Melbourne, Australia – The recent anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne revealed the rise of the far-right movement in the face of fears stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment and continued lockdown measures.
The most recent – and arguably the most violent – protests were sparked by the state government’s decision to suspend work on construction sites for two weeks and make vaccination compulsory for construction workers.
Construction workers protesting outside union offices in Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city, were joined by several other groups, many of far-right origin.
The protest quickly turned violent, with police responding with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray.
“Very quickly we saw ‘freedom marchers’ joining the protests [with] other right-wing antagonists, ”far-right analyst Josh Roose, senior researcher at the Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne, told Al Jazeera.
“It felt like a much bigger movement then than it necessarily was at the very start of that day. It went from a few hundred angry trade unionists to several thousand people.
The protests have once again drawn attention to the far right in Australia, two years after an Australian white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people.
Condemnation of the September rallies was widespread, with Labor MP Bill Shorten publicly dismissing the protesters largely as “right-wingers and baby Nazis”.
But Roose – who has previously advised governments on such groups – says these stereotypes are simplistic and misleading.
He says for Australia to fight the far right people need to understand what it is and that these groups are more than just ‘boots and swastikas’, even though they have held public demonstrations in the past. Nazi symbolism and salutes.
“The far right is much more nuanced. It has evolved and taken new forms and turned into something much more sophisticated than this stereotype, ”he said. “The far right has its vocabulary. He has an extreme right-wing speech. It is anti-Semitic. It’s racist. It is anti-Muslim. It is above all anti-women.
“It’s deeply anti-science and spreads misinformation and mistrust of the government. It sees the world as ruled by liberal elites who oppress and corrupt society at large, and to that extent it overlaps well with conspiracy theories. “
Such conspiracy theories, disseminated primarily on social media, include the belief that COVID-19 is a hoax, that the vaccine is designed to kill people, or that the recent deployment of 5G technology is behind the pandemic.
Pandemic disinformation has also crept into the Federal Parliament recently, with Liberal MP George Christensen publicly promoting the use of ivermectin as a treatment for coronaviruses – despite the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Australia’s drug regulatory agency. , prohibiting its use for disease.
It’s this overlap that Roose says is concerning, and coupled with unemployment and time spent on social media, it has created a way for disgruntled people to gravitate to the far right.
“People have been out of work for almost 18 months,” he said. “There are a lot of people sitting at home angry, on social media and looking for someone to blame.”
Mario Peucker, author of The Far Right in Contemporary Australia, agrees.
He says the current social context in Australia is “fertile ground” for far-right recruiting, and that suspicion of the government “resonates with the narrative of far-right groups – that one should not be trusted. to the government ”.
Peucker adds that while the emergence of the far right in Australia may seem like a new phenomenon, it has its roots in the nation’s history.
“In terms of racism and xenophobia, we have to start by recognizing that the nation-building process in Australia is based on an idea of white supremacy and racism,” he said.
Australia was colonized by British colonialists in the 18th century, who declared the country “terra nullius”, a Latin term meaning nobody’s land. They dispossessed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples of their lands, where they had lived for tens of thousands of years.
European culture has been described as superior to that of the indigenous peoples who suffered brutal massacres and often died from exposure to the diseases the colonialists brought with them.
Subsequent governments orchestrated the removal of Aboriginal children from their families, and a “white Australia” immigration policy did not end until the mid-1970s.
More recently, anti-refugee and anti-Muslim sentiment has emerged, often fueled by elected politicians such as Pauline Hanson of One Nation.
Peucker says the recent emergence of the far right was sparked by the anti-Muslim “moral panic” sparked by the media around the rise of ISIL (ISIL) in the mid-2010s, reinforced by the election of Donald Trump in 2016 as President of the United States, and encouraged by right-wing sections of the Australian media.
What Peucker calls “an exponential growth of far-right groups” which is now fueled by the coronavirus pandemic, has not gone unnoticed by Australian security services.
Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) chief executive Mike Burgess said last year that a third of his organization’s resources are currently being deployed to deal with the threat of violence by far-right groups .
In an online statement, he said “right-wing extremists are more organized, sophisticated, ideological and active than in previous years.”
“Many of these groups and individuals have taken on COVID-19, believing it to reinforce the narratives and conspiracies at the heart of their ideologies. They see the pandemic as proof of the failure of globalization, multiculturalism and democracy, and confirmation that societal collapse and “race war” are inevitable. “
But Peucker says there is a “gap” in ASIO’s response – noting that the security organization was largely concerned about the immediate threats of violence and needed to “intervene sooner” to combat it. entry into such groups.
The Australian Muslim Advocacy Network, a community and legal group that works to protect the safety of Australian Muslims, agrees.
“The government must crack down on bad actors who dehumanize minorities through disinformation and the platforms that enable them,” the group said in a statement to Al Jazeera.
They said their research showed Facebook and Twitter were acting “too late on disinformation and with a very low success rate.”
“Put people back to work”
In response to the growing threat, the Victorian Greens recently announced they would demand a state inquiry into the rise of far-right groups in Victoria, of which Melbourne is the capital.
Chief and spokesperson Samantha Ratnam told Al Jazeera her party has been “concerned about the rise of the far right in Victoria for several years, but that there has been an escalation in recent months now that the pandemic seems to have provided the perfect breeding ground for their dangerous ideology.
Ratnam herself was abused by far-right supporters: “Soon after I entered [Victorian] Parliament in 2018, I was harassed and followed from my office by right-wing extremists, ”she said. “It was scary. And attacks against me online have increased over the past year.
The Greens’ investigation will investigate the far-right’s recruiting and communication methods, the risks their plans pose to Victoria, their links to anti-vaccine disinformation groups and the steps needed to counter their influence, a- she declared.
Roose says getting people back to work sooner rather than later can also help fight the lure of hard ideologies.
“People are literally fed up and just want to go back to work, which is essential for their socialization, essential for their self-esteem and sense of purpose in the world,” he said.
“If we get people back to work – and kids back to school – we’ll start to see the potential of these mass movements dissipate significantly. “
Yet despite an announcement on easing restrictions, Melbourne’s continued lockdown – now the longest and some say the toughest measures in the world – means a return to work for many may not happen. before the end of this year.
The fact that the state government made vaccination mandatory for many industries to return to work has also been shown to be controversial and is unlikely to dispel anti-government sentiment.
Tackling the problem in the longer term may prove more difficult given the deep-rooted cultural roots of the far right.
“The question is what do you do with far-right extremism when it draws on strong currents that are embedded in Australian culture and politics of racism, anti-migration and deep misogyny?” rooted? This is one of the important challenges in the fight against the emergence of the far right, ”said Roose.