MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA — As Nevil Ford made his way toward a political meeting at Melbourne's Hawthorne Town Hall Sunday, he was blocked by a wall of angry protesters.
Shouting "racists," linking arms, and crowding doorways, demonstrators prevented Mr. Ford and others from entering the building where Pauline Hanson, the controversial leader of Australia's One Nation party, was scheduled to speak that afternoon.
"I'm not racist," Ford says. "I just wanted to hear what she had to say."
He never got a chance. Shortly after the rally was scheduled to start, police canceled it, citing concern for Mrs. Hanson's safety.
Far from bringing Australia together, Hanson and One Nation have succeeded in bringing differences between Australians to a boil.
The clash in Melbourne is just the latest in a series of conflicts. Protesters in Australia's ethnically diverse urban areas compare Hanson's One Nation to Hitler's Brown Shirts. But to many in Australia's rural heartland, the One Nation platform of freezing immigration from Asia, ending Aboriginal welfare, and raising trade barriers isn't racist at all. It's just common sense.
Hanson, the former owner of a fish-and-chip shop and a divorced mother of four, was elected to Parliament as an independent member from Oxley, Queensland, in 1996. A year later she formed her own party, One Nation. In her first speech, she called for the abolishment of multiculturalism and warned that Australia was "in danger of being swamped by Asians."
Mainstream politicians branded her a right-wing extremist, and Prime Minister John Howard dismissed her policy ideas as "simplistic nonsense."
When One Nation won 23 percent of the vote in Queensland's state election last month, however, Australia's governing Liberal and National parties took notice.
"We voted for her, and I'll tell you why," says Jack Grieve. "All of the other parties, the lot of them, they've never done much for us." Mr. Grieve and his two brothers run a cattle ranch and dairy farm on 400 acres of rolling countryside in Hanson's seat of Oxley, 70 miles west of Brisbane, the largest city on Australia's Gold Coast. These days it's harder than ever for the Grieves to make a profit, and they say they are not alone.
Following seven years of severe drought, rural areas have been hit hardest by Australia's push to compete in the global marketplace. An influx of agricultural products from overseas has forced prices down and thousands of small farmers out of business.
Recent court decisions restoring Aborigines' rights to access and protect their ancestral lands have only added to the uncertainty. Farmers and miners who own long-term leases on government lands are concerned that Native Title claims could prevent them from developing their property.
At the same time, over the past decade, cuts in government programs and privatization have resulted in fewer services in Australia's more scarcely populated areas. Post offices and polling booths have been closed. Schools have been consolidated. Towns that once had two banks now have one. Towns that had one bank now have none.
Many in rural and semirural Australia feel that Aborigines are being given "special treatment." While small farmers receive no subsidies or government aid, some Aborigines are eligible for low-interest home loans. Hanson has called for an end to social services that serve Aboriginal needs only. "We're not saying cut benefits to Aborigines, we're saying cut benefits to Aborigines because they're Aborigines," says David Oldfield, one of Hanson's top advisers. "They should be assisted in the same way as all other Australians through the accepted and existent welfare agencies."
In most parts of Australia, unemployment has held steady at 8 percent, but in some areas of Queensland, areas where Hanson has received strong support, it is as high as 14 percent. Among Australia's youths, the number of unemployed is even greater.
Hanson's supporters feel that immigration puts even greater pressure on the labor market.
"We haven't got enough jobs for us here," Grieves says. "Let's stop immigration for three or four years, and see what happens."
One Nation argues that immigration is endangering Australia's national identity. Just as previous generations of Australians felt threatened by successive waves of immigration, many of Hanson's supporters see the growth of Asian communities within Australia's urban centers as a threat to their way of life.
"I have never said I am anti-Asian," Hanson told a crowd of cheering supporters at a rally in June. "All I have asked for is the balance to be restored. I wasn't asked, do I want to be Asianized? We have a right to be selective."
In 1901, following a wave of Chinese immigrants, the Immigration Restriction Act was enacted to prevent non-Europeans and cheap labor from entering the country. But since the country abandoned its "White Australia" policy in 1973, more and more Asians have immigrated to Australia, many of them refugees. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, Asian-born Australians now account for 5 percent of Australia's total population.
John Freevirn, an economist at Melbourne University, says One Nation is looking at only half the picture. According to Mr. Freevirn, immigrants actually create as many jobs as they fill by adding to aggregate demand. "What she looks at is when immigrants come, they want jobs, but they also want food, clothing, and everything else," says Mr. Freevirn. Moreover, he says Australia's present multicultural approach to immigration has further enhanced the economy.
"We now have culture and expertise from all over the world," he says. "That expertise has made us an international player."
Along with others in the business community, Freevirn is concerned that the racist overtones of One Nation's platform will damage Australia's relationships with its neighbors and largest trading partners, including Japan, the United States, New Zealand, South Korea, Singapore, Britain, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
Over half of Australia's exports go to Asia, and Asian visitors account for half of Australia's $9.6 billion tourism industry. Already there has been one report of a foreign investor pulling funds out of Queensland and investing elsewhere in Australia as a result of One Nation's growing support.
In just over a year, polls show Hanson's support has grown from 3.5 percent to 15 percent nationwide. If the Howard government were to dissolve Parliament now, the 18-month-old One Nation party would hold the balance of power. As support for One Nation grows, Howard's coalition government has come to view Hanson supporters not so much as racists as people who feel neglected by the political status quo.
"Rural people are hurting, the Howard government isn't looking after their interests," says Maurice Sibelle, a leader of Australia's Social Democrats Party and one of the organizers of the anti-racism demonstration in Melbourne.
"But blame the people who cause the problem," Mr. Sibelle adds. "It isn't the Asians or the Aborigines." Adds Freevirn, "It's a whole combination of political ineptitudes by our main parties and a very astute political operator," referring to Hanson.
Australia has been governed by a coalition between the Liberal Party - which is conservative and traditionally represents urban interests - and the National Party, which is also conservative but traditionally represents Australia's rural areas. In fact, when the National Party was formed in the 1920s, it was called the Country Party. But in recent years, people say they see little difference between the two.
At a press conference last year, Howard said it was a mistake to criticize One Nation's backers as bigoted, narrow-minded, and racist, but disagreed with the party's policies.
"I know why some Australians have stopped to listen to the member for Oxley," he said. "I say to them, however, she has no answers to your problems. The Hanson cure will be worse than the disease."
Even if Hanson doesn't have any answers, she's at least addressing rural Australia's problems, says Darren Brumblecombe. He and his wife grow cabbages and onions on 300 acres in Rosewood, one of Queensland's many small country towns.
He is just one of many Australians who have turned to Hanson not because they agree with all her ideas, but because they hope she will bring the issues facing rural Australians to the forefront.
Mr. Brumblecombe did not vote for Hanson, but he put her second on his ballot just to make a point. Even if her ideas are wrong, she's started a debate, he says, and "you can't fix a problem without debate."