It was 10.15 on Monday morning, and the true believers of Australia’s “patriot movement” weren’t happy.
United Patriots Front (UPF) leader Blair Cottrell, along with Chris Shortis and Neil Erikson, were in court contesting various charges arising from a stunt outside a Bendigo Council building in October 2015.
Proceedings were meant to start at 9.30am. But 45 minutes later, approximately 40 UPF supporters, along with the media and a small number of inconspicuous anti-fascists, were crammed together outside Court 19 on the somewhat overheated fifth floor of the Melbourne Magistrates Court.
When the crowd had begun to line up at 9.30, it was told there was room for only 27 members of the public, due to the size of the room. This was, it was loudly agreed, an outrage: the latest attack on free speech and democracy by the cultural Marxist legal establishment, quite possibly in league with the ABC and the climate change lobby.
These foot soldiers for freedom weren’t about to queue in an orderly manner to resolve the question of who was and wasn’t going to get in. Queuing, after all, is socialism. Instead, we crowded around the entrance – an irritable and increasingly sweaty mob jostling for position.
Adding indignity to injustice, the court remained closed. Technical problems, we were told. It turned out the courtroom telly was on the blink.
And even when the court finally opened, there was a complex procedure for gaining access, which involved having your licence scanned, being filmed and having to go through a metal detector scan (on top of the one required when you enter the court building).
The upshot was that I got to spend an hour of my life in closer proximity to the far right than anyone should really have to.
They are bonkers. The woman I was standing next to was Megan Fatchen, a “patriot” from the Latrobe Valley. She became outraged when notorious neo-Nazi Jim Saleam jumped the queue and got admitted to the court on the basis that he was Shortis’ adviser. “He’s a full Nazi. We’re whatever, but we’re not Nazis”, she spluttered. Though it wasn’t his Nazism that most annoyed her. “What’s he the president of? I’m the fucking president!” Of what, who knows? I didn’t ask.
Eventually, I got into the courtroom. So did the mainstream media, although not without a battle. Megan and her mates had tried to elbow the media out of the queue on the grounds that “only patriots” had a right to get into the court. When one young journalist did make it to the door, Megan blocked her way: “You’re not coming in here Blondie”, she yelled. The bemused journalist eventually secured her seat with the assistance of court security.
It was an interesting assemblage.
Saleam, elder statesman of Australian Nazism, was up the front with Shortis and his solicitor, the latter an emaciated and slightly more ghoulish version of Eric Abetz.
Along the back were the assorted oddball personalities of the far right. It was stereotypes on parade.
There was the pale, skinny kid with a fluffy mullet poking out the back of his Make Australia Great Again cap, his high-school-massacre-perp eyes aching for a nod of recognition from his heroes in the front row.
Dangerous looking bonehead thugs sat alongside basement keyboard warriors, whose khaki pants and “Aussie Infidel” T-shirts looked like they were seeing the light of day for the first time.
One hero, a 20-something goon wearing an XXL sized “deplorables” T-shirt, oddly offset by a blue-dyed goatee, shuffled in late. He might have gone unnoticed if the Benny Hill ringtone hadn’t erupted from his mobile a few seconds after he sat down.
When the magistrate, John Hardy, finally walked in, there was an audible collective gasp. Hardy is, at first glance, a dead ringer for Karl Marx. On closer inspection, he’s actually more of a Dumbledore, but it was clearly the spectre of communism that occurred to those assembled as they surveyed Hardy’s long bushy beard.
Proceedings soon got under way. Shortis, Cottrell and Erikson were representing themselves. Erikson leapt to his feet to call for the charges to be dismissed immediately. The magistrate suggested we hear what the charges were first.
The three were charged with wilful damage and defacing property under the Summary Offences Act, as well as “inciting serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule of” Muslims, which is an offence under the 2001 Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act.
By the time the reading of charges was out of the way, Erikson appeared to have forgotten about his motion to dismiss.
Instead, Shortis got to his feet to argue that the director of public prosecutions should be compelled to appear as a witness to explain why he had brought charges against the three. Shortis’ argumentation for this motion, which he read out from typed pages, consisted of numbered points, and ranged from a discussion of the Victorian Charter of Human Rights to the Australian Constitution. By the time he reached point 35 of his incomprehensible rant, the magistrate had his head in his hands.
