`Whingeing Poms' can sway election

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BRITS of Brand may hold the key to who rules Australia after the general election on 3 October.

The Brand constituency is held with a slim margin by Kim Beazley, leader of the opposition Labor Party. But as the campaign enters its final fortnight, Mr Beazley is facing a challenge from Pauline Hanson's populist One Nation party.

The Hanson party has drawn strong support from the British immigrants who make up one-fifth of the population in this sprawling suburban stretch of project homes, shopping malls and fish-and-chip shops on Australia's west coast.

If opinion polls are any guide, Australians could wake up on 4 October with a Labor government, whose leader has lost his seat. And if that happens, nobody will be happier than Lee Dawson, 33, a British immigrant standing as One Nation's candidate in Brand.

Mr Dawson emigrated to Australia from Manchester with his parents in 1974. He trained as a teacher, but left because "there was no money in it". Married with three children, and a labrador dog named Maggie Thatcher, he runs a carpet firm with his father.

The rise of Mrs Hanson, who wants an end to Asian immigration and welfare spending on Aborigines, was the spur for Mr Dawson to enter this, his first election campaign. When Mrs Hanson visited Brand in July, she was cheered in the streets. Mr Dawson agrees with her calls to abolish controls on gun ownership. One press advertisement for One Nation features a picture of Mrs Hanson above a quote from Mr Dawson: "We are going after Mr Beazley. We have him in the crosshairs of our rifle." Little wonder, then, that Australians are focusing on the "Pom factor" in this constituency.

The British started emigrating in large numbers to the Brand region in the 1960s, when jobs in the oil and metal refineries, cheap land, sunshine and beaches offered heady prospects for a better life. The constituency's 110,000 people have the highest proportion of British-born residents in Australia. Unlike most parts of suburban Australia, it remains steadfastly white. There are few Asians, and Aborigines account for less than 2 per cent of the population.

Brand grew rapidly and, 30 years after the boom began, it is paying the price. The three main towns, Kwinana, Rockingham and Mandurah, lack public transport and other infrastructure. Unemployment, at 12 per cent, is four points above the national average. Youth unemployment is even higher, and crime is on the rise. Almost 40 per cent of the population left school at 15, and only 7 per cent have any tertiary qualifications.

The people of Brand feel abandoned by the two main groups in Canberra, the ruling conservatives of the Liberal-National coalition led by John Howard, the prime minister, and the Labor opposition. This is a classic breeding ground for the Hansonite approach, which revolves round bashing the big parties and a simplistic formula of helping "ordinary Australians", by putting up barriers to foreign investment and immigrants who, she claims, do not "assimilate". In June, a Perth newspaper poll gave One Nation 45 per cent support in Brand. Since the campaign started it has fallen to about 20 per cent, but it is still three times the national figure.

Unlike Mrs Hanson, who extends her nationalism to banning interviews with non- Australian newspapers, Mr Dawson is happy to discuss why Brits love Brand - and Mrs Hanson. His campaign majors on stopping Asian immigration and abolishing Aboriginal native title rights over traditional land. "It's un-Australian," he said of the latter. "It's not for the 100 per cent of us. It's for the 2 per cent who were apparently here before the rest of us." As they surely were, for 40,000 years? "We became Australian in 1901 [the year of federation]. That is when I would draw a line in the sand."

Graham Corp, another immigrant from Manchester, is president of One Nation's branch in Mandurah. He is a former union organiser who now runs a driving school. "The Brits like to support someone like Pauline who'll stand up and speak out," he said.

To some, there is an element of the "whingeing Pom" factor in the Hanson phenomenon. Sally Cox, the (non-British) editor of the Mandurah Times, said: "I'd hate to think there are British people who were welcomed to this country and then say they expect to keep it the way they want it and not let any other outsiders share it. But it's happening, and not just among the Brits. Some Greeks and Italians support One Nation on this basis."

For his part, Mr Beazley is doing his best to shore up his base in Brand, which he won at the last election by just 387 votes. His chances look better than they did a few weeks ago. There are 11 candidates contesting Brand beside Mr Dawson. All 11 have decided to put One Nation last in the order of voting under the preferential system. Mr Dawson will need at least 50 per cent of the primary vote to win without having to rely on the distribution of preference votes.

It is a big ask, "but we can do it", he said, as he left for an interview on an Aboriginal radio station.