Without question, the upsurge of Hanson's party has been greatly exaggerated. Yes, the party has revived itself after being written off in 1998's federal elections. But it is still far below its previous peak, winning just three seats in Queensland compared with 11 in the previous election. Using Australia's preferential voting system to best effect, One Nation played a key part in humiliating the Liberal-National coalition in the Queensland and Western Australia elections. True, John Howard's coalition has been on a downward spiral federally, but divisions in the opposition ranks made Labor's win more emphatic. Hanson helped deliver victory to the Labor Party in Queensland by a stunning margin. One Nation won a few seats in depressed, conservative rural areas that had lost faith in the National Party but were not ready to switch to Labor.
Delivering a big victory to Labor will not advance the racist cause. For the past 30 years, Labor has supported non-white immigration, Aboriginal rights and the notion of a multicultural Australia in an impressive manner. That is not going to change just because Pauline Hanson can deliver a few votes.
Nor should one conclude that all of Hanson's backers are racists. In fact, issues other than Asians and Aborigines have been more important to Hanson's supporters. Rural Australia has been a victim of globalization and market forces. Agricultural prices have been depressed by the absurdities of world farm trade, while transport costs have been increasing. Meanwhile, small towns and farming districts have been hurt as market forces have deprived them of services from banks to buses. A large minority of Australians, especially in those rugged rural communities that are so much a part of Australia's self-image but a dwindling proportion of its population, have not been getting a "fair go." With egalitarian notions in retreat, a large minority has suffered even as the economy at large has prospered.
Race apart, some of Hanson's ideas are in line with the views of many immigrants, even those from Asia. Everywhere, the self-reliant shopkeeper and independent professional class distrusts both big government and big business. They resent high taxes to support what they see as youths enjoying beach life on the dole, assorted liberal and minority causes or foreign governments that expect aid and then criticize Australia. Hanson remains on the fringe of Australian politics, but some of the grievances she feeds on cannot be ignored.
Nor should a democratic society shy away from discussing immigration. Australia's Whites Only policy, abolished more than 30 years ago, was an insult to Aborigines as well as to the country's Asian neighbors. The issue of race cannot be completely ignored, however desirable it would be to do so. But Asian nations from Japan to Singapore to Malaysia have their own racial preferences when offering permanent residence to foreigners.
Indeed, it is the right of society to decide how many and what sort of immigrants it wants. Some might argue that Australia's modern multiculturalism tries to be too all-embracing. Instead, that argument holds, it should focus on both traditional European and new Asian sources, rather than treating Armenians, Bolivians and Zambians as equally desirable.
There are Australians who feel that migration issues haven't been openly debated in recent years. But the way Australia has embraced dramatic change in its racial composition over the past three decades is remarkable and admirable. It need make no apology now to its neighbors, let alone feel ashamed that an open and democratic process sometimes lifts people such as Hanson.
Some Southeast Asian politicians are rubbing their hands at this apparent surge of Australian racism. It is a handy way of avoiding the issue of why so many middle-class people from Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong still migrate there even though the standard of living for professionals and small businessmen is scarcely better. Evidently, for these people freedom and space are more important than race. At least they recognize that though racism against Asians and Aborigines clearly exists, Australia has no need for lectures from politicians in countries where race-based politics are the norm, or lie close to the surface.