The outcry was sparked by Pauline Hanson, a woman whom few Australians outside her home town of Ipswich in Queensland had heard of until recently, but who is now a household name. The former fish-and-chip shop owner was elected to federal parliament last March as an Independent MP. The Liberal Party, which Mr Howard leads, had ditched her after she attacked Aborigines and Asians in her election campaign, and called for an end to immigration.
But, since Ms Hanson repeated her views in her maiden speech to parliament a month ago, all hell has broken loose. She has appeared on television all over the country, been flooded with invitations to speak at functions and was given a standing ovation when she spoke at a fund-raising dinner in Brisbane last week for the National Party, the junior partner with the Liberals in the ruling conservative coalition.
Ms Hanson told parliament: "We are in danger of being swamped by Asians ... who have their own culture and religion, form ghettoes and do not assimilate." On Aborigines, she said: "Along with millions of Australians, I am fed up to the back teeth with the inequalities that are being promoted by the government and paid for by the taxpayer under the assumption that Aboriginals are the most disadvantaged people in Australia." She called for an end to Australia's foreign aid, a review of its United Nations membership and a return of national service for 18-year-olds.
An opinion poll published on Tuesday showed that 48 per cent of respondents supported Ms Hanson's views and 38 per cent opposed them. In New South Wales, the most populous state, her support was 53 per cent. Another opinion poll revealed that 71 per cent of Australians thought immigration levels generally were too high.
At first, Mr Howard ignored Ms Hanson, telling Liberal MPs that to respond would give her opinions more significance than they deserve. But his tactic has backfired. Alarmed MPs have stepped up pressure on the prime minister to condemn Ms Hanson, claiming that her remarks have unleashed racial attacks. Gary Hardgrave, a Liberal MP from Brisbane, said that Asians had been spat on in the city's streets. Bill O'Chee, a Queensland Liberal of Chinese descent, said a woman married to an Asian man had been subjected to "frightening racial abuse". More than 100 Chinese-Australian organisations sent a joint letter to Mr Howard yesterday accusing him of tacitly supporting her views by refusing to condemn them.
Ms Hanson's remarks have been reported widely in Asia, where Australia conducts some of its most significant trade. Chris Brown, the chief executive of the Tourism Task Force, a lobby group, wrote to Mr Howard demanding that he come out strongly against Ms Hanson "for the sake of economic rationality and cultural responsibility". He said: "We cannot allow the rest of the world to think of us as 'white trash' or a nation of 'rednecks'."
In parliament on Tuesday, Mr Howard praised the "immense" contribution that Asian immigrants had made to Australia. Earlier, he described Aborigines as "the most disadvantaged of all Australians". But his remarks sat uneasily with those he had made before he became prime minister, when he referred to an "Aboriginal industry" and said he thought that levels of Asian immigration were too high. As long as Mr Howard declines to round on Ms Hanson, the MP from Ipswich is reasonably assured of continued media prominence.Reuse content