Who's a very happy racist?

Pauline Hanson thinks Asian immigration to Australia should be banned and Aboriginal land rights abolished. Australia thinks she's either a mad racist, or the best thing since apartheid. And now her party has won 10 seats in Queensland
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In her denim jeans and braided blouses she looks like a line-dancer, the sort of no-nonsense woman who would breast the bar with the men at a country hootenanny and give as good as she gets. Her gritty, high-pitched voice that pinches her vowels makes her sound angry, ungrounded. She is Pauline Hanson, the woman who wants to bring back the White Australia policy, ban Asian immigrants and abolish Aboriginal land rights. And, since One Nation, the party that she founded just a year ago, took almost one quarter of the vote in a state election in Queensland last weekend, she has changed Australia's political landscape in a way that has rocked the nation.

Pauline Hanson's rise to political prominence has been astonishing. Three years ago, no one had heard of her outside Ipswich, a town in south-east Queensland where she owned a fish-and-chip shop. In 1996, she was elected to federal parliament as an independent MP after the conservative Liberal Party dropped her as a candidate because of her attacks on Aborigines. Then came her notorious maiden speech in which she talked of Australia being "swamped by Asians". It sparked the most passionate debate on race the country has seen. Many Australians, including the mainstream party leaders, hoped Pauline Hanson would go away. But she didn't. And now, after her Queensland juggernaut, they are pinching themselves and asking how she has come to pass and whether the country's reputation as a tolerant, multicultural society, the land of the "fair go", is cracking.

Already, there are signs that the Hanson phenomenon has made Australia's Asian neighbours wary. This week, a Taiwanese sugar company indicated that it would switch its proposed headquarters in Brisbane, the Queensland capital, to Sydney instead. Her rise has also cast a pall over the federal election that John Howard, the prime minister and Liberal Party leader, is expected to call later this year. This will be the biggest test yet of whether Mrs Hanson has captured a larger groundswell outside the borders of Queensland, or the "deep north" as the rest of Australia calls the country's most conservative state.

The last time Mrs Hanson showed her face in Sydney and Melbourne, the cities where almost 40 per cent of Australia's population and most of its non-white ethnic communities live, she was jeered, jostled and had to be hustled away by police. But when she walks into the predominantly Anglo-Celtic country towns of Queensland, the farmers, shopkeepers and cattlemen and their wives and children rush to hug her and tell her what a great job she is doing by standing up for the "real Australia". Country men and older men, in particular, seem to love her. But not all men.

Much as Mrs Hanson claims to stand for old-fashioned rubrics such as "family values", her own family life has been anything but a model. She has been divorced twice, and both former husbands have said publicly that they wish they had never met her. Her first husband has declined to use his real name in interviews because he wants his mother and son not to be associated with her. The second husband, Mark Hanson, a plumber on the Gold Coast of Queensland, told New Idea, an Australian magazine, this month: "She's embarrassed the Hanson name and the goodwill of the Hanson family... I don't think she knows what love is. She doesn't have a heart that can love. I wonder sometimes what I ever saw in her. I never thought a woman could be so overbearing. She didn't compromise on anything. It was her way or nothing."

The story of Pauline Hanson is the story of an Australia that has changed dramatically in the 44 years since she was born, of a country now divided more than ever between rich and dynamic cities and poor and declining country towns. One such town is Ipswich, established by the British as a penal settlement in 1827. It rose to become an industrial centre, only to see thousands of jobs disappear over the past decade as its factories and workshops closed.

Ipswich's most famous woman arrived there via Brisbane, where she was born Pauline Seccombe during the boom years of the mid-1950s to a family of English and Irish immigrants. She left school at 15. Two years later, she married her first husband. He has told an Australian magazine that he married her because she was pregnant, and that their separation after the birth of their first son, and when Pauline was already pregnant with her second son, was acrimonious: "I went through living hell because of that woman."

