Scare Crusade Pulls in Votes in Australia
By Kevin Sullivan
Hanson, a member of Parliament, said aboriginal blacks were being unfairly indulged by affirmative action programs and lavish welfare benefits. She said Asian immigrants were threatening the Australian way of life, taking Australian jobs and bringing drugs, violent crime and disease to this once-homogeneous outpost of British and European settlers at the bottom of the world.
Hanson is emblematic of a phenomenon seen in a number of rich, predominantly white countries that, like Australia, are struggling to come to terms with new racial diversity. In some cases immigration has sparked a backlash, giving rise to a lightning-rod political figure like Hanson who electrifies people by saying things they may be ashamed to say themselves, or ashamed even to think.
"There is no doubt over the ethnic origin of some 90 percent of the [disease] carriers, and no doubt as to why this disease is now out of control, and yet if you speak of this it is said you are racist," said Hanson, 44, her brow darkening beneath her brush of crayon-orange hair, as the crowd clapped and hollered "Hear! Hear!"
For 40 minutes she continued her angry recital of how immigrants, blacks and foreign interests are threatening to destroy traditional Australian society. The mechanics and government workers and sheep farmers and retirees in her audience cheered louder and louder as she spoke, while outside a noisy group of student protesters carrying signs in English and Chinese shouted "Racists out!" and "Hanson scum!"
Hanson's maiden speech in Parliament two years ago in which she said Australia was "in danger of being swamped by Asians [who] have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate" started a fiery national debate that is still being argued across the country at family dinner tables, on the radio talk shows and in the national Parliament.
For months, it appeared that after rising dramatically, the popularity of Hanson and One Nation the ultranationalist party she founded had begun to dwindle. But that changed dramatically last month, when One Nation received 23 percent of the vote in elections in Hanson's home state of Queensland. Her party's candidates won 11 seats in the state legislature, and its popularity nationally has almost tripled to about 13 percent.
Hanson's "us first" message, with its emotional racial overtones, caught much of Australia by surprise two years ago, and again last month. Few had imagined the depth and rawness of the feelings Hanson brings to the surface.
They call it the "Hanson phenomenon" here, but it is a familiar scenario in other wealthy nations that have suddenly become more racially diverse. Perhaps the best-known example is France, where Jean-Marie Le Pen, using his nation's 12.5 percent unemployment rate as a bellows to fan his fire, has turned politics upside down with his virulent anti-immigrant rhetoric.
"I think I've woken Australians up," Hanson said in an interview a few weeks before the Queensland election, sitting on a Naugahyde couch in a hallway at her fund-raiser here in Australia's capital city.
Her followers had gathered at tables set up around the parquet dance floor and the mirrored stage of the Jamison Inn, upstairs from a drive-up liquor shop. The faithful each paid $35 for dinner and the chance to meet their idol Hanson. She was being watched carefully by some of her 14-member security detail, assigned to her by the government because of frequent death threats.
"Many of my supporters are older Australians and migrants who have come to Australia for a better way of life," Hanson said. "They tell me, 'Keep up the fight. Don't let this country become like the places that we've left.' "
Hanson and many of her critics agree that her appeal was a key reason immigration quotas were reduced by nearly 20 percent in the last two years, and why the government is considering further cuts.
Prime Minister John Howard's government denies Hanson influenced the cuts, blaming them on economic realities notably, Australia's 9 percent unemployment rate. Although most economists disagree, Hanson and Howard say that increased immigration means increased unemployment.
"If I didn't raise these issues and get the public's support, [the government] would never have done it, because they're politicians and they want to get the ethnic vote," Hanson said.
Many people believe Howard's political calculations allowed Hanson to become a national figure two years ago. The prime minister waited eight months after Hanson's maiden speech to denounce her, and then he did it in highly qualified language, perhaps being careful not to alienate her conservative followers. Most analysts say they believe that if Howard had immediately denounced Hanson's inflammatory rhetoric, he might have blown out her tires before she got off the runway. Now, there is such bad blood between the two that Howard recently said one of Hanson's statements "verges on the deranged."
