A couple of years ago, hardly anyone outside the Brisbane suburb of Oxley had heard of Pauline Hanson.
Her greatest claim to fame at that time was that she was, despite being a divorcee and single mother, successfully running a fish and chip shop in the neighbourhood.
Today, however, her name is a household word here. Elected to parliament as an independent MP at Australias last federal election Ms. Hanson has been in the news virtually every day for the past year.
It was her maiden speech in parliament, made on September 10, 1996, that thrust Ms. Hanson into the limelight. Indicative of her blunt, no-holds-barred approach to political issues, her wide-ranging speech raised some sensitive issues .
"The taxes of ordinary Australian taxpayers" she claimed indignantly, are being used to provide far too much aid to the indigenous Aborigines." She also pronounced that Australias policy of multiculturalism has failed - the country has taken in too many immigrants, and those who come in from ghettos and do not assimilate. "We are in danger, she thundered, of "being swamped by Asians.
Her speech sparked off a flood of controversy and national soul searching. How can we expect the Aborigines to help themselves," she had earlier written in January last year in the Queensland Times "when governments shower them with money, facilities and opportunities that only these people can obtain.
At that time Hanson was the Liberal Party candidate for Oxley but she was dumped by the party (which went on to win the 1996 election under current premier John Howard) a month before the election for publicly espousing this type of view.
Undeterred, she went on to contest the seat of Oxley as an independent - and won it hands down with a record swing of 19%.
Aided perhaps by the fact that the Liberal government now in power did not immediately react to repudiate her after her inflammatory speech, Ms. Hansons views have got wide coverage. Seven decades of a White Australia policy - under which immigration by non-whites had been actively prevented by successive governments - ended only in 1973 . In some quarters, memories of a White Anglo-saxon population and a yearning for the old days still lingers - and her simplistic view of racial isolationism appears to have struck a sympathetic chord within certain elements of the national psyche. As for the Aborigines, it is still a challenge for white Australia, which for generations had been used to looking on them as a lesser form of life that would in due course die out, to now accept them as human beings and equals.
While many critics of Ms. Hansons views have been prompted by moral repugnance, others have chosen, perhaps for more pragmatic reasons, to focus on the economic costs her forceful pronouncements will have on the nation - on tourism and the export industry, on schools which rely on fee-paying Asian students and also on the countrys international reputation.
During the eighties, successive Labour governments under Bob Hawke and Paul Keating expanded vital investment and trade with Asia, securing Australias acceptance as a partner in the region .
The boom in exports of goods and services to Asia provided about half of Australias economic growth in the 1990s - in the five year period 1990-1995, according to the Bureau of Statistics, exports to Asia rose 63%. And in 1996, of the 3.7 million tourists who visited Australia, 44% came from Asia
Says Rob Wallace, a Melbourne-based small business operator in the tourism industry, "Bigoted rantings from the ill-informed are bad for trade and international relations - and act in defiance of a nation built on waves of migration."
Education Minister Amanda Vanstone estimates that last year Australia earned A$1.2 billion in fees from overseas students. Of 53,188 such students in Australian tertiary institutions in 1996, approximately 10,000 were from Malaysia, 10,000 from Singapore and 8000 from Hong Kong.
Part of the reason for Hansons rise to prominence, says Thomas Chan, a third generation Australian from Ballarat, has been Prime Minister John Howards failure to repudiate Hanson when she first voiced her views in parliament. By not condemning Hansons views outright, says Chan, the PM has in effect condoned her attitude. Howard is himself no stranger to using race as a political ploy. In 1988, while in opposition, he tried to elevate it to a national level by calling for a review on immigration - and was rejected for his views by his party. Although he now claims that he is committed to a non-discriminatory immigration policy and to racial tolerance, there are many who doubt the sincerity of his present views. Six weeks after Hansons maiden speech, Howard stepped in to try and contain the divisive race debate - too late, according to some analysts - by calling for a bipartisan motion in the federal parliament. The October 30 statement, which denounced racial intolerance and reaffirmed support for both a non-discriminatory immigration policy and Aboriginal reconciliation, was moved by the PM, seconded by the leader of the opposition and unanimously passed by parliament.
But by then, the Asian genie had escaped from the bottle uncorked by Hanson. Buoyed by many expressions of support - and undeterred by her numerous critics - Hanson has gone on to found a new political party and hold political meetings throughout the country.
Her supporters have clashed, sometimes violently, with her opponents - prompting Brisbanes Lord Mayor last month "for security reasons to refuse permission for her to hold a meeting of her party in the city. Paradoxically, her new party, which has divided the nation, is called the One Nation party .
It is too simplistic to dismiss Hanson as a racist redneck. The unmasking of views that has been stimulated by her entry into national politics has triggered an unhealthy outpouring of emotion that is not easily accounted for.
One explanation could be the fact that her passionate outbursts have been playing on the fears of those Australians whose livelihood, standard of living and access to well-paid jobs has declined with the economic policies of the past few years. When a person is unemployed, fearful of the future and just managing to scrape through each day, it doesnt take much to kindle resentment and for a scapegoat to be seized on with relish.
Is Pauline Hanson a dangerous woman whose ignorance and aggrieved views will undermine the efforts of successive governments to build a tolerant and cohesive society in Australia? Is she a heroine who has focused the nations attention on important questions that need airing, and have for too long been kept under the carpet?
Whatever ones views about her, whether one agrees or disagrees with her forthright views, the fact remains that she is today an important national figure, the charismatic head of a nascent political party.
There is a well known Australian saying "Todays news is tomorrows fish and chips wrapping" Unfortunately for Australia, yesterdays fish and chips wrapper is dominating todays news.
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