ can severely affect the tone/disrupt learning for the others. Schools don’t put resources into assisting the teacher, to manage the widespread range of kids even if the classes are small, 20-ish. Sadly this has been my experience for too many years. teaching has long been class management rather than class teaching.

  • Shane Clifton
    June 23, 2017 at 8:03 am

    I have no debate with teachers, and your perspective is important. The solution, though, is not a return to segregation, but properly resourced classrooms.

  • Gordon Friesen
    July 9, 2017 at 2:04 am

    Hi Shane,

    Happy belated Father’s Day !

    I believe we are asked, unfairly, to make a political choice. There are obviously competing goals, but perhaps we could really accommodate more options.

    I was deeply affected by Ernst Renan’s description of his education in virtually medieval Brittany in the mid 1800’s. The local Catholic priests simply picked out a few of the most promising lads from amongst the local farms and began elementary schooling. If a boy showed particular promise he was promoted to the Diocese school, and again, by selection to arch-diocese and eventually, as in Renan’s case, all the way to the National Academy in Paris.

    The important point is this : Renan tells us that all of the boys were working at absolutely peak levels of effort at all times and that there was never even a hint of discipline.

    No discipline ? Total effort ? How is that possible ? Simple. Because, if at any time there was any question about a boy’s motivation (or ability) he would be dismissed with a handshake and the traditional formula “Let us part as friends.”

    That’s it. A system which would educate any class of student, regardless of humble beginnings ; which had only one unapologetic goal : to produce a maximum quality product. Period.

    The level of education was, of course phenomenal. Just think of the technical mastery. At fifteen or sixteen, the boys had perfect Latin and Greek, and everything that could be learned in those languages, plus all of the Christian authors. Forget the limits of classical education, that is not the point,. We could just as easily substitute modern content with the same method.

    (From the US of A, we keep hearing stories of thirteen-year-olds admitted to university, or nineteen-year-old master’s graduates. All of these people have had individualized education, mostly home schooled. None are the product of public school.)

    I hate elitism, and I actually hate the idea of a meritocracy where the smartest people might detach themselves from the rest in what amounts to a new caste system. However, I really feel for that kid who has the brains and the curiosity to learn but who is surrounded by people who do not.

    I had this problem with my own children. I had them in public school. I had no financial options to provide better.

    And the problem was not the disabled component of the class. The real problem came from the regular kids who just could not give a damn beyond minimally qualifying for the diploma, (which was little more than an award for attendance). There is in fact a preponderant anti-intellectual culture among the kids in school such that one who achieves (particularly a boy who achieves) is routinely ostracized and bullied.

    And why not ? Public school, in the Renan context, would mean taking ALL of the farm boys, most of whom would have zero interest in being there. How could you make them learn ? Read Dickens. They whipped them through their forms. But now, we can not punish children like that, and we cannot just kick them out of school like Renan’s priests. And so, as MP remarks, “teaching has long been class management rather than class teaching.” Daycare, really.

    So this is not just a “resource” issue. It has to do with options and choices. Public school as presently conceived, is a proven disaster. Let the money follow the kids. Give special needs kids extra money. Let institutions specialize and compete. Let parents decide. Let the market work its magic. We will, eventually learn what an optimum system accommodating each particular child might look like. We will have the evolutionary product.

    All we need to do is get the misguided “planners” out of the way. Planned education. Planned economy. It is all nonsense. Reality is MUCH too complex to be planned. At best we can only hope to tweak the context in which competition and evolution proceed.

    Feel the Love

    Gordon from Montreal

  • Gavin Martens
    July 22, 2017 at 10:40 am

    Hey Shane
    Enjoyed the read. Let’s NOT let the market work it’s magic, that’s a recipe for disaster – education is about children, their future and the future of our nation. They’re not a commodity and neither is education. Let’s be decisive and develop robust policy that feeds into a vision for what we want Australian society to look like and present this.

    For my part, I work at a Christian school that, in my opinion, is getting the mix right and doing the above. At St Philip’s Christian College, we have a strong vision for Australia, for families who send their children to our school, and for the students. We have a positive reputation built over 35 years for deliberate inclusion of children needing learning support, as well as supporting academic success. Our ‘normal’ kids (whatever that looks like) are not disadvantaged and our ASD and learning support students are thriving – they build into the life of the school in positive, rich ways. We’ve struggled with how to do this well over many years, but at our core has been seeing the God-given value in every individual and a commitment to whole of life education; building community. Education is not simply about learning for life after school, but building life-long learners; school is a season in life not a parking bay.

