The nativist One Nation party has gained seats in Australia's Senate. Its four newly elected senators will give the rightist fringe party of Pauline Hanson unprecedented influence in the closely divided upper house.
The Australian Electoral Commission finalized the outcome of the July 2 national election on Thursday, showing a closely divided Senate with the openly anti-Islam One Nation party likely to emerge as a crucial tie breaker.
That's because Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's conservative coalition saw its Senate numbers shrink from 33 to 30 in the 76-seat upper chamber. The opposition center-left Labor Party has 26 senators and the Greens party has nine senators.
Turnbull will need the support of at least nine of the remaining 11 senators to pass any laws and will likely look to One Nation's controversial leader Pauline Hanson for support in pushing his agenda, which already includes the total rejection of asylum-seekers arriving by boat.
Her unexpectedly influential position after an indecisive election - Hanson and a small handful of others will likely form a bloc whose vote would determine the passage or rejection of legislation - mean that mainstream politicians ignore her at their peril.
Fear of attack fuels the far-right
Regular discussions about the danger posed by violent Islamists has entered Australia's mainstream, helping to fuel the far-right. Duncan Lewis, director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, told a parliamentary committee in May that as many 59 Australians had been killed fighting with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
That occurrence has led many ordinary Australians - and influential television personalities- to come out in favor of Hanson's Muslim immigration ban, stirring fierce debate on prime-time television and on social media.
Foreshadowing her newfound influence, Hanson released a video message Monday after meeting the premier, telling her supporters they had discussed several policies and that he was "prepared to listen to me."
An unapologetically tough-talking former chip shop owner, Hanson was first elected to the parliament 20 years ago. In her first speech, she said she believed Australia was in danger of being "swamped by Asians."
Echoes of Donald Trump
Pauline Hanson, once dismissed as a fringe figure, now commands four seats in Australia's sharply divided Senate, giving her unprecedented influence
Some of Hanson's policies mirror US presidential hopeful Donald Trump's, including a halt on Muslim immigration. The 62-year-old from Brisbane, who left school at 15, also says mosques and schools should be under mandatory video surveillance and favors banning the wearing of women's burqa and niqab veils in public.
Brian Burston, who represents One Nation in New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, said that a moratorium on Muslim immigration was needed to alleviate community fear.
"You can't discern between the different groups, and you don't know whether there's ISIS infiltrators in any of them," Burston said. "The weapon of choice now is a truck. What next? It's just frightening."
Race relations in Australia remain tense and there are fears that the openly xenophobic policies of One Nation could incite violence on the street.
In another parallel with Trump, the One Nation leader's public appearances have attracted protesters and supporters in numbers rarely seen in Australian politics.
One Nation Sen. Malcolm Roberts told a news conference Thursday that the country's anti-racial discrimination laws should be changed because, he said, they limited free speech.
"When we have free speech curbed, we don't talk about the real issues - tax, Islam, terrorism, the economy," Roberts said.
That's led to a sense of fear among immigrants like Afghan-born Muhammad Taqi Haidari, from Afghanistan's Shiite Muslim Hazara minority. He told the Reuters news agency that he no longer tells people his name is Muhammad, preferring to use Taqi.
"When there is a problem like in Paris and now in Nice, they hear the name Muhammad. They include me as one of those Muhammads," said Haidari, who lives in Sydney.
The widening abuse scandal at the Don Dale youth detention center in Northern Territory highlights concern about the disproportionate numbers of young Aborigines in custody and the treatment of Aborigines in general
Australia's dark past and troubled present
Outwardly easygoing, Australia has a troubling race relations record. The White Australia Policy, which was only dismantled in the late 1960s, favored European migrants over non-whites. Australia's Aborigines were administered under environmental conservation laws and even today remain far behind the rest of the population in literacy, health, employment and economic standards.
There have also been outbreaks of racist-fueled violence before. In 2005, riots broke out in the Sydney beachside suburb of Cronulla between white residents and Lebanese from other suburbs.
Muhammad Ali, a 30-year-old Afghan who lives in Sydney, said Hanson's party's anti-Islam comments were already putting people at risk.
"Hanson has a right to speak," Ali said. "But will she take responsibility for what happens as a result of her words?"
jar/kl (AP, Reuters, dpa)