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Politics

The Real Australia

23 August 2003

The Real Australia

By Gwynne Dyer

They sent Pauline Hanson to jail for three years last week on charges of electoral fraud. The One Nation party that she founded did not have the 500 members that she claimed when she registered it in 1997, but only 500 signatures from an unofficial support group. She also got half a million Australian dollars from the state of Queensland by fraud to fight the 1998 election there. Bad Pauline — but she has changed the country anyway.

“The reason why I got into politics was to make a difference,” Hanson said earlier this year, when her challenge to the established Australian parties had already faded. “When you have the government and the Prime Minister take up your policies, I think you have made a difference.” And that is just what has happened: John Howard, Australia’s second longest serving prime minister, has ensured his longevity by becoming Pauline Hanson in drag.

Hanson herself is a familiar phenomenon in democratic politics: a right-wing populist who exploits the issues of race and immigration to create a following. She first ran for parliament in 1996 as a candidate of Howard’s Liberal Party, but was ‘de-selected’ when they realised how extreme she was: Asian immigrants were synonymous with crime and disease, she said, and she wanted to slash government spending on health, education and housing for the desperately poor Aborigines.

It turned out that a lot of other Australians felt the same way. Hanson won her seat as an independent in 1996, and founded One Nation the following year. In its first national election, in 1998, it won an astonishing 8 percent of the vote.

Those who voted for One Nation were mostly rural people who were losing their place in the world because of changes in the global market, and city-dwellers who were being left behind by an increasingly knowledge-based economy. Hanson offered them scapegoats: Asian immigrants who were stealing Australians’ jobs (she wanted immigration stopped until unemployment fell to zero), and ungrateful Aborigines who scrounged a living off the welfare system.

Politicians of this ilk are part of the political ecology in every country: they come along every week or so, like cold fronts. So why did Hanson first take Australia by storm, and then find the country’s leading stealing her clothes? Because Australia is not the country it thinks it is, or would like to be. It is a much more old-fashioned, conservative place with a few big cities that seem cosmopolitan — but even in Perth or Brisbane you’ll often hear casual racist remarks of a sort that died out a generation ago in big cities elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

All the major Australian political parties used to cooperate to keep people like Pauline Hanson off their candidates’ lists, but once she demonstrated how big the market for racism was, their common front broke. The first sign of what was to come was Prime Minister John Howard’s refusal to condemn Hanson’s One Nation Party in the 1998 election.

Howard is not a racist; he is just a skilled political operator who recognises what works and is not hampered by a serious case of scruples. His Liberal Party began to steal bits of Hanson’s agenda — and then two years ago came the golden opportunity of the ‘Tampa’, a Norwegian freighter that rescued 434 Afghans from a sinking ship in the Indian Ocean and headed for Australian territory with them.

The Afghans had been heading for Australia anyway with the intention of claiming asylum, but international law obliged Australia to allow these survivors of ship-wreck, huddled together on the decks of a freighter in the tropical sun, to come ashore at the nearest port. Howard, only weeks away from an election and lagging in the polls, refused to let them land — and when the captain of the Tampa ignored Canberra’s instructions and kept steaming towards Australian territory, Howard sent the Australian Navy and SAS troops to seize the ship.

Most Australians cheered his action, for they had already half-accepted the line peddled by Hanson and echoed by dozens of ‘shock-jock’ radio call-in hosts that the country was being inundated in illegal immigrants. In fact, Australia only gets a few thousand ‘illegals’ a year, far fewer than most other rich countries (and it takes in a smaller share of legal immigrants than most of them, too). In matters of this sort, however, perception is everything — and the perception is that Australia is being overrun by non-whites.

The Afghans on the ‘Tampa’ were dispersed to various Pacific islands without ever touching Australian soil, there to be held in camps and sorted through by Australian immigration officers. A few weeks later Howard won the election, collecting most of the votes that once went to Hanson’s party (which had virtually destroyed itself in vicious internal battles in the meantime). And now Hanson has gone to jail, but she has left Australia a changed place.

What was once redneck talk shunned by educated people is now part of the national political discourse, and the lurid fears of the racists are seen as reasonable concerns that need to be addressed. The principal beneficiary of this shift is none other than Prime Minister John Howard, whose Liberal Party disowned Hanson and her ideas only seven years ago. As one Australian commentator said: “He is a genius of sorts. He looks this country in the face and sees us not as we wish we were, not as one day we might be, but exactly as we are.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 5 and 6. (“Those…world”)