The Saturday Profile: Pauline Hanson, Australian Politician: Pauline, queen of the outback

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The Independent Culture
A strong woman on the right of politics challenges the general consensus by sympathising with the view that immigration is a threat to the host culture. She and her supporters proceed to scorn liberal nostrums, such as affirmative action programmes designed to address racial inequality. Sound familiar?

Twenty years on, Pauline Hanson is, in one important respect, at least, Australia's answer to Mrs Thatcher: namely her knack of seeming to express what many were thinking, but were afraid to say. The then leader of Britain's opposition was first accused of playing the race card after a TV interview in 1978, when she spoke of a country "swamped by people with an alien culture". Ms Hanson went to the heart of the Canberra establishment, the House of Representatives itself, and used her maiden speech to voice her fear that "we are being swamped by Asians, who have a different culture, a different religion - they form ghettoes and they do not assimilate."

It set in train a remarkable sequence of political events that saw the member for Oxley in Queensland form a party - One Nation - that, whatever the final outcome of today's Federal election, is now firmly established in Australian politics.

One blazing hot day this week, supporters gathered in the outback town of Gatton to witness the official launch of One Nation's campaign. Flags bedecked the local senior citizens' centre, a jazz band blew Dixie, and balloons burst in the heat.

But any suggestion that the pop has gone out of the party since Ms Hanson's Canberra debut was dispelled by the latest evidence of One Nation's extraordinary ability to collect headlines. On this occasion, reporters who'd been promised detailed costings of policy pledges staged a sit-in when they failed to materialise. The journalists, who had been run ragged trying to follow Ms Hanson's erratic progress through inspired guesswork and high-speed chases, only left when local State and Federal police turned up to avert even nastier developments.

This shambolic scene went into a now bulging folder marked "Pauline and the Media". In one celebrated documentary by the public broadcaster, ABC, she was asked, "Are you xenophobic?" A pause as the camera, in close-up, awaited a reply. Then - "Please explain?" This is just one of several episodes that have left Australians wondering whether she is merely pretending not to understand the language of what she calls "the elite of the media".

What is not in doubt is that Ms Hanson is, like that former incumbent of 10 Downing Street, a tough cookie. Her claim recently to be "the mother of all Australians" prompted her estranged 23-year-old son, Steven, to offer some reminiscences to a gossipy glossy magazine, New Idea.

Steven, the second child of her first marriage to a Polish immigrant, told the magazine how Pauline's pregnancy had led husband number one to leave, claiming another man was the father. Then, as a single mother, she'd "worked tirelessly at the local bowls club to provide for her family".

Ms Hanson, "never the type of mum who picked you up from school and baked cookies when you got home", embarked on a second marriage that lasted only seven years. In the Hanson mythology, her admiration for the "Aussie battler" spirit was deepened by the experience of running her own business - a fish-and-chip shop.

Steven says his political views are "poles apart" from those of his mother, and the impression is that her celebrity is galling. There's a thriving Hanson industry, including a rap number, "I Don't Like It", stitched together out of samples from her speeches and interviews made by the son of a senior judge, Simon Hunt, aka Pauline Pantsdown. The title is taken from the ABC profile and came in response to a question about Sydney's gay festival, the Mardi Gras, "celebrating something unnatural" according to Ms Hanson, whose sense of humour was stretched to the point of obtaining a court injunction to prevent a radio station from playing the song.

She does, however, manage to employ pointed language against her opponents. Her audience in Gatton heard that a former premier, Bob Hawke, in many ways the architect of Australia's modern political settlement, promised the country in the Eighties that, by the end of that decade, no child would be living in poverty. He and his successor, Paul Keating, were "the only prime ministers in Australia's history to become multi-millionaires while in office", Ms Hanson declared; today 700,000 children were living - "or should I say, surviving" - in households without work. Her message to the politicians - "Please Explain".

There were only glancing references at the launch of the One Nation campaign in Gatton to "inappropriate immigration, and the segregation that is multi- culturalism". Ross Fitzgerald, a politics professor at Queensland's Griffith University, believes that: "The main explanation for One Nation's success is economic. There are some nasty racial overtones, but unemployment is the number one political issue, and on that, people are just so fed up with the two main parties. The prime function of government is to provide work for the citizenry."

This is where Ms Hanson's real importance lies, and where the Thatcher parallel wears thin. To the country towns that form the bedrock of her support, the nostrum that "you can't buck the market" seems woefully inadequate as an explanation for lost jobs and industries. Her own home town of Ipswich sustained the disappearance of mining and railway engineering - frequent subjects for discussion as customers queued for their chips.

If modern Australians can be divided into the kind who patronise fish- and-chip shops and the kind who patronise Ms Hanson, there can be no doubt as to who has been receiving the rough end of the bargain. The conceit is not as fanciful as it may sound. Some of the strongest evidence against her claim that "Asians... form ghettoes and do not assimilate" comes on the country's dining-tables, or, to be more accurate, restaurant tables.

