Outback racism haunts election

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QUEENSLAND, AUSTRALIA'S "deep north", goes to the polls today in an election that has shaken the rest of Australia, thanks to the surging popularity of Pauline Hanson, a fringe politician who stands for racial policies that discriminate against the country's non-white minorities.

Australia thought it had got rid of the notorious "White Australia" policy. But Mrs Hanson, who comes from the Queensland town of Ipswich, wants to bring it back. She wants to close the door to Asian immigrants and to starve Aborigines out of public welfare spending. Up to 40 per cent of people in Queensland agree with her.

That is the level of support that Mrs Hanson and her party, One Nation, commanded yesterday in opinion polls in some Queensland constituencies, where farmers cheer her over her promise to abolish gun controls and to erect tariff barriers against their foreign competitors. When she swept through north Queensland on a whistle-stop tour of farming towns on Thursday, John Potter, a burly pig and dairy farmer, picked up Mrs Hanson in his arms as his mates gathered around. "My aim is just to give the Aussie a fair go again," she told them.

To Mrs Hanson, aged 44, the Aussie does not necessarily include Asian- born people, who comprise 5 per cent of the population, or indigenous Aborigines, who make up less than 1 per cent. Both groups have been the target of her invective since she was elected to the federal parliament in Canberra as an independent MP in 1996. In her maiden speech, she said Asian immigrants were "swamping" Australia, and attacked welfare spending on Aborigines and the 1993 law which recognised Aborigines' rights to "native title" over traditional lands. Last week she declared native title was "a precursor to the establishment of a number of taxpayer- funded Aboriginal states".

Mrs Hanson founded One Nation last year in Ipswich. The party disintegrated as a result of internal bickering and by late last year, Australians thought they had heard the last of her. The campaign for the state election in Queensland showed how wrong they were.

Opinion polls yesterday gave One Nation 18 per cent support across Queensland, and between 30 and 40 per cent in some rural constituencies. Mrs Hanson's formula is a mixture of simple-minded economics and racial bigotry. She promises to set up a rural bank to make loans to farmers at 2 per cent interest and pay for these and other schemes by abolishing state spending on Aborigines, the arts and greenhouse gas reductions.

Her platform also echoes a brand of right-wing populism imported from America, which blames Australia's economic problems and those of farmers in particular, on a conspiracy concocted by the United Nations, the World Bank and other international bodies.

One Nation's standing in the polls has spooked Queensland's ruling conservative coalition, comprising the Liberal and National parties. Under Australia's preferential voting system, the coalition has directed second-preference votes to One Nation candidates - ahead of the opposition Labor Party - in the hope of picking up support from the Hansonites in the final count. One Nation is giving second preference to coalition candidates in one- fifth of the seats it is contesting.

The apparent deal between mainstream conservatives and the Hanson fringe has caused a furore over the role of John Howard, the Prime Minister and head of the ruling Liberal-National coalition.

Mr Howard, who has indicated he will call a federal election later this year, has refused to direct the coalition parties in Queensland or on a federal level to give One Nation candidates their last voting preference.

When Mrs Hanson started her campaign two years ago, Mr Howard rejected calls to publicly condemn her. Now, the Prime Minister's lack of leadership is being blamed for letting "Hansonism" take root.

Some of the Liberal Party's old guard have attacked him. too. Malcolm Fraser, a former prime minister, said recently: "The Liberal and National parties have done Australia a great disservice... By no stretch of the imagination can the coalition parties claim One Nation policies are less harmful than those of the Australian Labor Party."

Australia's economy is strongly tied to that of Asia. Over the past week, the value of the Australian dollar has plunged as the impact of the Asian financial crisis starts to bite.

The negative impact of Mrs Hanson's rise on relations with Asia is the last thing Australia needs. But that is what seems to be happening. Hoa Trung Tran, a Vietnamese community leader in Queensland, said yesterday: "In the last 20 years we have worked very hard to build Australia's name as a friendly, open-minded country. We don't want Australia to become the big isolated continent."