Race looms ahead of Australian election

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CANBERRA, Oct 4 (Reuters) Australia's decision to freeze its African refugee intake is a sign race issues may taint looming elections, a political analyst said, as the country's rights watchdog today called the ruling ''un-Australian''.

Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews yesterday said refugees from Africa -- including many from Sudan's conflict-torn Darfur region -- were not integrating in Australia, including communities in politically-sensitive regional electorates.

''The ugly issues of race have always bee n simmering in the background, if not the foreground. It's very hard not to see the timing any other way than playing fairly directly the race card,'' political analyst Norman Abjorensen told Reuters. Andrews, whose government faces re-election before December, said Sudanese gangs were causing criminal problems and Canberra would now accept refugees only from conflict areas nearer home, such as Iraq and Myanmar, until at least July 2008.

Human Rights Commissioner Graham Innes said there was no evidence Sudanese were causing more problems than other refugees.

''I think it is troubling to single out one community or group as not settling and integrating well and it is not the Australian way to deal with refugees,'' Innes told local radio. Abjorensen, from the Australian National University, said Andrews' decision pointed to a return of the race politics championed by firebrand Pauline Hanson a decade ago.

Hanson, 53, a former fish-and-chip shop owner turned lawmaker, will run for the Upper House Senate in the coming election. Earlier this year she called for an end to African and Muslim immigration and said her views still had wide support.

Abjorensen said the voters Hanson appealed to when she was first elected to parliament, targeting Asian immigration, were still ''very much around'', although many of her ideas had been absorbed by Australia's conservative government.

A government decision this year to seize control of remote aboriginal communities in the outback Northern Territory would appeal to ''Hansonist voters'' in the electorally critical northern state of Queensland, he said.

''I think the effect of Pauline Hanson and One Nation is still very much being felt,'' Abjorensen said.

Prime Minister John Howard, 11 years in power, secured a come-from-behind victory in 2001 after ordering the military to block boats carrying asylum seekers and send them for refugee processing in nearby Pacific nations Nauru and Papua New Guinea.

The hardline policy became known as the Pacific Solution and critics accused Howard of using race-based politics to haul back a polling lead by the opposition Labor Party and turn it into the biggest swing to an incumbent government since 1966.

Howard, 68, is well behind Labor in the leadup to this year's election and polls show he may lose his Sydney-based seat, which has been re-drawn to include many suburbs with large numbers of Asian immigrant voters.

Howard angered many Asian-Australians while in opposition in 1988 by warning the pace of Asian immigration was too fast, adding it not ''wrong, racist, immoral or anything'' for a country to decide its own cultural destiny.

Reuters PD DB1028

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