And on it went. Three fascist kooks with a vastly over-inflated sense of their own capabilities representing themselves in court was every bit as farcical as you would imagine. Their initial enthusiasm for courtroom theatrics waned as it became evident even to them that they had no idea what they were doing.
By day two, they were looking distinctly the worse for wear. Shortis confided to a supporter outside the court that the first day was “a bit bruising”. He at least turned up on time, unlike Erikson, who arrived 20 minutes late, complaining “They confiscated my flag – said it was a weapon!”
The first day had concluded with the prosecution resting, having established the basic facts of the case. These, essentially uncontested, were that the accused had, on 4 October 2015, made a video of themselves conducting a mock beheading outside the Bendigo Council offices in protest against a proposed mosque. In the video, the accused had clearly associated Islam in general with Islamic State beheadings (the basis of the severe religious vilification charge) and spilt a substance (fake blood) over the pathway and windows of the council offices (the basis of the defacement/wilful damage charges).
Day two was meant to be the day of the defence. But those hoping for a William Wallace moment were to be sorely disappointed. Shortis got up to inform the court that he had decided not to give evidence in his own defence, and that he had no other defence to offer or witnesses to call.
Defending yourself in court isn’t as crazy as some make out – on occasion it has been done to great effect. But if you are going to do it, the one iron rule is that you can’t then chicken out of actually defending yourself.
But here we were. A few terse words on the previous day from a magistrate who, despite being a member of one of the most sadistic institutions of modern history, managed to come across as kind of a softy, and these champions of the white race couldn’t even bring themselves to take the stand in their own defence.
Somewhat taken aback, the magistrate asked if Cottrell and Erikson had also decided not to mount a defence. Cottrell, who had arrived at court puffy faced and glassy eyed, mustered his best legal tone: “I concur with my colleague”, he said. “It’s not a matter of concurring, what are you going to do?”, Hardy retorted testily. “I no longer wish to give evidence”, Cottrell muttered.
And there it was, total defeat for the fascist goon show. Hooray! It didn’t really feel like that though. As the magistrate handed down a guilty verdict – the first ever conviction under section 24 of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act – and a $2,000 fine to all three men, it was hard to avoid the feeling that this was a completely counterproductive way to combat the far right.
It was easy to mock the idiotic, Hitler-worshipping morons on trial. Their utterly incompetent self-defence, their brain-dead supporters, their clearly fascist political agenda, all invited contempt.
But what were they actually charged with? The substantive claim was that they equated Islam as a whole with the violent and reactionary practices of the Islamic State. There is no denying that this is offensive, racist and plain wrong.
But wrong as it is, it is also the political position taken by a significant section of the Australian right.
Andrew Bolt is hardly capable of putting pen to paper without claiming all Muslims are to blame for the Islamic State. Miranda Devine is the same, if marginally less literate.
Pauline Hanson, a member of the Australian Senate, says, “Remember, there is only one religion across the globe blowing children up and cutting off infidels heads [sic]. That’s Islam”.
Tony Abbott, the former prime minister, has in the last few weeks demanded ASIO stop “tiptoeing around” Islam and be “open and upfront” about the links between Islam and terrorism.
Are we going to lock them all up? Of course we aren’t – if by “we” you mean the Victorian director of public prosecutions who pursued this case. Those people are off limits.
But the truth is the politicians and the mainstream media commentators do more to “incite serious contempt for, or revulsion or serious ridicule of” Muslims than Cottrell, Shortis and Erikson ever will. Although these journalists and politicians try to present themselves as “anti-establishment”, they are as establishment as it gets. Hating Muslims is the ABC of Australian politics.
After sitting in court listening to these goons for two days, I can say unequivocally that I’m glad they didn’t win their case. If they had, it would have been a victory for bigoted idiocy everywhere, and put wind in their hate-soaked sails.
But I’m not happy they lost, either. It was a case that did nothing to combat racism or fascism, and served only to make martyrs of the fascist right and allow them to posture as defenders of free speech. It should never have been brought to trial.