Commentary by Peter Mackay, Canberra.
The lady behind the jeweller's counter looked up as I approached her, then recoiled in horror and tried to hide behind a display rack of engagement rings.
It wasn't me, honest! I was dressed conservatively in suit and silk tie, fresh haircut and smiling broadly. Shopkeepers don't normally run for cover even when I wear shorts and T-shirt.
It might have been Pauline Hanson, a few paces behind me, flame red hair, jacket and lipstick. I can well understand why some of her opponents would be aghast at the thought of actually meeting Australia's most controversial parliamentarian and having to defend their views in person.
No. It was the three TV news cameras following Pauline, lights blazing. Not to mention the press journalists crowding behind. And the dozen plainclothes police scattered unobtrusively around. And the handful of One Nation Party executives dressed alike in dark suits, white shirts and eye-catching Australian Flag ties. And the hangers on.
All in all it was a bit of a three ring circus to come unexpectedly into your shop in the middle of a slow Tuesday.
The Pauline Hanson bandwagon rolled into Queanbeyan last week, ahead of the party launch there and following a successful dinner with the ACT and regional branches.
Once the lady jeweller had recovered from her initial shock, she chatted with Pauline, who has done her share of standing behind counters. They smiled together, then we were off again, meeting and greeting along Crawford Street.
Pauline is a dab hand at this sort of thing. She started off the walk kissing a baby, shook the hands of passers-by, and darted into and out of shops, handing out fliers for the branch meeting. Schoolgirls clustered in knots, nervously holding out notebooks to sign, and Pauline set them at ease with a few words and a smile.
Wherever we went, we were washed along on a tide of "Goodonyer", "Keep it up, Pauline" and "You'll do me!". People couldn't get over turning around to see that famous face bearing down on them, eager for a word and a handshake. For some, it was a dream come true. I'll not forget one elderly gent, grinning from one side of his face to the other, pumping her hand with enthusiasm, and talking nineteen to the dozen.
For most, it was a chance to chat quietly. A few moments with Pauline, a nervous glance at the cameras, a handshake, then back to the shopping, heart thumping a little faster.
Some hurried by with face averted, anxious to escape. And a few had a harsh word or two, mumbled from the sidelines. They clustered in knots, their faces masks of hatred, and followed at a distance, watched carefully by bodyguards.
Out in the carpark an egg was thrown. It missed Pauline by a mile, but broke on the shoulder of a television reporter. Pauline took her into a service station washroom and sponged her down, the three ring circus idling outside.
But that was the only incident to mar the visit to Queanbeyan. She might not have been cheered down the main street, but the people were happy to see and talk to her. Her appeal to and her recognition amongst Australians is universal. She might be the member for Oxley, but she has constituents all over Australia. Queanbeyan is an ordinary country town, with Railway Hotel, School of Arts, courthouse and post office facing each other, memorial park down by the river. It could be anywhere in Australia.
When the local branch was launched a few days later, around fifty people turned up to hear speeches, Pauline's latest press releases, a description of what is expected from a local branch, and each other. As with every other party launch, the question and answer period afterwards is the liveliest part of the program.
And a vital one. It is one thing to sit in an office in Canberra and write up policies, it is quite another to get out and meet the people and listen to what they have to say. Pauline might not get to every one of the 246 branch meetings each month, but she receives a report on every one of them. Unlike most parliamentarians, she spends more time listening than talking, and this extends to her party.
If Pauline has a dozen police for security when walking down the street, how many does she have for an advertised function? At least a hundred on site, that's what. And more on tap. Let's just say it wasn't a good night to go drink driving around Canberra's Jamison Inn.
The ACT and Southern New South Wales region hosted Pauline Hanson to dinner on a Thursday night. It was perfect.
Planning began weeks before. Not just the menu, seating arrangements and so on that you'd expect for a normal function. A police security team arrived and gave the venue the once over, advising on a host of details. For instance, a protest site was identified and two days before the event, checked over and all potential missiles removed.
On the night, Pauline arrived early, long before the advertised start. She said hello to the workers and the branch executive, did a live cross to the local television news, gave interviews to the other networks, radio stations and print reporters.
