Australian authorities and the far right threat: A historical perspective

This was originally posted over at my Patreon here.

File cover from National Archives of Australia in Canberra containing documents relating to the Nazism in Australia from 1960s and 1970s

In the aftermath of the far right storming of the US Capitol on 6 January and the Australian Deputy Prime Minister, Michael McCormarck, drawing a comparison between this and the Black Lives Matter rallies across the world last year, there have been renewed questions about how the Australian authorities have perceived the threat of far right violence and the propensity of the government to speak about far right political violence only in context of left-wing and Islamic terrorism. This comes after Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton, and Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells queried the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation about its enlarged focus on the extreme right terror threat. Furthermore, it comes in the wake of the Report of the Christchurch Commission, which highlighted that the New Zealand had not dedicated enough attention to the possibility of terrorism and political violence from the extreme right, with obvious ramifications for the Australian government and its security agencies.

This equivocation about the far right is not new. Too often since the 1960s, the Australian authorities have dismissed the far right in Australia as ‘cranks’ and a low priority for the security services, or being concerned about the far right due to the possibility of violence arising from anti-fascist opposition.

Between 1963 and 1972, neo-Nazis in Australia organised in several different parties, which were monitored by ASIO, the Commonwealth Police Force (forerunner for the Australian Federal Police) and the Special Branches of the police forces in a number of states. The far right in this period was characterised as very small in terms of both membership and finances, which hindered its ability to be a political force in this country and was seen as more a nuisance than anything else. When inquiries were made by Jewish and trade union organisations (as well as the RSL) about the legality of the Australian National Socialist Party in the mid-1960s, the Liberal government came to the conclusion that after Menzies was unable to ban the Communist Party in 1950-51, a similar move to proscribe a Nazi Party in Australia was not possible, and that these neo-Nazis did not act in contravention to the Crimes Act 1914 regarding sedition. This perception of the neo-Nazis as an irritant persisted, despite the fact that the leaders of the ANSP were arrested and charged for weapons offences after a raid of their headquarters by NSW Police in June 1964.

At this time, the far right in Australia still primarily dealt in anti-Semitism, along defence of the ‘White Australia Policy’ and anti-communism. In spite of the widespread disgust expressed about the Holocaust and Nazism, the Australian authorities seemed to downplay the problem of anti-Semitic propaganda in the 1960s. For example, in 1965, John Gorton, representing the Attorney-General in the Senate, said about the National Australia Party (an offshoot from the ANSP) that while members of the party were anti-Semitic, he did ‘not believe that the party presents any threat of a racist or any other nature to the Australian way of life.’ In the same year, ASIO Director-General Charles Spry told the Attorney-General Billy Snedden, in response to a letter sent to Snedden’s office, that there was ‘no evidence that the Australian League of Rights is anything other than a reputable organisation’, even though the ALOR was an anti-Semitic far right organisation and being closely monitored by the security services by this stage.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the authorities were concerned that the publicity given to the far right by the media outweighed the threat that it actually presented, and worried that this publicity generated anti-fascist opposition, particularly that which came from the left. ASIO and the Commonwealth Police Force both expressed concerns that the radical left, such as the Worker Student Alliance, and militant Jewish youth threatened public disorder through anti-fascist mobilisations, which posed larger problems for the authorities, in the midst of an upsurge in radical politics in Australia at this time.

This concern about the existence of the far right bringing forth a left-wing opposition can also be found in the archival papers regarding ASIO’s monitoring of the National Front of Australia in the late 1970s and early 1980s. While the ASIO Director General wrote to the Attorney-General Peter Durack in June 1978, arguing that it was unlikely to generate much support, he also warned about the ‘possibility of a violent reaction on the left’, who ‘may seek confrontation’ with the NFA. The following year, ASIO tried to seek further clarification of a National Front supporters’ group at Monash University. Although the agency asserted that it was ‘unlikely that the NFA could establish a viable group at Monash’, they were ‘concerned with the possibility of violent confrontation between left-wing and right-wing groups.’

