The murderous act of terror in New Zealand’s Christchurch has put the spotlight firmly on far-right groups in neighbouring Australia, the country to which the 28-year-old white supremacist suspect of the carnage belonged.
For years, the media and politicians did not pay attention to right-wing extremism. The threat it posed to the Australian society was downplayed, sometimes pointing to the supposedly bigger risk of domestic terrorist attacks committed by extremist Muslims.
Admittedly, one reason for the neglect was that far-right groups in Australia didn’t enjoy the kind of popularity and electoral success such outfits had in Europe and North America. That does not mean that far-right extremism and its core underlying ideology of racism and white supremacy was absent in Australia.
As a colonialised country built on the violent dispossession of Aboriginal peoples, Australia has a long history of racism. In fact, a founding principle of Australia—as a British colony and also as a sovereign nation—was to turn the allegedly terra nullis (empty land) into a white continent. The first law the new parliament passed in 1901established the White Australia policy that sought to populate the continent through exclusively white, European immigration.
The dismantling of this racist policy began only in the 1960s and ultimately led to the evolution of multicultural policies in the 1970s. “White Australia is dead. Give me a shovel and I bury it”, were the famous words of immigration minister Al Green in 1973. While the White Australia policy ended here, it certainly did not mean the end of racism or white superiority.
Australia has seen emergence, and disappearance, of fascist and other right-wing extremist groups, especially after World War II. These include the League of Rights in the 1960s, National Action and the Australian Nationalist Movement, which resorted to firebombing, burglaries and assaults aimed at Asian immigrants in the 1980s and 90s. These groups remained on the political fringe, finding little resonance in Australian society and did not attract much public attention.
Far-right politics has also had some electoral successes but at a fairly low level when compared to Europe. Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is the most successful right-wing populist party. She was elected to parliament in 1996 as an independent, but soon after established One Nation party on a platform opposing Asian immigration and with explicit hostility towards Aboriginal Australians. Hanson lost her seat in 1998 and infighting forced the party out of the political arena.
But, not for long. In the 2016 federal election, One Nation won four Senate seats, this time following an anti-Muslim campaign, called for, amongst others, a ban on Muslim immigration. Hanson again has media’s attention, disproportionate to her party’s status in the country’s politics.
Hanson’s victory was made possible by a climate of heightened moral panic around the place of Islam and Muslim communities in Australia. This climate of Islamophobia has intensified as the global “war on terror” has continued, turning Muslims in Australia into a “suspect community”. The rhetoric from politicians, especially in the wake of Islamic State atrocities in West Asia and a series of overseas and domestic attacks, such as the Lindt Café siege in 2014, allegedly inspired by IS, have contributed to this panic.
Islamophobia created a fertile ground not only for Hanson’s party; it was also the catalyst for the emergence of a new wave of far-right anti-Islam groups, most notoriously, Reclaim Australia, and fringe outfits such as the Australian Liberty Alliance, in the first half of this decade. These groups tapped into widespread Islamophobia instead of explicit racist ideologies and mobilised larger numbers of supporters, especially through social media.
Though many of the groups were active primarily online, some of them also held public events. The largest of these rallies took place in Victoria’s town of Bendigo, where protesters opposed a plan to build a mosque. Essentially a local conflict, the anti-mosque protests became a rallying point for far-right groups, both local and interstate. The Bendigo mosque protests marked a breakthrough for new far-right movements. These have since become more diverse and fragmented with new ethno-nationalist splinter groups, with many having their origin in the anti-Islam movement. Anti-Muslim messaging still occupies an important place in these new groups’ online and offline mobilisation. But their ideological agenda has broadened and their language has become more aggressive and confrontational. Flux is a constant but recently there has been partial consolidation and increased collaboration between some of these groups.
A study conducted by Melbourne’s Victoria University between 2016 and 2017, underscores the complexity and heterogeneity of the far-right. Differentiating between anti-Islam, cultural superiority and racial superiority groups, the study says each far-right group is characterised by a specific ideological mix and tactics. The groups are not internally homogeneous either. Each individual has his (or, sometimes, her) own motives, views and agendas.
Many of these new (‘cultural superiority’) groups increasingly use debates around issues such as feminisms and (toxic) masculinity, gender normativity and LGBTIQ (eg marriage equality), or an alleged crime crisis to push their interests. These themes are framed to mobilise support and to spread the groups’ ethno-nationalist, anti-egalitarian and anti-government messages, to fuel a sense of white (male) victimhood and to paint an image of societal decay, caused, in their views, by the political establishment and left-wing politics.
While far-right groups with a predominantly anti-Islam focus have become less visible, except intense messaging on social media, the more aggressive ethno-nationalist outfits have shifted focus away from the internet to the local offline space. They have contracted into smaller social networks. The idea is to build an ethno-nationalist community, where people know each other and are committed to the groups’ nationalist cause, leading to ideological hardening.
Expressions of white supremacy, anti-Semitism and racism used to occur primarily at the extremist, fascist and neo-Nazi margins of the far-right. This has recently changed, as more and more far-right groups openly articulate such aggressive ideologies, in addition to Islamophobia. This ideological radicalization is full swing– maybe even more so after the Christchurch massacre – and it remains difficult to predict how the far-right will evolve in Australia.
Following the Christchurch attack, several Muslim community leaders in Australia said they were shocked but not surprised that an Australian committed such a murderous act. Biased and negative media reporting and anti-Muslim rhetoric were singled out as the two critical factors that fuelled a climate of fear by demonising Muslims.
Australia has come a step closer to recognising the threat far-right extremism poses. It is now for political leadership to effectively respond—together with communities —to the rise of far-right ideologies, hate and violence.
(Dr Mario Peucker is a research fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities at Victoria University, Melbourne.)
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