The Australian 12-08-97

Crunch time for Howard in race debate

What to do about Pauline Hanson will be the toughest question facing the Prime Minister at the next election

One issue will be more important than any other at the next election. It si a simple issue; what will John Howard do with preferences regarding Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party? This will be a defining moment in the history of Australia, for the nature of our voting system means there will be nowhere for the Prime Minister to hide.

Either he enters a defacto alliance with a party based on racial hostility, with all the catastrophic domestic and regional consequences that entails, or he comes out unequivocally against the Hansonite party and hands probably a couple of extra seats to labor.

It’s a choice that Howard won’t like but it’s one he can’t avoid. There will be no room for studied ambiguity or equivocation. The Liberals will have to allocate their preferences. Either they will go to Hanson’s One Nation party ahead of Labor, the Democrats and the Greens, and thus help her win parliamentary seats, or they will effectively put Hanson last and stop her winning seats.

The whole of Asia indeed the whole world, will watch Howard’s actions. Howard apparently was surprised at how strongly the British media played the Hanson story during his recent visit to London. In truth there has hardly been a story about Australia anywhere in the world in the past 12 months, from Japanese comics to high-brow European newspapers, that has not been about Hanson. Australia is in danger of losing the inestimable benefit of having the world think we are basically a decent fair democratic country. If the Prime Minister enters an electoral alliance with racism, permanent and irreparable damage will be done to Australia.

It would be ludicrous for Howard to argue that this is a decision for the Liberal Party machine. No Liberal Party division would take such a decision against Howard’s wishes. He can determine what happens. He will be judged by what he does.

Of course no one in Asia, or most other parts of the world, understand the Australian preferential voting system. but that is no defence in this globalising world. The preference issue will be a big big story at the start of the champagne. Its implications will be spelled out fully in the Australian press. Asian and international opinion leaders will read this as they read Australian newspapers on the Internet. There columnists and opinion leaders will soon aquire more than enough knowledge to understand what Howard’s decision means. On the basis of the recent past, their condemnation of any Liberal Party truck with Hanson will be savage and justified. If Howard has one iota of conservative wisdom in his body, he will not inflict this damage on his nation in an election he is bound to win anyway.

In England, Howard compared the rise of Hanson to that of former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke in the US and National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in France. These cases; through in many ways not really apposite comparisons, ought nonetheless instruct Howard’s response.

In 1991, Duke won the Republican nomination for the governor’s race in Louisiana. In response, then Republican President George Bush urged republicans in Louisians to vote for the Democratic candidate against Duke. Bush was not particularly a champion of racial inclusion or sensitivity to minorities or anything else that might be deemed politically correct. But what he was, was a basically decent, conservation leader. He commented of Duke, who had tried to moderate his image for the Louisiana race: “When someone has an ugly record of racism and of bigotry that record simply cannot be erased by the glib rhetoric of a political campaign.

The case of Le Pen in France is equally revealing. All mainstream French parties condemn Le Pen unequivocally. Of course the danger Hanson poses to Australia is much greater than that posed to France by Le Pen. Le Pen spews fourth filthly anti - African poison that disfigures and diminishes France, and causes unnecessary suffering to many French citizens of African extraction.

But in terms of straightforward national interests, Africa is not remotely as important to France as Asia is to Australia. for Hanson and Le Pen to be comparable, Le Pen would have to be conduction his campaigns against the English, Germans, Italians, Spanish and other European neighbours of France.

Many people recognise the seriousness of these issues for Australia. They are primarily ethical, but they certainly have huge economic and ultimately strategic consequences as well. The economic consequence has been publicity and repeatedly recognised by the education, export and tourism industries, where thousands of potential Australian jobs possibly have already been lost because of this business.

It also has been recognised by most of the federal Cabinet, but Howard still will give no leadership on the preference issue, as he was urged to recently by one of Australia’s most distinguished business figures, former CRA chief Sir Roderick Carnegie.

Of course, there is a potential sacrifice involved in Howard showing some decent leadership. If he puts Hanson last on Liberal preference cards across the country, labor almost certainly will win Oxley and either a Labor, Democrat or Green senator is likely to be the last elected senators, though they would cause no end of trouble for Howard, may be more likely on some judgements to pass his legislation than Labor, the Democrats or the Greens.

But sometimes leadership requires sacrifice. The next election is probably Australia’s last chance to extirpate the Hansonite strand from parliamentary politics. If it is a half-senate election, the One Nation Party will need 14% of the vote to secure a senator. It probably won’t get that without Liberal-National preferences. If Howard squibs leadership on this vital issue, he will have done Australia inestimable harm.

Greg Sheridan is the Australian’s foreign editor and a known Labor Party stalwart.

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