The new Australian cuisine is based on using the country's wealth of delicious natural ingredients to combine different styles of cooking - in Brisbane this week, the National Pork Federation awarded its annual prize to a second-generation Japanese chef from Sydney, for a neck of pork on a coriander risotto with braised bok choi.

Comparing notes in Gatton, it emerged that at least one official of One Nation, Tony Price, who is originally from Hertfordshire, had never heard of the new Australian cuisine. Indeed, the party speaks most powerfully to those people who regularly find themselves wondering where the next meal is coming from.

As you travel west of her home town of Ipswich, the patchwork of grazing land is reminiscent of parts of Yorkshire - gently rolling, with high peaks rising in the distance. The work required to establish a pattern of cultivation or pasture, in a land and climate for which it could scarcely be less appropriate, gives some insight into the have-a-go spirit of these people, now struggling to express itself in the face of overwhelming global economic forces.

Laidley, basically a railway town, used to benefit rather more from the abundance of fresh food in the fields. It began to run seriously short of steam when a local canning factory shut down, rationalised back into the dust that the landscape, in a dry year, frequently resembles. Outside the post office, a stout, energetic man introduces himself as "Zig". Trying him with the logic that if market forces make factories uneconomic, there's not a lot politicians can do, draws a robust response. "That's crap," he says.

Zig's preferred solution: that the local council should spend money on subsidising loans for start-up businesses instead of building themselves a swish new council chamber. As anyone familiar with the cut-throat game of attracting inward investment, not least in Tony Blair's backyard of the North-east, could testify, the A$1m (pounds 362,000) cost of the building does not go far in today's market.

But it does contain a clue about some of the grievances that led to Professor Fitzgerald's "nasty racial overtones". As One Nation never tires of pointing out, Aborigines can borrow money at 1.5 per cent to enable them to launch enterprises, which, to people who don't feel well off, can seem rather unfair.

As is the way with Ms Hanson's own answers, the further her policies are examined the more absurd they are. Her promise to set up a "People's Bank", giving loans at 2 per cent interest, is one of many as yet uncosted. The party has committed itself to raise money by scrapping all government spending on Aborigines, currently A$1.5bn (pounds 544m) annually. This rests on a proposition, that Aborigines are not disadvantaged in Australian society, which opposes all the evidence. Indigenous people still have an infant mortality rate four times higher than average and a life expectancy up to 20 years shorter, and make up 30 per cent of the prison population but only 2 per cent of the general population.

How important is she? One Nation is here to stay - Australia's rules on state funding for political parties mean it is likely to receive up to A$3m after the election. Interestingly the money will go to an organisation, Pauline Hanson's One Nation Ltd, of which she and just two close colleagues are directors. The rank-and-file members belong to another organisation, One Nation Members Inc.

There is plenty of evidence that the ruling National/Liberal coalition has trimmed its sails to the baleful blast of Ms Hanson's rhetoric. Immigration has slowed from 96,000 to 80,000 a year; Liberal campaign literature boasts of introducing tougher criteria to do with an ability to speak English. Most infamously, the Native Title legislation, which would finally have provided some measure of justice for indigenous people robbed of their land, was emasculated in Mr Howard's "10-point plan", which came into force on Thursday.

And there's some sense that Pauline Hanson herself provides a convenient alibi. Ken Dalton, an Aboriginal senate candidate in Ipswich, has been telling white electors who attend his campaign meetings, that they had no need of Pauline Hanson to oppress his own people for 150 years, as well as incoming ethnic minorities. Echoing one Labour minister from the Fifties, he says, "I remember when two Wongs didn't make a white!"

Perhaps, in its heart, Australia knows there is no going back to those times. One of Ms Hanson's campaign stops was in a poor town in Sydney's Outer West, where she had arranged to visit the local fish-and-chip shop. She hadn't realised, but there were, in fact, two fish-and-chip shops and, as luck would have it, she went to the wrong one. It was run by an Asian family.

Life Story

Birth: Brisbane, 1954.

Education: Left school at 15.

Marital history: First fell pregnant at 17, married shortly afterwards. Two marriages, four children, youngest 15. Both ex-husbands say they're sorry they ever met her.

Political history: 1996 stood as Liberal candidate for the Queensland parliament. Backing withdrawn when she made derogatory remarks about Aborigines. Won seat as an Independent, and went on to form her own party, One Nation

Her son says: "Some of the things she says make me cringe." (Stephen Hanson, 23)

Her supporters say: "An Aborigine kid gets free lunches, free books, free everything. It's unfair. Pauline Hanson is the only person who's dealing with it." (Roger Davies, farmer)

From the Hanson rap: "Racist rubbish - feel the heat! [As chips sizzle] / I don't like it when... erm... railway lines aren't white / I don't like it when... erm... day becomes night / Please explain why my blood can't be coloured white / Please explain - Asian doctors, coloured blood is just not right / I don't like anything I can't do anything about it / I don't like anything 'cept... Neil Diamond. Yeah!'