Pauline Hanson, the former leader of Australia's far-right One Nation party, engineered a theatrical start to her trial on electoral fraud charges yesterday, weeping as she entered the courtroom dressed in black and clutching a bunch of flowers.
Ms Hanson, whose political fortunes have dived spectacularly in recent years, is charged with fraudulently registering One Nation in 1997. She is also accused of misusing nearly £200,000 in public funds to pay for the campaigns of 11 MPs elected to the Queensland state parliament.
Outside Brisbane District Court, she was greeted by about 30 elderly supporters. She denied the fraud charges, which she says are designed to hound her out of politics. If convicted, she would be barred from contesting elections.
Ms Hanson, 49, a former Queensland fish and chip shop owner, burst on to the political scene six years ago with a populist platform calling for an end to Asian immigration and to welfare payments for Aborigines. One Nation won one million votes - 10 per cent of the poll - in a national election in 1998 and nearly 25 per cent in a state election the same year. But her popularity waned as quickly as it soared, and in 2001 she failed to win election to the upper house of federal parliament. Her party broke up amid infighting and allegations of financial wrongdoing.
David Ettridge, 59, who co-founded One Nation with her, pleaded not guilty to the charge of false registration. Their trial is expected to last about two months. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison.
Brendan Campbell, the Crown prosecutor, told the court the pair had used a list of 500 supporters - not fully paid members - to register the party in Queensland. "It was something they couldn't get by acting honestly, so they got it dishonestly," he said.
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