My formative years were spent in Mascot Public School, a typical underfunded school. It was a school that didn’t aspire to much: its motto was in plain English and hoped for the least worst of its students (“strive to achieve”); the school gates were adorned with a picture of the official mascot, a jet plane, chosen for the school’s proximity to the airport.
And, much like any underfunded school in an underfunded town in Sydney, it was a school that confronted me with ethnic diversity and tension, not unexpected in a suburb where 70% of people were born overseas, or had parents who were born overseas.
I thought of my childhood, as I’d dully gaze through the side fence of the school, waiting for a bus, of how it helped me grow and whatnot. But one morning, the school sign caught my attention instead. Someone had stickered over it with obscene messages, demanding that multiculturalism be abolished, that ‘international students’ – at a primary school – be sent back, and that students should not heed the anti-Australian lies of their teachers, designed to police the thoughts of the young. At the bottom of each sticker lay proudly: Australia First Party.
We’re told to never forget, because there is a danger in allowing the past to repeat itself. Fascism wasn’t an anomaly of world history, but is rooted in something visceral within society. It has an economic and political vision that strives to protect the legitimate members of society from the ebbs and flows of global finance and immigration; it seeks to create hope in the less fortunate by blaming society’s ills on the least fortunate. It thrives on crisis and decline, and mobilises movements by encouraging the masses to rise up against decay and attain power for the rightful heirs of the state, usually white ‘natives’.
The leader of Australia First is Jim Saleam, who is currently running in the electorate of Cook against Scott Morrison. He was a founder of National Action in the 1980s, a far-right nationalist group that plastered racist graffiti on shop walls, intimidated multicultural groups, and produced propaganda against the ‘New World Order’; he was also convicted of his role in a shotgun attack on a member of the ANC, Nelson Mandela’s party, when Mandela was visiting Australia, and conspiring to car bomb a political opponent.
“Hi, is this, uh, Jim – James – Sa-le-am?” I stumbled over my words; embarrassingly mispronouncing a name he greeted me on the phone with (it’s “Say-lem”). It’s difficult to find the right words when the phone is picked up by one of Australia’s most notorious far-right leaders, but I manage. He speaks with a thick Australian accent, and sports a vocabulary one would expect from a PhD. His thesis, The Other Radicalism: An Inquiry Into Contemporary Australian Extreme Right Ideology, Politics And Organization 1975-1995, was supposedly written from a jail cell.
Jim Saleam refers to the aforementioned incidents as an “apocryphal history” that has now, unfortunately, become a part of the movement he is now at the forefront of. This was a concerted attack by the media, according to Saleam, with claims of Lebanese ancestry in the Sydney Morning Herald to discredit and “ethnically cleanse” him. He also claims that he was “targeted by the state” and bullied by the Special Branch of the NSW Police Force, a “notorious organisation” known for monitoring left-wing activist groups. Now disbanded for its endemic corruption, Saleam admits that the Special Branch used far-right groups to assault left-wing groups.
“Morrison is all for refugees”, he says when I ask about the election struggle in the Sutherland Shire. And Saleam? “Absolutely none.” Saleam and Australia First propose deporting refugees back to their countries of origin, assisting them with grants funded by the seizure of assets from those who aid and abet asylum seeking. Saleam denies the label of fascism, and instead identifies with “Australian nationalism.” He uses this label to defend the party’s support of an Aboriginal sovereignty as a ‘legitimate culture’ of the continent that manifests in separatism, as “they can think whatever they want of European settlement … but what’s coming is the end of Indigenous society.”
But Australia First is not the only far-right nationalist party – Pauline Hanson’s One Nation, Rise Up Australia (RUA), and the Australian Protectionist Party (APP), parties recently infamous for their deals with minor libertarian and centrist groups in this election, promote similar views. But combating immigration and multiculturalism is only the most visceral policy tying the parties together; they also agree on the nationalisation of industry, banning foreign ownership, and expanding welfare to vulnerable Australian citizens – conditional on the expulsion of undesirables.
(Israel is a point of contention – Jim Saleam and Australia First considers Zionism as a danger to Australian society through its role in the media and corporations, while the APP and RUA self-identify as Zionists who see Israel as an ally against Islam.)
Appealing to the working class is a notable function of far-right nationalist and fascist mobilising, in contrast to the libertarian right that tends to have disdain for those in poverty. This isn’t anomalous, despite their right-wing tendencies: Franco developed a national trade syndicalist organisation, and Hitler saw the role of the state in mediating class conflict, a concept absent in classical liberalism and capitalism.
Far-right groups use this populist agenda in recruiting members who do not identify with the strict nationalism of the party line. I spoke to Troy Ellis, a candidate for APP in the Western Australian electorate of Swan. Ellis was a former member of the Greens and the ALP, and a participant in Amnesty International, Greenpeace, and the Australian Conservation Fund. Confused, I asked him why he joined the APP. “They sounded like a fairer party,” noted Ellis. It was their taxation policy that drew him into the party, and he identified with the economic arguments of lowering immigration.
