Far-right firebrand Hanson is jailed for electoral fraud

In the final episode of Pauline Hanson's spectacular fall from grace, Australia's far-right firebrand was behind bars last night at the start of a three-year sentence for electoral fraud.

Hanson, 49, greeted the verdict of a Brisbane district court jury with customary defiance, saying: "Rubbish, I'm not guilty. It's a joke." But she fought back tears as she and the co-founder of her One Nation party, David Ettridge, 58, were jailed with no recommendation for parole.

They had fraudulently registered One Nation in 1997 by passing off 500 supporters as paid-up party members. Hanson, who plans to appeal, was also found guilty of dishonestly obtaining nearly $500,000 (£210,000) of electoral funds for their campaign in the 1998 Queensland state election.

The former fish and chip shop owner burst on to the political scene in 1996 with a platform of strident opposition to Asian immigrants, asylum-seekers and welfare payments to Aborigines. One Nation became a focal point of populist discontent with the mainstream parties, winning 10 per cent of the vote in a general election in 1998 and 25 per cent in Queensland that year. But the party subsequently imploded amid in-fighting and recriminations, and Hanson, who sat as a federal MP from 1996-98, failed to win a seat in a succession of elections.

Yesterday's co~nviction will probably prevent her standing again. Patsy Wolfe, the chief judge, told her and Ettridge: "The crimes you committed affect confidence in the political process."

Hanson, famous for her red hair and garish outfits, arrived at court in a dark-blue trouser suit, perhaps selected to match the sobriety of the occasion. The jury took nine hours to reach its decision. The former party leader, standing with arms crossed in the dock, declared herself "still very innocent of the charges". She hugged her two sons before being led away.

Her supporters claimed she was guilty of nothing more than political naivety and denounced the 23-day trial as a politically motivated witch-hunt. Her son, Steven, said: "The whole thing is a stunt to destroy this woman who has stood up there and made comments about how countries are run."

Bill Flynn, among One Nation's dwindling band of Queensland MPs, said: "There were certain major influences in the political area. They wanted to make sure she didn't come back to haunt them."

But Peter Beattie, the Queensland Premier, urged people to accept the court's decision. "There will be people who will see her as being martyred," he said. "I just say to all those people ... that this process has been followed in accordance with the law. There has been no political interference."

The guilty pair had faced a maximum of 10 years in jail. Hanson, who has tried to reinvent herself in recent years as a fashion designer and a country and western music promoter, also faces separate charges of using political funds for personal expenditure.

Although she is now finished politically, One Nation had already been emasculated by the rightward lurch of mainstream parties chasing her voters. Critics of John Howard, the Prime Minister, have accused him of adopting his tough stance on asylum-seekers precisely because of Hanson's success.

She takes credit for transforming the political landscape. "The reason why I got into politics was actually to make a difference," she said this year. "When you have the government and the Prime Minister take up your policies, I think I have made a difference."

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