Australia’s Hanson facing fraud charges

IPSWICH, Australia, Reuters

Australia’s right-wing political firebrand Pauline Hanson said on Friday she was facing fraud charges but would fight on to try to win a place in the national parliament at an expected year-end election.

“I am not guilty and I will fight,” a tearful and shaken Hanson told reporters after being summoned to court on charges relating to the illegal registration of her One Nation party in 1997.

“I am not going to let them beat me,” she said.

Police would not release details of the charges which are to be formally laid in court on July 31, but Hanson said she faced three counts relating to the illegal registration of One Nation and to the payment of state electoral funds.

The populist, who stormed national politics with a grab-bag of anti-immigration and anti-Aboriginal welfare policies, faces up to 10 years in jail if convicted and the prospect of retiring in disgrace from her high-profile political career.

Under the Australian constitution, anyone convicted and sentenced for an offense punishable by imprisonment of one year or longer, cannot sit in the national parliament.

“If I am found guilty I have no choice but to opt out of politics,” she conceded. “I am finished.”

The fraud charges are the latest in a series of blows suffered by Hanson, a former fish and chip shop owner who sparked a wave of support in struggling rural areas five years ago.

Her One Nation party grabbed international attention when its xenophobic policies drew support from mainstream politicians in the last national election in 1998, and won the support of a million of Australia’s 19 million people, or 8.4 percent of the vote.

But she lost her own parliamentary seat at the election and One Nation’s popularity has waned amid infighting and a series of legal troubles, including a 1999 Supreme Court ruling that the party had been fraudulently registered in Queensland state.

Latest opinion polls show support of only about four percent for One Nation which opposes immigration, free trade and special welfare provisions for Aborigines and wants to relax gun laws.

However One Nation did capture nearly 10 percent of the vote in a state election in Western Australia earlier this year, viewed as an avenue for protest votes against the major parties.

Hanson was forced by the ruling to return about A$500,000 (US$255,000) in state electoral funding.

Speaking in Ipswich, near Brisbane, where she launched her political career in 1995, Hanson said she had “half-expected” the charges when police culminated a 21-month investigation by serving a summons at her property outside the town on Thursday.

“It was quite annoying, they interrupted my afternoon walk,” she said.

Hanson said she had been given misleading advice when she registered One Nation and declared the charges had been timed to thwart her bid to run for a seat in the national parliament’s upper house Senate in the coming election.