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Moment Of Truth

Is it too early to write off Pauline Hanson and her racist brand of politics?

Moment Of Truth
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DON'T write off Pauline Hanson just yet. The spectre of Hanson and her anti-Asian, anti-Aboriginal politics will live on in Australian politics despite the dismal performance of her One Nation Party in the October 3 national poll. In a campaign notable for the almost total absence of the race issues which Hanson has put on centrestage in Australian politics, the red-haired former Queensland fish-and-chip shopowner failed to win her own seat.

Hanson had confidently predicted that her party would snare a dozen seats in the House of Representatives and six in the Senate. As it turned out, One Nation claimed a solitary Senate seat and none in the lower house. It has been suggested in the media that Heather Hill, who holds the sole One Party Senate seat, might vacate it in favour of Hanson. But her advisor David Oldfield told a British newspaper: "Pauline does not want her to. She'll have a rest, a well-earned rest."

 Hanson has in the last few years become a nationally-recognised figure, reviled by most opinion leaders, satirised by comedians, harried by left-wing protesters and adored by her followers, many of whom see her "persecution" as proof of wider conspiracies. In Southeast Asia, she is reportedly better known than prime minister John Howard.

Three months ago, the party won 23 per cent of the vote in the Queensland state election, putting 11 candidates in Parliament. One Nation's supporters are two-thirds male, in particular in the groups most vulnerable to unemployment, the 18-25 and over-50 age brackets, and tend to have low educational levels. Most also tend to live in overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon communities.

After this month's showing, opponents and media commentators have been quick to dismiss the party as a spent force. But it is still significant that One Nation polled about one million votes—more than 8 per cent of the national primary vote and one-fifth of that won by the governing Liberal and National coalition. It has established itself as the single biggest minor party, outpolling the combined vote of the left-of-centre Australian Democrats and the Greens. Besides, it remains flush with funds, claiming thousands of members and an A$3 million windfall from taxpayers as part of the government election funding programme. It is certain to win at least one and maybe two seats in the New South Wales state election next March.

Hanson blames One Nation's poor performance last week on negative media and Australia's complex preferential voting system. All major parties directed their preference votes away from One Nation, so despite winning more than a third of the primary vote in some seats, the One Nation candidates were all overtaken by rivals when preference counting began.

But there is also no denying that the One Nation campaign was marred by a sometimes farcical lack of organisation and shallow policy preparation. This was best illustrated by its media conference in the final week, when journalists arrived expecting detailed costings of One Nation's tax and spending plans. Hanson and Senate candidate David Oldfield not only failed to provide the costings, they called in police to remove journalists—an invitation local police declined.

ASSOCIATE Professor John Wanna, head of the School of Politics and Public Policy at Griffith University, Queensland, points out that One Nation polled much better in the Queensland state poll at a time when it had no policies at all. "When it came to policy, they were abysmal," he says, citing the party's tax policy as the best example. In an election dominated by the government's plan for a 10 per cent tax on all goods and services, One Nation's 2 per cent "Easytax" flat tax proposal was widely ridiculed.

Senator Ron Boswell, the Senate leader of the National Party, said it was politics as much as policy that stymied the One Nation threat. For Australia's second oldest political party, the Nationals, founded more than 70 years ago to represent rural interests, the election was a fight for its survival as well as a battle for the hearts and minds of rural Australia.

The National Party took the political fight to One Nation, Boswell said, with the aim of attacking its primary vote. "The problem with Pauline Hanson is she can identify problems, but she can never identify how to fix them," Boswell claimed.

National Party was helped by some high-profile expulsions of One Nation members and the undemocratic structure of the organisation itself. One Nation effectively has only three leaders, Pauline Hanson, David Oldfield and national director and fund-raiser David Ettridge. Ordinary members have no say on policy or in the operation of the party and can be thrown out for any reason by Oldfield or Hanson.

Observers say it was Howard's decision to establish the 10 per cent goods and services tax (GST) as the centerpiece of his election campaign which put the difficult issues of race and multiculturalism off the agenda. Six months ago, as Howard's government struggled with issues over Aboriginal access to their ancestral lands, political and community leaders expressed fears that Australia was heading towards a race election—a sensitive issue in a country whose formation at the turn of the century was partly aimed at enforcing a White Australia policy.

It is not just the Aborigines who are threatened by Hanson's variety of hate politics. With Asians now accounting for 6 per cent of Australia's population, her utterances could also have an impact on Australia's relations with its Asian neighbours.

Race issues did not appear directly in the campaign, a result of the prime minister's intense focus on the tax issue, yet they were there nonetheless. "Howard was very clever," says Helen Sham-Ho, the first Asian-Australian to be elected to Parliament. She quit the Liberal Party in June because of Howard's "inadequate response" to One Nation. "He very narrowly focused on tax reform." Sydney-based Sham-Ho estimates that 95 per cent of the Chinese community in Australia's biggest city voted against the government, despite its pro-business philosophy. She says the Liberal Party used to be able to attract 500 to 600 people at functions in Chinatown, often raising more than A$150,000, but no longer holds them "because no one will turn up".

Like many of Howard's critics, she claims the prime minister is a "weak leader", indifferent to the nation's diverse cultural make-up who lost the faith of migrant and Aboriginal communities when he failed to attack One Nation over its openly racist policies. Howard said in a TV interview last week that he decided against responding to Hanson's maiden address because it would give "oxygen" to her and her philosophies.

 On the upside, however, Griffith University's Wanna says that despite the massive publicity which has surrounded Hanson and her party, she has had a negligible effect on policy. He points out that the recent cut in the annual immigration quota was a conventional response to rising unemployment, and was not a response to One Nation's lobbying. If anything, the rise of One Nation had had a reverse effect on people in the cities, where the "people are more tolerant and more friendly towards the Asian communities than before this started. And to some extent, it's a generational thing. Younger people who have friends from every cultural background wonder what the fuss is about."

 Or as former prime minister Paul Keating has been quoted as saying: "The myth is that for a brief moment in Australia's history, we lived in a blissful Anglo-Celtic Arcadia and that we can go back to that." But will Pauline Hanson and her One Nation Party let such utterances dampen their spirits?

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