It was only in the mid-to-late 1980s that the government (now a Labor government under Bob Hawke) regularly spoke about the threat of right-wing extremism and their propensity for violence, particularly that of National Action. By 1988, members of Parliament were warning of tactics on intimidation and violence perpetrated by those associated with National Action, sometimes involving firearms. Prior to 1988, ASIO ‘assessed the threat of violence from NA [National Action] and ANM (Australian Nationalist Movement] to be low’, despite ‘the firebombing of a vehicle owned by an anti-apartheid campaigner and damage to the home of the then Minister for Immigration and Ethnic Affairs, Mr Hurford’. Between 1988 and 1991, both the Australian government and ASIO saw the far right as ‘capable of extreme violence’ and several NA and ANM members in New South Wales and Western Australia being jailed for acts of violence. A 1991 report on racial violence by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission found:

15 The activities of extremist groups, which have become more violent in recent years, constitute a small but significant part of the problem of racist violence in Australia.

16 The activities of extremist groups, some of which have resulted in prosecutions, show a close connection between racist propaganda and racist violence.

17 In assessing the extent of organised racist violence, it is important to acknowledge the role of long standing racist organisations which do not perpetrate violence themselves, but nevertheless provide the impetus for others. These organisations essentially incite and maintain prejudice.

One of the outcomes of this inquiry was the Racial Hatred Act 1995, which sought to outlaw racial vilification and harassment, but after wrangling in the Senate, only provided civil provisions, rather criminal sanctions.

During the Hawke-Keating years, the Australian authorities (the government, the police and security services) seemed to take the threat of the far right more seriously, as the instigator of political violence and the disseminator of racist propaganda. However under the Howard government in the late 1990s, the focus shifted towards security threats to the Sydney Olympics (especially after the bombing at the Atlanta Olympics four years earlier) and the burgeoning anti-globalisation movement.

9/11 and the ‘War on Terror’ changed almost everything in terms of the focus of the government and ASIO, with all other security and political threats subsumed by the attention placed upon Islamic terrorism. And in Australia, just as seen elsewhere in the West during this period, the mainstreaming of Islamophobia in the ‘War on Terror’ years allowed the far right to present itself as concerned about Muslim extremists and protecting the ‘Australian way of life’. While Australia did not see a political party like the British National Party and Front National gain ground in the first decade of the twenty-first century (Pauline Hanson’s One Nation was still in the political hinterland then), violent Islamophobia and racism on the streets seemed to be a growing problem.

But when the Cronulla riots happened in the beachside suburb of Sydney in December 2005, the Howard government dismissed that racism and Islamophobia had been responsible for the violence. John Howard stated, ‘I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country’, while Treasurer Peter Costello commented, ‘I don’t think it [the riot] was caused by racism… The Sydney riots were an example of hoodlums who got out of control.’ Bruce Baird, the local MP for the Liberal Party, claimed in Parliament:

It is unfair to simply label the crowd as racist, as some elements of the media have done… Many others were simply there to make a point about the failure of the New South Wales government to deal with inappropriate conduct, assaults, intimidation and other antisocial behaviour which has been happening over the last eight years or so by young men identified as being of Arabic or Lebanese background.

The pursuit of the ‘War on Terror’ and the harsh treatment of asylum seekers during the Howard years meant that the Liberal government were unwilling to address the popular racism that bubbled away in Australia. In the following years, racist street movements, inspired by the English Defence League and Pegida in Germany, started to emerge, combining Islamophobia with anti-African racism, alongside the resurgence of Pauline Hanson, whose One Nation party initially won four Senate seats in the 2016 federal election. One Nation was partially inspired by the radical right in Europe and refashioned Hanson’s anti-Asian racism from the 1990s into Islamophobia in the 2010s. Although the Liberals had been quite hostile to Hanson’s party in the 1990s and worked with other parties to hasten One Nation’s decline, by the time of the Turnbull/Morrison governments, sections of the Liberal and National Parties were much more willing to engage with Hanson and other sections of the far right. Since then, we have seen some backbenchers for the LNP share online and physical platforms with the far right, further blurring the lines between the far and mainstream rights.

As mentioned above, even when ASIO warns that the possibility of extreme right-wing violence has increased and that the far right presents a particular problem for Australian democracy, the current government have equivocated, looking to draw comparisons between the far right and the far left (with Dutton suggesting that Islamic terrorism was a form of left-wing terrorism). The purpose of this post is to highlight that this is not necessarily new and at different times since the 1960s, the Australian authorities have talked down the threat of the far right, particularly when compared to how the left and various social movements have been treated over the years.

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