We must stem toxic tide of extremism
Australia, we have a problem. There is something pathetic about men hiding behind balaclavas and play-acting at being neo-Nazis in a popular national park.
Chants of ″Ku Klux Klan″ and ″Heil Hitler″ smack of sad, delusional behaviour. But these white supremacists were not play-acting, and being pathetic doesn’t mean that they don’t represent a threat.
Their antics in the Grampians come just three weeks after angry, far-right extremists violently stormed the US Capitol and attempted an insurrection.
They were a motley crew and pathetic too, but their actions saw five lives lost and very nearly resulted in many more deaths.
Thankfully, we don’t have a problem with far-right militia groups on anything like the scale that America does. Nor do we face the sort of far-right terrorist threat that the US does, where the vast majority of terrorist attacks are linked to far-right extremism. Nor are we having to deal with neo-Nazi groups infiltrating our police and military in the way that Germany and much of Europe does.
But we do have a problem, and it is a steadily escalating one. Only four years ago, ASIO reported that far-right extremism represented 10-15 per cent of its counter-terrorism case load. By 2020, ASIO was reporting that it accounted for 30-40 per cent, and that out of a significantly increased overall counter-terrorism case load.
The world faces a growing threat from far-right extremism and toxic nationalism, and it is not just about white supremacists, as the systemic persecution of Muslims in Myanmar and India makes clear.
The Trump presidency emboldened an ecosystem of extremism in America, with attacks on Black Lives Matter protests and armed men storming state capitals and intimidating elected officials and activists alike.
The insurrection attempt of January 6 came at the end of a long line of steadily escalating public displays of force, intimidation and bullying.
This week’s sad little gathering in the Grampians does not begin to compare with the storming of the US seat of government but it, undoubtedly, was inspired by it. What happens in America reverberates around the world and energises and inspires far-right extremism in Australia. Social media, in Australia, as in America, beginning with Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, and carrying on through to special chat forums, is awash with toxic narratives and conspiracy theory content.
Prominent among the iconography of the Capitol insurrectionists was not just the insignia of militia groups such as the Proud Boys – insignia that appeared on the streets of Melbourne this week – but also clear links to the bizarre QAnon conspiracy movement.
Despite QAnon being so distinctly American it has swept the world. These conspiracy movements take ordinary Australians down rabbit holes into very dark places, eventually linking suburban families to neo-Nazis.
And just as some elected officials in Washington DC are now trying to downplay the seriousness of what happened on January 6 and deflect attention away from the links between reckless mainstream politics and far-right extremism, so too in Australia there exists a dangerous degree of denial and abrogation of responsibility from some politicians and opinion leaders.
Behind the scenes we know that VicPol, like ASIO and the Australian Federal Police, are having to invest very significant resources in monitoring far-right extremist groups and quietly trying to contain their activities.
Now would be a good time for Australia to follow the lead of Five-Eyes partners such as Canada and formally proscribe far-right extremist groups such as the Proud Boys. Doing so would go some way to helping the police better do their job.
But it would be foolish to think that such bans would be a silver bullet. Stemming the flow of this toxic tide requires us acknowledging the true nature of what far-right extremism, at its core, really is. We need to be very careful about not giving the extremists the media attention that they crave, and not inadvertently promulgating their hateful narrative.
Well-meaning attempts in the media to understand what drives them, and to set out the elements of core messages such as the ‘great replacement’ thesis, carry a very real risk of amplifying and broadcasting.
But to begin to solve a problem we do need to recognise that we have a problem, and to understand it for what it is. The problem here is one of hate and the incitement of hate, in the form of racism against non-white immigrants and First Nation Australians, and anyone else seen as the ‘enemy other’ because of their political convictions, sexual orientation, religion or ethnicity.
Greg Barton is professor of global Islamic politics in the Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation at Deakin University.