Backers of Jailed Australian Politician Claim 'Witch Hunt'

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Australians of all political persuasions were pondering the fate Thursday of one of the country's most controversial politicians, who's been sent to jail for three years for electoral fraud.

Pauline Hanson, founder of the anti-immigration One Nation party, spent her first night in a police cell in the Queensland state capital, Brisbane, before being moved to a women's prison on Thursday.

Hanson was convicted of fraudulently registering One Nation as a political party in 1997, and fraudulently obtaining almost 500,000 Australian dollars ($325,000) in electoral funds.

Her deputy, David Ettridge, was also sentenced to three years' imprisonment for the party registration offence.

"Rubbish! I'm not guilty," declared the 49-year-old Hanson after the jury delivered its verdict. "It's a joke."

In a statement characterizing One Nation's lively approach to politics, the party Thursday compared her plight to that of South Africa's Nelson Mandela, jailed for almost three decades for his opposition to white minority rule.

Her sentencing was "a landmark decision not seen since Nelson Mandela was thrown in jail for representing the views of the oppressed voice of South Africa," it said. "Pauline now sits in jail for following the same ideals."

One Nation suggested Hanson was the victim of a campaign by the political establishment to "knock her down," saying her earlier electoral success had "sent shivers down the spines" of spin-doctors of the two main parties, Labor and Liberal.

One Nation's website Thursday carried dozens of messages from supporters, who variously called the verdict an "outrage" and "a travesty of justice," and said Hanson was the victim of "a political witch hunt."

Even correspondents who said they as strongly oppose Hanson's politics expressed their shock at the sentence, and several charged that Australian courts appeared to have difficulty handing down jail terms to violent criminals, but in this case jailed two people who had done no harm.

Patriot or racist?

Hanson and Ettridge will have to serve at least 18 months before being eligible for parole.

Hanson is planning to appeal, but if that fails, this week's court decision brings an end to her political career, as convicted criminals are banned from standing for state or federal parliament.

A former fish-and-chips store owner, Hanson emerged in the 1990s with a message that Australia was in danger of being "swamped" by Asian immigrants. Shunned by mainstream political parties, she found strong support among voters.

The outspoken red-head and mother of four was disowned by Prime Minister John Howard's Liberal Party just weeks before a 1996 election she was contesting on its behalf. She went on to win the federal parliamentary seat as an independent.

Her provocative maiden speech in parliament that September was entitled "Wake Up Australia!"

She denounced government immigration policies, political-correctness and "multicultural" policies which she saw as pandering to Australia's indigenous Aboriginals.

"I believe we are in danger of being swamped by Asians," Hanson said. "Of course, I will be called racist but, if I can invite whom I want into my home, then I should have the right to have a say in who comes into my country."

The speech also urged Howard's newly-elected government to review Australia's membership and funding of the United Nations.

"It is refreshing to be able to express my views without having to toe a party line," she said. "It has got me into trouble on the odd occasion, but I am not going to stop saying what I think."

Hanson's views brought strong reactions, with supporters hailing her as a gutsy maverick who appealed to the concerns of working-class Australians, while opponents labeled her a xenophobe and racist.

The following year Hanson set up One Nation, which did unexpectedly well in Queensland state elections, winning 11 parliamentary seats and becoming the state's third-largest party in terms of voter support at that time.

But in federal elections in 1998, neither she nor One Nation won a single seat in the national parliament in Canberra.

Hanson blamed the failure on Howard's tough new policies on illegal asylum-seekers, saying the conservative prime minister had stolen her policies.

Facing fraud allegations last year, she announced her retirement, but early this year attempted a comeback by standing for a parliamentary seat in another state, New South Wales.

Hanson campaigned on a firm law-and-order ticket, but lost to a candidate representing the interests of gun-owners.

Despite having been plagued by in-fighting, One Nation still holds several state seats.

'No martyr'

The premier of Queensland, Laborite Peter Beattie, urged Hanson's supporters to accept the decision of the court.

"There will be people who will see her as being martyred," he said. "I just say to all those people who think that way, that this process has been followed in accordance with the law."

Beattie denied that the major political parties had anything to do with the situation Hanson and Ettridge found themselves in.

"This was all their own work," he said.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer also denied the sentence was politically-driven, telling Australian radio it should not make Hanson "a martyr."

Other political reaction to the sentence was mixed, with some Liberal and Labor lawmakers voicing the view that it seemed unnecessarily harsh and excessive.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow