ASIO, police and politicians give cover to the fascist threat

22 April 2021
Dave Bishop

After largely being driven from the streets of Australia’s major cities by the efforts of anti-fascist activists, the far right has splintered. Unable to publicly mobilise and recruit supporters in large numbers, extreme rightists have turned to a narrower range of activities. For some, it is producing racist stickers and graffiti. For others, it has meant a turn to terroristic violence.

Just over a year after the first mobilisations by the coalition of far-right groups known as Reclaim Australia (and counter-mobilisations by anti-fascist activists) in April 2015, Melbourne man Philip Galea was arrested and charged with planning and preparing a terrorist attack targeting left-wing institutions including Trades Hall. Galea was at one time the Facebook page administrator for Reclaim Australia and openly consorted with leading members of fascist organisations such as the United Patriots Front and True Blue Crew.

Brenton Tarrant, the Australian who murdered 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019, connected with leading members of the Australian far right online during the same period. Although he never attended a rally, Tarrant expressed deep admiration for the United Patriots Front on social media. He was nearly recruited into the Lads Society (founded in 2017) by Tom Sewell, who today leads the National Socialist Network (NSN).

Since 2019, there have been several indications of the threat posed by far-right violence in Australia. In January, the NSN organised a camping trip to the Grampians in western Victoria, during which around 40 fascists burned a cross and chanted “White power” and “Heil Hitler”. Subsequent reporting led, in early March, to the assault of a Nine News security guard by Sewell and a follower. Then, in early April, two members of the NSN were arrested in anti-terror raids at their homes in South Australia. South Australian police reported the discovery of bomb-making material and fascist propaganda.

Given the potential for further violence, from either organised fascists like Sewell or more “lone wolf” types like Tarrant, it’s unsurprising that Australia’s far right is attracting more attention from the state. In a February speech in Canberra, Mike Burgess, the director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), warned: “In Australia, the extreme right-wing threat is real, and it is growing. In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology”. Late last year, ASIO reported that between 30 and 40 percent of their anti-terror caseload was focused on the domestic far right.

ASIO’s increasing focus on far-right extremism has, however, proven unpalatable to mainstream politicians on the right. Peter Dutton, for instance, has made clear his displeasure at having the far right singled out in this way. In response to Burgess’ February 2020 speech, in which there is no mention of left-wing extremism at all, the then home affairs minister said: “If somebody is going to cause harm to Australians, I just don’t care whether they’re on the far right, far left, [or] somewhere in between”, and whether it’s “right-wing lunatics or left-wing lunatics ... my responsibility is to make sure our agencies are dealing with it, and they are”.

It appears that the pressure applied by Dutton and others has had its intended effect, Burgess recently announcing a change in terminology. “We are seeing a growing number of individuals and groups that don’t fit on the left-right spectrum at all”, he said. From now on, ASIO will refer to all forms of political violence simply as “ideological extremism” rather than right-wing or left-wing extremism.

The rhetorical contortions necessary to turn the threat of right-wing violence into a more general supposed threat of “extremism” extending across the political spectrum was on full display during Burgess’ appearance at Senate estimates in March. In response to an assertion by Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells that “Nazis and National Socialism are not right wing” and that “any understanding of basic history is that National Socialism ... is left wing in origin”, Burgess replied that he agreed that “the [more] extreme right you go, you probably end up on the extreme left”.

ASIO’s change in terminology can be understood only as an attempt to placate the “parliamentary wing” (i.e. Dutton and Co.) of Australia’s far right. Just weeks before the change was announced, ASIO’s own submission to a parliamentary inquiry on extremism indicated that there has been no change in its assessment of the threats posed by right-wing and left-wing extremism respectively. The submission mentions “left-wing extremism” twice—once to define it and once to note that “left-wing extremism is not currently prominent in Australia”. In contrast, in the words of the submission:

“The threat from extreme right-wing groups and individuals in Australia has increased, and ASIO continues to see more people drawn to and adopting extreme right-wing ideologies. The 2019 Christchurch attack continues to be drawn on for inspiration by right-wing extremists, both in Australia and internationally.”

Yet ASIO’s terminological shift will provide cover for politicians like Dutton who have built careers stoking nationalism and racist hate, thereby giving the far right further space to grow.

Worse than ASIO, police in Victoria haven’t been content with a terminological fudging of the difference between the far left and the far right. In its submission to the same parliamentary inquiry, Victoria Police contradicted ASIO on the threat posed by the left. According to its analysis, left-wing extremism is a serious threat, with domestic activists “mimicking overseas based ... movements (such as ANTIFA) to justify the use of violence to promote civil unrest and target perceived enemy groups”.

The argument is that left-wing and right-wing extremism represent equal threats to the public and exist in “a symbiotic relationship” with one another. It is absolute rubbish: socialist and anti-fascist activists have been busy organising regular peaceful protests in support of refugees locked up in Melbourne’s Park Hotel, while members of Tom Sewell’s NSN were marching through the Grampians chanting “Heil Hitler” or were at home gathering materials for the construction of bombs. There is no comparison.

The real “symbiotic relationship” is that which exists between far-right extremists like Sewell, mainstream politicians like Dutton and the corporate media that provide them with a platform to spew their messages of hate.

It’s no surprise that such an (accurate) assessment of the dynamics fuelling the growth of the far right in Australia would be beyond the capacities of Victoria Police. Indications are that the force itself may be riddled with far-right sympathisers. At least two officers demonstrated their allegiances during the blockade of the International Mining and Resources Conference in Melbourne in 2019. One of them, constable Travis Gray, flashed an “okay” hand signal that has been used by neo-Nazis (including, during a court appearance, Christchurch mosque shooter Brenton Tarrant) as a symbol for “white power”. Gray was later found to be operating a Facebook page covered in far-right memes.

As the Christchurch massacre clearly demonstrated, Australia’s far right poses a real and immediate threat. But we can’t expect ASIO, the police or the right-wing politicians who direct them to do anything much about it. To them, despite the left’s focus on mass movements, rather than violence, to drive change, we will always be “public enemy number one”.

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