Sydney, Australia - Fresh on the heels of a federal election, Australia is preparing to welcome its most multicultural senate ever, a congress that will include three indigenous Australians and its first indigenous woman. But the senate will also feature Pauline Hanson, a controversial figure who has made a career campaigning against multiculturalism.

A former fish-and-chip shop owner from the northern state of Queensland, who seems to resonate with some blue-collar and rural voters, Hanson first came to prominence 20 years ago on a broad anti-establishment, anti-free trade, anti-immigration ticket when she became the country's first independent female member of parliament.

In her now famous maiden speech to parliament in 1996, Hanson warned that "we are in danger of being swamped by Asians … [who] have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate".

To some, Hanson seemed to be a reminder of an ugly white past Australia was trying to forget. Belittling her in the media became almost a national sport, most famously during a 60 Minute interview when she asked the presenter to "please explain" the word "xenophobe" because she didn't know what it meant. 

But it was the major parties - the ruling Liberal-National Coalition and the Opposition Labor Party - that cost Hanson her seat at the next election in 1998. They did so by colluding to place her then-new One Nation Party in the final slot of their preferences - a voting system used in Australia that stimulates a series of runoff elections when no candidate is the first choice of more than half of all voters. 

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Hanson lost her seat but didn't leave the public spotlight. In 2003, she was convicted of fraudulently obtaining nearly $500,000 Australian dollars (about $380,000) in electoral funding. But after 11 weeks in prison the conviction was overturned.

In 2004, she enjoyed a successful stint as a reality TV star on Dancing with the Stars.

In 2006, she moved to Britain but returned home after apparently discovering that Europe had been "overrun with immigrants and refugees".  

Her political ambitions remained and she ran for office more than half a dozen times - never getting the number of votes she needed.

Resurrection

But this year at the ballot box, three out of 14 million voters rejected Australia's two major party blocks - the ruling Liberal National Coalition and Labor - giving their first-preference vote to the Greens or independents.

Coupled with electoral reform that lowered the bar for getting elected to the senate from 14.3 percent to only 7.7 percent of the primary vote, Hanson was able to make a political comeback. The One Nation Party she leads already has one confirmed senate seat - her own - and could win two more by the time counting wraps up a few weeks from now.

Today, Hanson is a significantly more sophisticated politician than the polarising newcomer of 1996. She is a social media success story, who seems to have adroitly zoned in on a mood of voter dissatisfaction over issues such as the decline of Australia's manufacturing sector, the downsizing of public services, unaffordable property prices and foreign investment in primary industries and property.  

And while race remains the cornerstone of Hanson's politics, she has switched from targeting Asians to targeting Muslims.

"You can't deny the fact that in these mosques they have been known to preach hate towards us. Is that a society that we want to live in?" Hanson said at her first and only pre-election press conference. "Do you want to see terrorism on our streets here? Do you want to see our Australians murdered?"

The policies of Hanson's One Nation Party embody those fears. These include proposals to ban Muslim immigration and install surveillance cameras in existing religious schools and mosques, among others. Most controversially of all, One Nation wants a Royal Commission or inquiry into Islam.

"Don't bury your head in the sand, and think this is not going to happen. We only have to look at other countries around the world," she told Australian TV during her senate launch in June. "Let's determine if it is a religion or a political ideology trying to undermine our culture."

Criticism and backlash

Hanson's critics haven't been silent.

"A few weeks after her maiden speech in 1996, we received increased reports of racism from Chinese Australians," said Thiam Ang, the president of the Chinese Australian Forum at the time. "So we did some statistical analysis via surveys and found there had been a doubling of physical and verbal abuse and a tripling of spitting," he said. "It could happen again." 

Pakistan-born politician Mehreen Saeed Faruqi, a Greens MP, said her Muslim constituents had not reported a spike in racism. But Jeremy Jones of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, who once led a successful court case against a One Nation newspaper over an anti-Semitic article about Jewish bankers, says a spike in racism is inevitable. 

"I have documented and analysed anti-Semitism in Australia for 30 years, and the results clearly show that whenever public figures like Pauline Hanson have made disparaging racist comments about Aboriginals, Asian, African or Arab immigrants, there has been a corresponding increase in attacks against Jewish people and other minorities. It didn't matter which particular minority is targeted - the floodgates of bigotry are opened."

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has also voiced his thoughts during a press conference early this June. "Pauline Hanson is, as far as we are concerned, not a welcome presence on the Australian political scene." 

But, for some, the condemnation and press scrutiny only add to Hanson's appeal. According to One Nation national secretary, Saraya Beric, since Turnbull's comment, the senator-elect's Facebook page has received 10,000 new likes a week.

Hanson has now put the media on notice, saying that unless they stop using her as a "punching bag" she'll stop talking to reporters and use citizen journalism app Newzulu instead. "It might be another way to go, then you won't need media at all," Hanson said.

'Not that kind of backwater racist'

Speaking at a press conference last week, Australia's former prime minister, John Howard, warned pundits not to so easily discount Hanson this time around.

"I didn't agree with her when she said we were being flooded by Asians because we weren't. But I did understand she was articulating the concerns of people who felt left out, and I was critical of people who branded everybody who supported her as a racist," Howard said.

While some of her supporters say the anti-Muslim policy line appeals the most to them, others see themselves as being closer to the centre of the political spectrum. 

"She appeals to Australians who don't want immigrants taking their jobs, pressuring social change, influencing their ways of life, and so on," said supporter Antsy Lucas.

"I don't think her voter base would be lynching Asians on a farm somewhere, not that kind of backwater racist. But most of them are just fed up with seeing the Australian image diminish and their assets being sold to foreigners," Lucas added.

Zareh Ghazarian, a political scientist at Monash University, attempted to shed some light on the changing face of the typical Hanson voter. "The same kinds of anti-establishment things [Donald] Trump is saying, Pauline Hanson has been saying for years."

There is a sense among some sectors of the population, he explained, that Australia is losing its economic prowess. 

"The irony," he added, "is there has been no apparent decline in Australia's economic prosperity even though the perception still exists. The closure of auto manufacturers, land sales to Chinese investors - Hanson uses those sort of things to construct a narrative that says the country is at the mercy of decisions by big corporations."

Potential economic fallout

Hanson's One Nation Party has only one confirmed seat in the senate but is on track to win two or three more out of a total of 76 seats. It remains to be seen what this will mean in the halls of power.

Chris Salisbury, an expert on electoral history from the University of Queensland, said: "One Nation will probably have some role-playing in touchstone issues like foreign investment." 

Ghazarian agrees that the party will only have "a very marginal impact.

"But from time to time there may be some overlap in what they want and the Nationals want," he said, referring to the ruling Liberal Party's junior rural partner, "for example, greater support for farming and manufacturing."

If there's one person who might be able to read Hanson's future, it's political commentator Margo Kingston. Her 2001 book on One Nation's ill-fated 1998 electoral campaign, Off the Rails, remains the seminal introspective into the Hanson phenomenon.

"I think Hanson will have a huge impact on how Islam is discussed in Australia," Kingston said. "Right now these matters are not discussed, or only discussed by the far-right. But now it'll go mainstream."

The only way to stop these discussions from morphing into a groundswell of Islamophobia, Kingston argues, is rational debate.

"If the media and politicians genuinely attempt to bring her into the conversation, engage with her, disagree with her, then the threat can be maintained," she said. "But if they handle her like last time, without respect, support for One Nation in Australia will only increase."

Source: Al Jazeera