- By Kavitha SuranaKavitha Surana is a fellow at Foreign Policy. She has reported from Italy, Germany, and Senegal and her stories have been published in the past by the Associated Press, Quartz, Al Jazeera, CNN, GlobalPost and OZY. She holds a joint master’s degree in journalism and European and Mediterranean studies from New York University.
Some were shocked when the vote from Australia’s cliffhanger federal election in July finally shook out: The long-marginalized far-right party One Nation, led by Pauline Hanson, won four crucial spots in the 76-seat senate, becoming both the largest minority party behind the Greens and a significant player in the divided parliament.
Hanson wasn’t exactly new to the political scene, though she’d long been toiling on its sidelines. Back during her heyday when she first held a parliamentary seat in 1996, Hanson was notorious for bashing indigenous affairs and whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment, warning at the time that Australia was in danger of getting “swamped by Asians.”
On Sept. 14 — after 16 years out of parliament — she made her first speech back in the spotlight. Only this time she found a new — though unsurprising — bugaboo to dangle at voters: Muslims.
“Now we are in danger of being swamped by Muslims,” she said, recycling her own words from 20 years ago.
Hanson argued in her Wednesday speech that Australians have never been given the chance to vote on becoming a multiracial society. Her suggested solution? An immigration ban, as well as a moratorium on future mosques and Islamic schools. She also said Australia should introduce a new identity card with electronic fingerprints, and increase monitoring of existing Islamic groups.
Only 2.2 percent of the Australian population identified as Muslim in the 2011 census. Nevertheless, Hanson used her speech to provoke fears that sharia law is invading the country. “Australia is now seeing changes in suburbs predominantly Muslim,” she said. “Tolerance towards other Australians is no longer the case. Our law courts are disrespected and our prisons have become breeding grounds for Muslims to radicalize inmates.”
Members of the Green party walked out during her remarks.
So far Hanson hasn’t seemed to garner the kind of fanatical enthusiasm as some populists in other countries, like Donald Trump in the U.S., who garnered much of his support by using similarly brash anti-immigrant rhetoric. One Nation only polled at 4.3 percent of the primary vote for Senate this year.
But immigration has long been a top issue in Australia—it already has one of the most draconian immigration regimes in comparison with the U.S. and most European countries.
In particular, Australia frequently attracts criticism for placing undocumented migrants, many fleeing violence and genocide in Southeast Asia, in offshore detention centers on nearby islands like Nauru and Papua New Guinea. Last month the Guardian published a cache of leaked documents from the Nauru center, showing a system rife with misconduct and exploitation, including squalid living conditions, violence, sexual abuse and child abuse.
In the days following that leak, protests were held across Australia. Instead of falling more towards Hanson’s way of seeing things, there are some signs that the Nauru revelations are pushing some Australians to request better treatment for refugees and immigrants.
On Sept. 14, a poll commissioned by Save the Children, an international NGO, found that two-thirds of Australians believe the prime minister should act urgently to resettle refugees held in offshore detention centers, perhaps by bringing them to New Zealand.
And at the ongoing U.N. General Assembly in New York, Nauru and Australia will come under increasing scrutiny for their practices. In particular, the committee on the rights of the child will ask Nauru to clarify what measures are taken to protect child victims and witnesses of sexual abuse.
For her part, Hanson, who generally cloaks her anti-immigrant stance a bit more politely than Trump, said she’d be happy to help Muslims who don’t assimilate by relocating them to other countries. In fact, if they book their own flights, she’d even drop them off at their gates.
“If it would be of any help, I’ll take you to the airport and wave you goodbye with sincere best wishes,” she said in her speech.
Photo credit: SAEED KHAN/AFP/Getty Images