Healthy democracy allows all views to be heard

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 December, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 08 December, 2006, 12:00am

Australian politician Pauline Hanson is proof enough that her country is a democracy. Her outspoken views on immigration and racial issues have had her branded controversial - or worse - and won her international notoriety, but that was no bar to her winning election to Parliament a decade ago.

A hallmark of democracy is, after all, that as wide as possible a range of opinions can be heard. Some people may consider the views offensive, as has frequently been the case with Ms Hanson's, but as long as the law is not infringed, such utterances are permissible. Another key element of a democracy is that voters get to choose who represents them and Ms Hanson failed to win re-election to the House of Representatives in 1998 and has since been unsuccessful twice in gaining a seat on the Senate.

She announced on Wednesday she would contest the next federal parliamentary election - just days before the first anniversary of Australia's worst race riots at the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla. Her announcement served as a reminder that Ms Hanson has not mellowed from the days when she was telling Asian immigrants to stay away and advocating the withdrawal of benefits for indigenous Australians. On Wednesday she accused immigrants from South Africa of having HIV/Aids and alleged that government policies towards Muslims were infringing on Australian traditions.

Although the accuracy of such observations is questionable, they strike a chord with the unemployed and Australians who feel a loss of identity with growing multiculturalism. Concern about Muslim extremism is also high on the country's agenda, given its support for the US-led 'war on terror'.

As in the past, the former leader of the now-defunct One Nation party has also angered the tolerant majority of Australians, alienated ethnic communities and harmed Australia's overseas image. But whether harmful or hurtful, or trying to garner publicity or win votes, Ms Hanson is at liberty to make such remarks under Australia's democratic principles. Freedom of expression includes the right to 'offend, shock or disturb'. This is a hallmark of a democratic, pluralistic society. But the freedom comes with responsibilities. A line should be drawn at hate speech or the inciting of violence.

What is and is not acceptable is difficult to define because of the differing opinions that democracies foster. Suffice to say that the same week that Ms Hanson emerged from the political shadows, Australia's opposition Labor Party elected Kevin Rudd, an Asia-friendly, Putonghua-speaking former diplomat, as its leader.

Free speech is essential in a democracy and Ms Hanson's return to the political arena with her familiar rhetoric proves the country remains true to those principles. As objectionable as her beliefs may be, as long as there are opposing voices, democracy is functioning as it should.