‘Swamped by Muslims’ Party Finds Supporters in Australian Vote

  • Party leader Hanson had brief lawmaker stint two decades ago
  • Hanson benefited from disillusionment with major parties

Turnbull Claims Australia Election Victory

A closely-fought Australian election has brought with it the revival of a fringe party led by right-wing politician Pauline Hanson, showing the country is not immune to the anti-immigration mood sweeping parts of western Europe and the U.S.

While Hanson’s party secured only 4.2 percent of the primary vote in Australia’s upper house, that’s enough under the country’s preferential voting system to secure her a Senate spot and the chance to influence legislation. Another Hanson-led One Nation party candidate may win a Senate seat.

Hanson, who wants a Royal Commission into Islam and a ban on the wearing of the Burqa in public, benefited from a protest vote against the major parties. She was also helped by the implosion of another small, conservative group, the Palmer United Party, and needed only half the usual votes to win a seat due to the counting peculiarities created by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to force an early election.

“We’re in danger of being swamped by Muslims,” Hanson, 62, told News Corp. in May, even as data show they represent just 2 percent of the population. “If you’re going to bury your head in the sand about it, you’re a fool.”

Senate Count

Controversial former Australian politician Pauline Hanson speaks to the media in Sydney after narrowly failing in her bid to win a seat in the New South Wales parliament on April 12, 2011 in Sydney. Despite leading voters' first preferences, the outspoken 56-year-old Hanson, known for her anti-immigration and trade protectionist stance during her time as One Nation leader, was overtaken when second and subsequent preferences were allocated via a computer distribution.   AFP PHOTO / Greg WOOD (Photo credit should read GREG WOOD/AFP/Getty Images)

Pauline Hanson.

Photographer: Greg Wood/AFP via Getty Images

Hanson’s influence over the next government remains to be seen, and the Senate makeup is not yet finalized. During her brief stint in parliament 20 years ago, the Liberal-National coalition government of the time criticized her views on Asian immigration as misguided and dangerous, and she faded from view as her party imploded in infighting.

But as governments around the world battle concern about refugees and immigrants -- U.S. Republican candidate Donald Trump is threatening to build a wall to keep Mexicans out -- fueled in part by rising income inequality and jobless rates, Hanson’s anti-Asian, anti-Muslim rhetoric may be harder to shut down.

“Disillusionment with the major parties is clearly a trend in Australia, as elsewhere,” said Anne Tiernan, a political scientist at Brisbane’s Griffith University. “They will have to be careful in the way they deal with Hanson and will need to walk a fine line between understanding, but not accepting, some of the more extreme views she represents.”

Lowest Share

The ruling coalition led by Turnbull and the Labor opposition led by Bill Shorten secured their lowest share of the primary vote since World War II. Some of that vote went to left-leaning parties like the Australian Greens, and a centralist group led by Senator Nick Xenophon. But it’s Hanson who has garnered the bulk of the attention.

Turnbull has claimed victory, even as he reaches out to independent and small party lawmakers. His challenge will be soothing voters dissatisfied with the major parties while avoiding knee-jerk populist policy responses that curtail needed immigration. The stance of Hanson and some other smaller parties against foreign investment may also damage Australia’s international reputation.

Hanson’s previous stint in politics help trigger a hardening of government policy over immigration. Then-Prime Minister John Howard created detention camps for would-be migrants arriving by boat. Now both the coalition and Labor back the policy, along with turning back boats laden with asylum seekers.

‘Second-Class’

“Do you want your children and grandchildren to be living under Sharia Law and treated as a second-class citizen with no rights?” Hanson’s party says on its website, calling for the installation of surveillance cameras in mosques and Islamic schools. Multiculturalism has prevented people from “assimilating into Australian society -- exactly what was done and admitted to in England,” it claims. Hanson declined an interview with Bloomberg.

Since lifting a effective ban on Asian immigration in the 1960s, Australia’s racial mix has rapidly diversified. More than one in four residents was born overseas, while 43 percent have at least one overseas-born parent, according to Australian Bureau of Statistics data.

“Hanson shaped the conversation over race and immigration” in the 1990s, Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane said. “The danger we face is similar to that being posed by right-wing populism in other western, liberal democracies.”

Points System

In the U.K., which recently voted to exit the European Union, “Leave” campaigners Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage urged Britain to adopt Australia’s “points system” for new immigrants, which emphasizes work and language skills. Human rights campaigners have argued that discriminates against non-English-speaking migrants often fleeing from war-torn nations.

Another bone of contention among Australian voters, many from regional areas, was asset sales -- primarily agricultural land -- to overseas interests. While the nation’s shallow pool of domestic capital means it needs foreign investment, a survey conducted by a Sydney-based think tank showed 87 percent of Australians opposed allowing foreign companies to buy farmland.

One Nation is against the sale of any assets overseas and wants government control over utility companies. Some similar policies can be found from the Nick Xenophon Team, a party that opposes free-trade deals and may have as many as five lawmakers in the new parliament.

Chinese Ownership

Government data show China accounted for just over four percent of foreign investment in Australia at the end of 2014. About 90 percent of farmland was fully Australian-owned in 2014, according to the ABS.

Australia must keep a welcome mat for foreign investors, former foreign minister Bob Carr said.

“You can strike that nationalistic pose but it does mean lower living standards” should tougher foreign investment restrictions be enacted, Carr said. He described Hanson’s Senate win as “a bad look.”

Hanson sits on the fringe for now. “Populists have never taken hold here the way they have in many other countries,” Tiernan said. 

Still, her comeback shows that “governments around the world are maintaining the fiction that they can control everything, when globalization has meant many circumstances are simply out of their hands.”

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