SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA — During the past five years as Australia's conservative firebrand, Pauline Hanson has never won over more than a sliver of voters. But as she stepped down as head of the One Nation Party on Monday, there was an overwhelming consensus among political observers that in her strange, bumbling way, Ms. Hanson's presence on the Australian stage has shifted the debate on a host of issues to the right. And that may turn out to make her one of the most important figures of her era in Australian politics.
"Pauline Hanson's presence has made the major parties much more conservative and cautious, partly to win votes and partly because she does tap into a sentiment that has some support right across the political spectrum," says John Warhurst, a professor of politics at Australian National University.
Hanson retired from politics this week, facing not only fraud charges but a political party that carried her name and yet refused to pay her a salary, and a public image as one of Australia's more bizarre politicians.
The former fish-and-chips shop owner rose to prominence in wake of a 1996 speech to Parliament in which she argued Australia was "in danger of being swamped by Asians." She quickly became the voice of the disaffected far right. Hanson summed up her own legacy: "I think what has happened with Pauline Hanson being on the political scene is that we have managed to get rid of political correctness," she told reporters. "People can say what they think now without being ridiculed or being called names."
The greatest evidence of her influence on mainstream politics, Professor Warhurst and others argue, came last August when Prime Minister John Howard turned a Norwegian freighter's rescue of 438 Middle Eastern boat refugees into a crisis by refusing to let them land on Australian shores and deploying the Navy to stop them.
Facing an election - which he later won, thanks in large part to his stance on boat people - Mr. Howard decided to ship the asylum seekers to the impoverished Pacific island nation of Nauru, where most remain in detention, awaiting the processing of their asylum applications.
According to Dennis Woodward, head of politics at Monash University in Melbourne, the influence of Hanson extends beyond immigration. People are now more willing to be critical of Aborigines, who remain the most downtrodden segment of Australia's population, he says. And that change also extends to other issues like globalization, which Hanson campaigned against, and economic reforms that have affected things like Australia's dairy industry.
Though she has stepped down as president of One Nation and removed her name from the party she formed in 1997 - in part because of an argument over whether she should be paid - Hanson has not ruled out a return to politics in the future. But most analysts believe a return is unlikely. Her party, which has been plagued by infighting and financial problems, is likely to founder without its figurehead, they say.
Hanson also has her own legal problems, the stress of which she blamed partly for her retirement. She claims the fraud charges are part of a political witch hunt. But the charges - related to the 1997 registration of One Nation as a party and its subsequent acceptance of US$255,000 in public funding - are nonetheless due to go before the courts in April.