    There is no long term value to society in isolating students from each other’s differences and not learning to thrive and journey together.


    • Shane Clifton
      July 24, 2017 at 5:08 pm

      Thanks for your input Gavin – and the insight into your school’s experience. I love the values of your school, and wish you all the best.

    • Gordon Friesen
      July 25, 2017 at 6:32 am

      Hi Gavin,

      I am not familiar with the situation in Australia, but I would assume that it is at least somewhat similar to what we have in Canada. That is: We have a Public School system one hundred percent taxpayer funded, and beside that, we have specialty schools, mostly religious schools, that must either toe the secular line (may get partial funding) or else be entirely self-sufficient.

      Again, correct me if I am wrong, but I would expect your school looks to be of the self-funding type or perhaps a hybrid part-funding model.

      In other words, if I am correct, the whole existence of your school is dependent upon the operation of the market : People are willing to pay for the service you provide. And the purer the market operation the more students (and the more schools like yours) there would be. Because right now, specialty schools in most jurisdictions operate under a terrible handicap : first prospective clients must pay income tax to underwrite the public system, and then they must find extra money to send their children to you. Obviously for most that is not an option. Hence, as specified in my first post I sent my four kids to the public schools I had already paid for.

      So your school is operating in a partially free market system, but nonetheless suffering a severe handicap compared with your public competitors.

      The good news, of course, is that you are able to operate at all. And that, is not a foregone conclusion.

      Consider these words from your post:
      “Let’s be decisive and develop robust policy that feeds into a vision for what we want Australian society to look like…”

      This is the mantra of all “planners”. The idea seems so reasonable. But then, the result depends entirely upon the vision of those who are doing the planning. And where I live, there is a virtual war of extinction being waged upon religious schools. The only thing that stops the final destruction of such schools is the (partial) freedom for highly motivated individuals to pay twice for education. But if our ruling secular progressives ever to attain the electoral confidence required to actually truly “be decisive and develop robust policy” that option would be removed.

      Economics is like gravity. there are rules. There are causes and effects. Results require resources. By stealing (appropriating) the lions share of resources, the Public system limits the results that can be achieved by any non-state actor. You are able to operate only because your system is partially free. You would be able to operate much better if it were MORE free.

      Somehow,– I don’t know how, or why –, in Canada and Australia and Britain, the anti-capitalist prejudice is so bred-in-the-bone, so automatically unanimous, that none of the science of economics can creep through into polite society,even among people whose dearest aspirations are being actively suppressed by market manipulation.

      In the States (that odd society of uncouth troglodytes who are unaccountably powering the whole world economy, and where real full service Universities free from progressive dogma are in actual operation) the situation is quite different. All of the religiously oriented realize that freedom FROM the state is the required condition for continued existence and that this freedom is principally economic. Hence, Evangelicals, that is Protestants, (about 20 percent of the population) have long been staunchly free market. Catholics (another 20 percent) had special privileges historically, and love planning, themselves (if only they could be the planners). But they have been losing those privileges. And it is quite possible that in 2016, a full understanding of the very real danger of suppression posed by progressive secularists tipped the balance in the Catholic vote, and that, in turn, the Catholics aligned with the Evangelicals is what got Donald Trump to the White House.

      The capitalist freedom to make money, now provocatively symbolized by the Trump caricature of ungodly greed (but also objectively responsible for industrial growth, gainful employment, choice and low cost of goods, etc) is the very same economic freedom that allows Catholics and Evangelicals to survive as such. Therefore, each is willing to accept the freedom of all, to exist, to accumulate resources, and even to prosper.

      Progressives (socialists) on the other hand. wish to take all of the resources. They wish to exist alone.

      I know this is just incomprehensible to those in the rest of the civilized world. But for the life of me, beyond state-television and public school propaganda, (plus deep penetration of Academia, bureaucracy, the law profession and the Arts), I cannot understand why !

      Feel the Love,

      Gordon from Montreal


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