Comedy Company at the Magistrates’ Court as fascists wait for hearing
Comedy Company at the Magistrates’ Court as fascists wait for hearing

“It’s no different to what was on the Paul Hogan show or the Comedy Company.” Steven Joyce is standing on the footpath outside the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court. He’s here to support far right United Patriots Front (UPF) members Blair Cottrell, Chris Shortis and Neil Erikson.

The trio have been charged over their role in producing a video “with the intention of inciting serious contempt for, or revulsion or severe ridicule” of Muslims, and other minor offences. In the recording, filmed in 2015, UPF members behead a dummy outside of the Bendigo council building, in protest against the building of a Mosque in the town.

Ten feet away from Joyce and other supporters of the UPF, the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) is holding a protest of around 30 people. They’re chanting, “No Nazis! Never again!” and “Muslims are welcome, racists are not!”

To their rear, a lone young man in asics gel sneakers and a red flannel shirt starts to belt out the national anthem. The tune doesn’t catch on and he gives up before even getting to the golden soil. It’s low energy stuff from a member of the Master Race.

Another man remonstrates with the protesters. “Traitorous scum!”, he bellows. “They’re chanting about ‘solidarity’”, he tells a scrum of photographers. “You can’t have solidarity and diversity – it’s one or the other.”

The police have mobilised dozens of officers to shut down the front of the building. Everyone needs to show ID to gain entry to the proceedings.

Inside, more than 50 of the fascist trio’s allies begin filing into court two. “I was in One Nation for seven years. Not anymore, but that’s where I cut my teeth”, says a man, chatting to a fellow supporter. “It’s the Asians who are really killing us. They’re buying up everything …”

The defendants arrive to applause. Members of the True Blue Crew and the Soldiers of Odin, vigilante-style fascist street gangs, and an assortment of others fill the court to standing room only. There’s a bearded man in a long white smock bearing the cross of St George, which makes the setting feel more Monty Python than Comedy Company. You’d say it’s a who’s who of the Victorian far right.

Today is a preliminary hearing, which will set the date for a full hearing of the charges. Shortis, Erikson and Cottrell are defending themselves. They aren’t doing a brilliant job of it. Erikson, indicting himself as a poseur, tells deputy chief magistrate Jelena Popovic that the whole affair has become a “show pony trial” and asks whether he can get premier Daniel Andrews subpoenaed as a witness. Both he and Shortis argue for the case to be thrown out. Popovic refuses.

“She’s been bought off”, mutters St George.

The trio are no doubt aware that a barrister would be better equipped to prosecute the legal arguments. But there’s a reason they have refused counsel – they want the platform for themselves to rally their supporters.

The hearing comes less than two weeks after the UPF Facebook page was shut down and the personal accounts of a number of members removed. Almost everyone in the room believes that this is a witch hunt and a case of state persecution.

This is a motley crew, and easily ridiculed. But there is no doubt that they are dangerous. They want to build a movement that can organise and incite violence against Muslims in particular; they want the freedom to create insecurity, fear and bigotry. If their ranks grew to some hundreds, they would be emboldened to act more viciously than they have to date.

But there’s a problem with the state laying charges over the video. Arguably, the fascists are right to cry foul on the denial of freedom of expression. And the proceedings could give them a greater profile to make their case. As one True Blue Crew member was overheard saying on the way into the room: “No publicity is bad publicity.”

That’s not always true, but in this case it might be: these grotesque, violent thugs are playing martyrs and their sympathisers have been given something to rally around. Despite the examples of racist bigotry that can be overheard in and around the court, free speech is the overarching topic of discussion among the far right here today; a carnival of fascists for democracy.

It is utterly perverse, but they have been given that hand to play and they are playing it for all it’s worth.

In the court, Shortis remonstrates that these are minor summary offences and the fact that the proceedings are being dragged out for two years shows the prosecution has an ulterior motive. Popovic seems to half agree, wondering out loud why the case is being heard in Melbourne, rather than in Bendigo, where the offences occurred.

Lots of nodding and audible agreement follow from the gallery. “Justice delayed is justice denied”, Popovic pointedly says to the prosecuting attorney. Expect to hear that phrase repeated between now and the hearing. When she reads out a list of possible appointments to have the case heard as quickly as possible, the first is 11 September.

“September 11!”, another bearded man gushes from the floor. The room howls with glee – how perfect it would be to defend themselves on the anniversary of the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre and the Pentagon.

Thankfully there is an earlier date.

Outside, CARF spokesperson Chris Di Pasquale says, “They’re going on about free speech. We support free speech, and that’s why we’re here – to make sure that whenever fascists express and try to organise around their vile views, they will be met with a very loud counter argument”.

The full hearing will be held on 4-6 September in Melbourne.

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