WHEN Pauline Hanson, the independent MP from Queensland, said a few weeks ago that Australia was in danger of being swamped by Asians, the government tried to ignore her anti-Asian and anti-immigration remarks. Hanson also stressed that Australia would face a situation similar to Bosnia if aborigines and migrants continued to get special treatment. Although the veracity of her speeches was disputed, Hanson gained the attention of many Australians who believe that their voices have not been heard in a long time.
As support for the fish-and-chip proprietor-turned-politician grew, local papers devoted pages on what became known as the race debate. Prime Minister John Howard was accused of not taking a tough stand against the MP for Oxley who says Asians are responsible for increasing crime in the country. History recalls that the Howard of 1988 wanted to slow down the pace of Asian immigration to ensure social cohesion.
In the wake of Hansons speeches, there were reports of rising alleged race-related incidents in her home state, unflatteringly known as the deep north or red-neck country. Queensland Federal MP Bill Taylor told ABC Radio that two Filipino women married to Australian men were recently spat on in the streets. At one university, an Indian professor was verbally abused by students. In another incident, Singaporean soldiers based in Queensland were attacked by three Australian men. Many believe that these may be the unsavoury byproducts of the race debate.
Though the Indian deputy high commissioner to Canberra, B.B. Tyagi, when contacted by Outlook, said that Hansons remarks did not reflect the views of the government, in recent weeks Howard has drawn sharp criticism from the Asian media. Singapores High Commissioner Lt Gen Winston Choo said that the prime minister needed to send a clear message to the region which was becoming suspicious of his agenda.
"I think this could affect tourism, Singaporean students wanting to come to study here.... And eventually, if tourism is affected, so will investment in the tourism industry," he said. Queenslands Sunshine Coast has been a favourite honeymoon destination for Asian holidaymakers. Australia is also considered one of the safest places to send children for higher studies. Tourism operators have had at least five cancelled group tours from Singapore, Taiwan and other Asian countries after the word spread of rising racial tension. The industry is now asking for a $25-million marketing campaign to promote Australia in the region to help combat the negative impact of Hansons remarks. The chairman of the Tourism Taskforce, John Brown, who has called Hanson "ignorant" and "bigoted", says the countrys reputation is getting tarnished. "Pauline Hanson, shut up!" he said.
When it became clear that the problem was not about to disappear on its own, the ruling party and the opposition passed a parliamentary motion reaffirming support for a non-discriminatory immigration policy and aboriginal reconciliation. Without mentioning the maverick MP (who chose to absent herself from parliament that afternoon), Howard said that although Australians should take part in open political debate, such debate should occur in a tolerant and moderate fashion. "It comes at a time when it is appropriate and in the national interest to again send a clear and unambiguous signal, particularly to the nations of our region...of certain common values and principles," he said. Although Malaysias Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had earlier dismissed Hansons views, Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim said more recently that theres concern about her anti-Asian remarks.
Chinese official media, which has recently attacked the Howard administrations pro-US stance, cites weak relations with Asia as the cause of Australias failure to win a rotating seat in the UN Security Council. The China Daily, an English newspaper, has used the race issue to once again air its views on Australias upgraded defence links with the US being part of a plan to contain China.
International politics apart, Hanson, who has been described variously as sullen, uncharismatic and inarticulate, has nevertheless made an impact on the peoples psyche. In one commentary in The Australian newspaper, Glenn Milne says that the recent crisis is a result of the legacy left behind by the previous Labour administration, rather than a mood created by the new Federal government. "Under Keating, multiculturalism... became a historical imperative. The thing about imperatives is that they belong to the realm of obedience, not explanation," it read. Hence the backlash. But whether Hanson does actually speak for "mainstream" Australia, as she likes to claim, is an entirely different issue for debate.