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 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 realized 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.
No longer the outcast
It turned out that many 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 eight per cent of the vote.
All the major Australian political parties used to cooperate to keep people like 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 Howard’s refusal to condemn Hanson in the 1998 election.
Howard is not a racist; he is just a skilled political operator who recognizes what works and is not hampered by 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 Australia.
The Afghans had been heading for Australia anyway intending to claim asylum, but international law obliged Australia to allow these survivors to come ashore at the nearest port. Howard, 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 Special Air Service 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 with illegal immigrants. In fact, Australia only gets a few thousand “illegals”a year, far fewer than most other rich countries. In matters of this sort, however, perception is everything — and the perception is that Australia is being overrun by non-whites.
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 John Howard,whose Liberal Party disowned Hanson 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.”