Australian politicians in the service of fascism

Just in case the Liberal cabinet’s endorsement of president Trump wasn’t clear enough, the PM’s office has suspended an administrative staffer over a three-month-old Facebook post of a “Tuck Frump” T-shirt.

In doing so, Turnbull is acting out a proud Australian tradition of backing the racist and repressive stances of other governments. Turnbull’s appeasement of Trump mirrors the attitude of Australian politicians to Hitler and Mussolini before World War Two. These people rarely met a right wing policy they didn’t like.

In 1923, the premier of Victoria, Harry Lawson, had a private audience with Mussolini in which he expressed his “keen sympathy with the fascist movement”. A cavalcade of Australian political leaders did likewise in the early years of the Nazi regime in Germany. The Liberal and Country League premier of South Australia, R.H. Butler, visited Germany in the mid-1930s and was “especially impressed by the Youth Labour Camps”. The right wing Labor premier of Tasmania, Albert Ogilvie, had a similar reaction.

Wilfred Kent Hughes was more overt in his expression of establishment attitudes. A former captain of Melbourne Grammar, Rhodes scholar, president of the Victorian branch of the Young Nationalists, minister in the Victorian cabinet and later the Menzies government, Hughes in 1933 wrote a series of columns in the Melbourne Herald under the heading “Why I have become a fascist”. In his view, “Industrial peace and security have been found to be worth the price of sacrificing some of the individual liberty previously enjoyed”.

While Hughes was proclaiming his fascism, Hitler was abolishing civil liberties, allowing the Nazis to detain opponents and ban other political parties. Trade unions had also been outlawed, socialists, communists and other dissidents were being imprisoned, and racist legislation targeted Jews and other minorities.

Yet Hughes’ public support for fascism failed to damage his political career: he was elected Victorian deputy leader of the United Australia Party in 1935.

The attorney-general at the time, future prime minister Robert Menzies, visited Nazi Germany in 1938, and came home gushing about the “really spiritual quality in the willingness of the Germans to devote themselves to the service and well-being of the state”.

At the time of Menzies’ visit the Nuremberg laws had been in place for three years, meaning that Jews were no longer citizens and could neither vote in elections nor marry Germans. As late as 1939, prime minister Menzies was still declaring at public addresses: “History will label Hitler as one of the really great men of the century”.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Australia’s rulers found it easy to come to terms with dictatorial regimes, consciously endorsing repression and racism. Today, Turnbull isn’t just refusing to criticise the Trump administration for its racist new policies: he has sided with them.