Redefining Australia Takes A Backseat for This Election

Mainstream parties' focus on taxes and jobs keeps populist ideas on back burner.

Take a look at Barry Cooper's business card, and it's the crossed-out phone numbers that really tell the story: Each mark represents one retail store that Mr. Cooper has closed this year.

A sporting goods manufacturer and retailer, Cooper says he's been hard hit by competition from overseas. He and small-business owners in similar straits may express their dissatisfaction at Australia's polls Saturday, and vote for the protectionist, anti-immigration policies of Pauline Hanson's One Nation Party.

"She's the best thing that ever happened to Australia," Cooper says. "She's not the smartest person, but what she's saying are things that need to be said."

Those "things" began with Ms. Hanson's infamous "I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians" speech, given after she won a lower house seat in 1996. But pressured by a five-week campaign season, One Nation has provided the country's 12 million voters with little concrete information to persuade them that there's bite behind the bark.

In the past two months, One Nation's national support has fallen by nearly half. It trails far behind both the current government - a conservative Liberal-National Party coalition led by Prime Minister John Howard, and its opposition - the Labor Party, headed by Kim Beazley. In a campaign centered on taxes and jobs, the strategy of Hanson's competition has been to ignore her. But the issues One Nation has raised may nag the national consciousness far beyond this election.

In recent decades, Australia has been something of a model for nations struggling to adapt to racial and ethnic diversity as a consequence of dissolving empires and unprecedented personal mobility. The "White Australia" policy - discrimination in favor of European immigrants - was abandoned only in 1973. About 40 percent of the 70,000 immigrants that Australia accepts annually are from Asia.

John Freeland, executive director of the Evatt Foundation, a Labor think tank in Sydney, believes it is "better to have the debate" on multiculturalism and related issues, "but it's going to cause pain." He distinguishes between a "multiculturalism that lets others in ... saying in effect, 'We'll accept others if they discard their culture,' " on one hand, and a multiculturalism that "has a unifying core within the diversity - and understands that the core doesn't reside in any one group."

Barry Cooper's job isn't exactly threatened by multiculturalism and immigrants. But trade with Australia's international neighbors has caused his woes. Australian manufacturing grew up in a protective cocoon of tariffs. Nowadays even such an icon as Vegemite, the salty, brown yeast extract spread on morning toast, has gone multinational, bought out by Kraft Foods.

Cooper says discount malls full of imports have eaten into the business of traditional main-street shops. "Shopping centers have killed retail," he explains. Many of Australia's biggest trading partners are in Asia. Rural populists, a core One Nation constituency, used to be able to count on the National Party, currently the junior partner in the coalition government, to hear such concerns. But the Nationals have gone neoliberal, favoring open markets, free trade, and "economic rationalism."

"These voters' needs have been ignored," says Mr. Freeland.

Part of One Nation's appeal is to those who are not just apolitical, but antipolitical. "I like Pauline Hanson and One Nation," a woman giving her name as "Sharon" says at a bakeshop in Brisbane. "Of course, once she gets in, she'll change. All politicians are like that."

Discussing tax policy during a morning TV interview, Hanson asserted that "90 percent of corporate Australia is foreign owned." When the interviewer nudged her to substantiate the figures, Hanson complained that a government bureau had failed to return calls from her office - something some politicians might be reluctant to admit. But not Hanson.

"It's just her against the bureaucracy," an observer in Canberra notes. "It has great appeal."

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