There was one overwhelming impression Australians hoped to make at last year's Sydney Olympics: that Australia today is a modern, diverse, vibrant, and decidedly multicultural country.
For the most part, that's an accurate view of Australia. But the Olympics came and went more than four months ago, and Australians this week are not mulling over their multiculturalism, but the resurgence of a xenophobic far-right party that many thought would never be heard from again.
After being driven into the political wilderness following the 1998 national election - thanks to fraud and a series of mutinies that saw almost everyone elected to office under its banner defect - the One Nation party this week has revived in two state elections. Analysts say One Nation is now asserting itself as a potential kingmaker at a national election expected later this year.
"A lot of the political pundits did write One Nation off. But they forgot to listen to the people of Western Australia," the party's founder, Pauline Hanson, said after One Nation helped unseat Western Australia's conservative government last weekend. "We were just simmering away."
One Nation garnered just 10 percent of the vote in the Western Australian election and secured only three seats in the state legislature's upper house. It is expected to do only marginally better in this Saturday's election in Queensland, where the 11 One Nation members of parliament elected in 1998 have all since left the party.
While the One Nation results seem small, they have big consequences in Australia, because of the country's unique preferential voting system, which asks voters to rank all candidates in order of preference rather than vote only for one.
The reason One Nation played such a significant role is that it told its voters to put members of the ruling Liberal/National coalition last and, therefore, gave them fewer "preferences" than to the state's opposition Labor party. (Parties in Australia control the distribution of votes by handing out "how to vote" cards their supporters usually use to rank the remaining candidates.)
According to Marian Simms, a political scientist at Australian National University, Australia's voting system is more democratic than the US system because it gives minor parties a greater voice in elections.
But the system has also allowed One Nation to emerge from the Western Australian election - and, in all likelihood, this weekend's election in Queensland - as a major stumbling block to Prime Minister John Howard's bid for a third term, despite garnering just 10 percent of the vote, the same amount it took at the 1998 federal election.
Simms says pundits were too quick to declare the death of One Nation, which advocates an end to Asian migration to Australia and affirmative action programs for Aborigines.
Despite its setbacks, the party remains rooted in resentment building in Australia's increasingly downtrodden rural areas. In Australia's outback, high unemployment, poor roads, and closings of vital services like banks have caused a rift with cities like the now-booming Sydney.
"All you have to do is drive a few hours west from Sydney to see it. ... One Nation is a symptom, not a problem," Simms says.
Howard has tried to mollify rural voters with promises of new roads and inquiries into issues like telephone services. But in recent years the rural-based National Party, with which Howard's Liberals are in a coalition, has struggled, and the introduction last year of a cumbersome tax system and recent high gasoline prices have only fueled discontent.
In theory, the One Nation, Liberal, and National parties all come from the conservative end of Australian politics. But almost since the genesis of One Nation, Howard has made a point of treating it as a fringe party. He has promised that his party would put One Nation last on how-to-vote cards for the upcoming national election. Hanson, in turn, has vowed to list all government candidates last on One Nation's cards, setting up a similar scenario to the one in Western Australia where her party helped unseat the conservative government.
Some, especially in the rural-dominated National party, are pushing for a deal with Hanson. Their case may be bolstered by the release of two polls Tuesday showing the government would lose to the opposition Labor party if the election were held today.
Simms says a deal is unlikely because it could alienate Howard's more mainstream backers.
If nothing else, the government this week has been forced to acknowledge the resurgence of a movement it thought was dead and gone. "We've got to recognize One Nation as a significant force within the Australian political spectrum," one senior Howard adviser told Australian Broadcasting Corporation radio.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society