Outside, the protesters turned up a bit later. Despite a widespread print and radio advertising campaign, they only managed to scrape together fifty people, the usual suspects from every left-wing rally. Pauline Hanson, whales, Yankee imperialism, casinos -- they are all one to these folk.
Anyway, they arrived on time and were dutifully herded into their assigned protest area, from which they waved banners, chanted, and hurled abuse but not missiles as the guests arrived.
They provided a colourful backdrop for the arriving guests. Inside, there were police by the truckload, television cameras, and Pauline Hanson in the flesh. As well as posters on every available flat surface. Heady stuff!
The branch executive wore their trademark Australia Flag ties and bustled around, taking tickets, directing people to tables, advising the media and giving interviews themselves.
Pauline moved from table to table, ensuring that everybody got a chance to speak to her, take photos, get autographs and so on.
A few words of welcome and the dinner began. Like everyone else, Pauline queued for her buffet dinner, excellent fare served up by a spit roast caterer. The hum of conversation rose and fell through dinner and dessert, when it was time for the main event.
Branch president Chris Spence welcomed Pauline and gave a short speech, in which he noted that after her maiden speech, many people said that she was like the Titanic and would sink without trace. Not so. Finally someone had had the guts to tell the truth, her One Nation party was launched, and had sailed on from strength to strength, about to celebrate its first anniversary whilst Liberal and Labor governments took turns running the good ship Australia onto the rocks.
Introducing Pauline Hanson, I thought, was a bit like introducing the Pope, or being lead act for the Rolling Stones, an almost impossible task, but Chris did well, and Pauline arrived at the podium to enthusiastic applause.
In her turn, she introduced Chris as the candidate and the next member for Fraser, and likewise Burl Doble, standing in the seat of Fraser.
She continued with Chris's theme, saying that she didn't like the direction in which the country was heading. She welcomed the guests for turning up to hear what she had to say, in full and in context "not the intentionally edited version that destroys what I have to say.".
I'd have to quote her entire speech to do as good a job, but the gist of her speech was that Labor and Liberal governments maintained that the country was "on track, but what track are we on, and where is it taking us?". She provided examples enough of our destination: * Immigrants often carried disease, despite medical checks before and after arrival. Recent cases of immigrant students at Griffith University had highlighted the fact that 27% of overseas born carried tuberculosis. * Foreign investment is a codeword for multinational companies buying up successful Australian companies, downsizing them, stripping away the assets, and stepping into the marketplace gap directly. * A range of crimes had increased over recent years. Extortion, a favourite amongst Chinese immigrants, had risen 500% in the last five years. * Our foreign aid was too high. "Let Suharto put his own hand in his own pocket and help his own country out." * So far we have spent $90 million to settle a total of two Aboriginal land claims. * Mass immigration has gone off the rails and must be stopped. We must pursue a policy of net zero immigration, letting in only enough to replace the thirty thousand Australians who emigrated each year. * We must discriminate in favour of Australians. * Australia, they say, is a multicultural nation, but multiculturalism will divide us. * We must not let Australia go along this path and be like the countries that people want to leave. * One Nation will make the deportation of criminals another of our export successes. * One Nation will reindustrialise Australia. * One Nation will reform the tax system, by taxing multinational companies who currently pay little or no tax. * One Nation will not introduce a GST.
Pauline finished to a standing ovation. She only has to give this speech a few thousand more times to groups around Australia, and she will win any election. Small wonder that the entrenched power blocs and interest groups aren't willing to promote her message beyond a few seconds of a sound bite for the evening news.
Pauline spent the rest of the evening talking with people. She was nailed down to a table to sign books and posters, and everyone was able to spend as long with her as they liked. The last guest had left, and it was well after midnight before she finally said goodnight, leaving the tired but happy party workers to clear away the tables, the microphones and the posters.
All in all, an excellent night. When they write the history of the final years of the Twentieth Century, there will be two things in every history book, every television highlight show and every newspaper special edition. The first will be that wonderful image of Pauline Hanson wrapped in the Australian flag, and the second will be the phrase that she has made famous: "Please explain."
When the Canberra branch hosted Pauline to dinner, she did the explaining. She explained what is wrong with the country, and outlined her plan to get us back on track. "This is the lucky country." she said. "The harder we work, the luckier we get."