Pauline later took a job as a barmaid at the Penthouse, a bar on the Gold Coast, where she met Mark Hanson. They married in 1980, again, he says, when she was pregnant. "I'm an old-fashioned bloke with strong family values and my only option was to stick by her and marry her." There were two children - "the best thing to come out of that marriage," says Mark Hanson.

After their bitter divorce, Pauline moved to Ipswich, where she bought her fish-and-chip shop. It was there that she seems to have got her taste for politics, listening to customers griping about how the certainties of the old Australia were disappearing and how they, descendants of the communities that built the country, were becoming second-class citizens.

This was the decade between the early Eighties and Nineties, when Australia changed at a staggering pace. Financial deregulation opened the country to the chill winds of globalisation. Investment from Asia boomed. Downsizing became the norm. The High Court reversed two centuries of injustice by awarding Aborigines, for the first time, the right to claim native title over traditional lands, most of which sprawled across vast outback farms the size of European countries.

Soon after the Liberal Party adopted Mrs Hanson as a candidate for the 1996 federal election, she wrote to a local newspaper attacking the "privileges" awarded to Aborigines. The party dropped her, but she won the formerly safe Labor seat encompassing Ipswich with a 23 per cent swing. Her victory speech to constituents was outrageous. She vowed to work for "the white community, the immigrants, Italians, Greeks, whoever, it really doesn't matter - anyone apart from the Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders". She demanded native title rights abolished, along with the public body that handles Australia's annual spending of A$1bn on housing, education and health for Aborigines, many of whom still live in third-world conditions.

Her antipathy to Aborigines can be explained only as that of a racial bigot. Her other policies, a mixture of xenophobia and economic nationalism, are just as crude and devoid of political reality. She is calling for high tariffs to protect Australian producers from foreign competition, and the establishment of a "People's Bank" to lend to farmers at just 2 per cent interest. Her most fanciful proposal is to fund such a bank by printing more money, the classic recipe for hyper-inflation. This grab- bag is the work of the spin doctors driving her campaign, and heavily influenced by a brand of loony right-wing populism imported from America.

But it appealed in Queensland to the group most battered and bewildered by the pace of economic change. These are the farmers who once rode tall as Australia's "cattle kings", and who have been crushed by falling world prices, rising costs and a mountain of debt, many of them kicked off their land by banks and forced to move to towns where there are no jobs. In country Australia, there is widespread opposition to Aboriginal native title rights over outback farming lands. The Hanson rhetoric gave legitimacy to this.

One Nation, the Hanson party, won 10 seats in the Queensland election, most in rural areas. The big losers were the mainstream conservative coalition Liberal and National parties. They have been shaken by the rout in their own heartland. Queensland's opposition Labor Party is likely to form the state's new government after final counting this week.

Mrs Hanson says she is now ready to repeat her performance at the forthcoming federal election. She claims she has enough support across the rest of Australia to hold the balance of power in Canberra. A year ago, people would have laughed at her. They're not laughing now. Already, she has had an impact far beyond Ipswich.

When she first started sounding off about race in 1996, the Australian parliament unanimously passed a motion reaffirming the country's commitment to racial equality, a non-discriminatory immigration policy and Aboriginal reconciliation. Mrs Hanson stayed away and did not vote. Mr Howard has bungled his response to her from the beginning, choosing to ignore her rather than repudiate her. But he has also tried, clumsily, to accommodate her. In his first year as prime minister he announced a reduction in Australia's annual intake of immigrants from 96,000 to 80,000. His government has cut funding to Aboriginal welfare and to Mrs Hanson's other bete noire, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, the public broadcaster. Like Mrs Hanson, Mr Howard publicly deplores "political correctness".

An opinion poll this week gave the Hanson party 11 per cent support nationally, compared with the 23 per cent it registered in the Queensland election. It is likely that she will pick up some rural constituencies in other states in the federal election, where disenchantment with the established parties is running high. She has no such support in the big cities, where most of the votes are located and where the media have uniformly moved to condemn her. But then, who would have predicted that Pauline Hanson would come so far so fast? "I still find it amazing that she's involved in politics," says ex-husband Mark Hanson. "It's a joke."