Australia is a changed place because of Hanson. Even those who despise what she says acknowledge that she has pushed the country to talk openly about a taboo subject.
"I believe that in retrospect Hanson will be seen as the piece of grit which produced the magnificent pearl of '90s Australian anti-racism," said Michael Duffy, columnist for the Australian, a daily newspaper. "I think many Australians feel a lot better about themselves thanks to Hanson. If she had not existed, we would have had to invent her."
Most people here express pride in Australia's evolution from an insulated colony of about 7 million mainly British and Irish settlers at the end of World War II into one of the most culturally and ethnically diverse societies in the world. Since the end of the official "White Australia" policy in 1973, which limited immigration for most of this century to those of Western European descent, Australia has become a melting pot of people from more than 150 nations. Almost a quarter of the 18 million people here were born overseas, in Britain, continental Europe, Asia, Latin America, the former Soviet Union and the Middle East.
Since the Vietnam War, Australia has been one of the world's most generous recipients of immigrants. It accepted about 200,000 Vietnamese and other Southeast Asian refugees more than any nation except the United States.
Sydney today is a vibrant and colorful community filled with the food, art and fashion of a rainbow of cultures. Its universities are filled with high-achieving immigrant students, mosques and Buddhist temples attract thousands of worshipers, and multinational businesses locate here in part to take advantage of the well-educated, multilingual work force.
Australia has also benefited from closer economic ties with Asia. Before the recent regional financial crisis began, about two-thirds of Australia's exports were going to Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China and other Asian nations.
The widely expressed view by Australians is that, on balance, immigration has made their country a more interesting place, created new economic and cultural opportunities and met Australia's moral responsibilities as a global citizen. Public opinion polls show that a vast majority of Australians surveyed say immigration needs to be scaled back and refined. But a clear majority reject Hanson and others who want to stop immigration and even end all foreign aid and participation in international organizations such as the United Nations.
Still, Australia has also been saddled in recent years with unprecedented crime and drug abuse, which is most visible in immigrant communities. Chinese crime gangs have been blamed for killing police officers and running huge heroin-smuggling operations; a Vietnamese refugee-turned-politician has been charged with murdering a member of Parliament. Home invasions and gun crimes are becoming more common, and many of those arrested are from the new immigrant communities.
Diseases such as tuberculosis and hepatitis B are on the rise. But Philip Ruddock, Australia's minister for immigration and multicultural affairs, said it is "blatantly wrong" to link immigration to disease. He said the diseases are just as likely to come from foreign tourists or business people or Australian citizens returning home from business or vacation. He also said that crime is rising across Australia, not just in immigrant communities.
Immigrants bringing relatives to Australia and placing them immediately on the public dole has been a hot issue. So, too, has the fact that an increasing number of immigrants are taking seats in public classrooms and in competitive and taxpayer-funded public universities, law schools and medical schools. The government responded recently with new rules barring immigrants from collecting unemployment benefits or welfare until they have been in the country for two years.
Malcolm McGregor, a columnist and political strategist, said anti-immigration sentiment has risen partly because of Australia's political changes in the past 30 years, which mirror those in the United States.
He said the Australian Labor Party, the main liberal party, has lost much support from organized labor, Catholics and other traditional backers. Just as the Democratic Party did in America, Labor maintained its liberal agenda as the nation drifted to the right. The party's blue-collar core began to see its social and pocketbook issues better represented by the prime minister's Liberal Party, which, despite its name, is the nation's main conservative party.
But conservatives found problems of their own even after they regained control of Parliament in 1996 for the first time in more than a decade. Supporters became disillusioned with a government that seemed more committed to helping Indonesia and Thailand than to protecting Australian jobs.
The two main parties were failing their core constituents, the economy was relatively weak and unemployment was staying high. Angry voters were ready for a new voice, especially one as angry as Hanson's.
"What all of us hadn't realized was how angry people were underneath the surface," McGregor said. "Australia hasn't sorted out who or what it is; this is an identity crisis."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company