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.