Justice system baffles, angers Australians

CONFUSION: The jailing of Pauline Hanson and a separate judgement giving a killer a handsome award has many wondering what the priorities of the nation's courts are


Sat, Aug 23, 2003 - Page 5

The jailing of Pauline Hanson in the same week another court awarded financial damages to a mentally-ill man who stabbed a woman to death has put Australia's justice system in the dock.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard on Friday lent his voice to the chorus of public opinion that has questioned the severity of the three-year jail-term handed down to Hanson for a breach of electoral laws.

Many have compared the sentence handed to the populist right-wing firebrand with what are widely seen as excessively lenient sentences given to violent law breakers and corporate thieves.

Although suggestions by her supporters of a conspiracy to silence her are not being taken seriously by analysts and commentators, she is nevertheless being seen by many as a political prisoner of sorts.

But Prime Minister Howard Friday rejected accusations of a witchhunt against Hanson, but criticized her sentence for electoral fraud as very severe.

"It wasn't inspired politically," he told commercial radio. "I've read this suggestion that it was a witch-hunt by the mainstream political parties. It wasn't."

Howard said he could not comment on whether Hanson's conviction was justified, but said the sentence should not turn her into a martyr.

"Like many other Australians, on the face of it, it does seem a very long unconditional sentence for what she's alleged to have done," he said. "You're dealing here with a breach of the law which is not naturally a crime."

Aboriginal leaders, often the target of Hanson's attacks, expressed satisfaction at the sentence.

Many Australian newspapers compared Hanson's treatment to the case of a man named Kevin Presland, who stabbed his brother's fiancee to death after being discharged by a hospital where he had been treated for mental illness.

Presland, who had been found not guilty of murder by reason of his mental illness, sued his local health service for releasing him prematurely and was awarded A$300,000 (US$200,000) damages by judge Michael Adams.

Presland's parents were outraged, and Sydney's Daily Telegraph tabloid asked the question in front-page banner headlines: "How can that be justice?"

Hanson and her co-accused David Etteridge had denied fraudlently registering her One Nation political party in Queensland, claiming it had 500 members when the 500 were not members of the party but supporters.

The fraud earned the party A$500,000 dollars in public funding -- subsequently repaid -- and undermined the political process, according to judge Patsy Wolfe.

Political journalist Margo Kingston, author of an unauthorized biography of Hanson but no supporter, said she was stunned by the sentence and the judge's comment. "The political process was undermined long ago," Kingston said.

Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, election analyst Anthony Green said Hanson's breach of "club" rules was technical rather than deceit.

Many other commentators have said electoral fraud goes on in mainstream politics and that some of the most prominent politicians up to and including a recent prime minister have benefited from it.

Labor frontbencher Mark Latham said Hanson had campaigned at the recent New South Wales electon for tougher penalties. "Now she's got one," he said.