But he was unsure about the more extreme elements of the party. “I’m not such a hardliner on immigration myself … there might be some in APP, but I’m less of a radical myself.” The anti-Muslim stance of the party, a recent phenomenon in the far right, especially amongst RUA and One Nation, is also a topic of contention with Ellis. “The party takes a hard stance on Muslims, but I don’t mind Muslims myself.” He also spoke of his strong belief in justice for Palestinians. Ellis seemed uncomfortable with this dissonance with the party line. “But a lot of people who come here from Muslim countries are psychologically damaged.” He buttressed his sincerity in wishing to “soften the party.” Compare to co-founder Nicholas Folkes, who recently left the party and began the (more) anti-Islam Party for Freedom and believes that multiculturalism is a “failed policy” that has brought “chaos to Australia.”
Similarly, the One Nation website explicitly denounces multiculturalism and multiracialism, but has members that are unaware or uncomfortable with this policy. When asked about the political line to abolish multiracialism, Rod Evans, the national contact for One Nation, replied: “I was not aware of that … I do not adhere to that policy myself.” But, along with the rest of his party, Evans believes that Australia’s primary problem is with “the radical Muslim culture”, an issue to be resolved through a policy of “deportation.”
The far right have capitalised on the issue of Islam to build an agenda of fascist and nationalist politics. Unlike 20th century fascism, the focus of the individual is located within a civilisation as opposed to a state. While the Nazi Party promoted the Aryan Germanic race, APP, One Nation and likeminded parties speak of the threats to Western civilization. Perhaps an intellectual response to The Clash of Civilisations thesis, or a strategic impulse to work with non-Anglo European ethnic groups against the new enemy, the far right analysis of global politics is one of conflict between Islam and the West.
Just like enemy combatants setting up camp beyond no man’s land, Melanie Vassilou believes Muslims have created “ethnic enclaves in Auburn” that “make you feel like you’re in Saudi Arabia.” She sees the face veil as a risk to society, noting “paedophiles are taking advantage of the face veil.” Running for RUA in Chisholm, Victoria, she rejects the racist label: “when you speak out on the issues, you can be perceived as racist.” She notes that their leader is Sri Lankan, and, perhaps justifying her position, Jim Saleam denounces Rise Up Australia as a multiracial party.
But the germination of fascism lies not only in the fringe of politics, but has roots in the centre. A passing comment by Saleam on his past struck me: “our roots were in the Australian Labor Party.” The White Australia Policy attracted the monoculturalists of nationalism movement, but beyond this, the protectionist economics and belief in industrial nationalisation appeal to some of their left-wing tendencies. National Action, after all, classified themselves as National Bolsheviks, and Australia First’s Queensland Senate candidate, Peter Watson, was a former member of the ALP and Stalinist League; Jack Lang is revered by many fascist groups in Australia; and the Victorian Socialist Party, a faction of the ALP early in the 20th century, developed a fascist tendency that dissolved into the Australia First Party.
Fascist elements also reside in the periphery of the Liberal Party in the hard right, or ‘Taliban Right’ or ‘Uglies’, faction. The roots of far right nationalism in the Liberals, that often comes into contention with the classical liberal and libertarian tendencies of the party began when the Nationalist Party merged with the United Australia Party, that soon after became the Liberal Party; likewise, the Young Nationals merged into the Young Liberals.
More uncomfortable for the party is Lyenko Urbanchich. He fled from Slovenia to Australia, having been a Nazi collaborator during the Second World War. When in Australia, he founded the Liberal Ethnic Council, using recent refugees and immigrants from the Soviet Bloc to intervene in the Liberal Party. Urbanchich was an outspoken critic of the threat of “Jewish-communism.”
Although eventually expelled from the party after decades of organising, when his anti-Semitic past came to light, his influence lives on. EDIT: Urbanchich was never expelled from the party. The hard right is, according to some accounts, the largest faction of the NSW Liberal Party; it is the spiritual homeland of Tony Abbott; and it is the philosophical foundation of the Sydney University Conservative Club, a member of which once admitted to sympathies with fascist philosophy, in particular the belief that the poor and the rich have their ordained, natural positions in society.
Although many of the early nationalists in Australia have turned to political careers, the tendency in Europe has moved towards the opposite. Golden Dawn, for instance, organises on the street through demonstrates more than it does through parliamentary processes. The British National Party (BNP) has lost appeal in England, and the English Defence League (EDL) has grown to a threatening size. It was the EDL, after all, that Anders Breivik communicated with prior to his massacre of young social democrats in vengeance against Islamic immigration.
Unlike the BNP, which sports a comprehensive conservative agenda, the EDL is particularly opposed to Islamic immigration. Note, for instance, that the EDL has a Sikh division, as well as an LGBT division. However, organisational liberalism does not hide the fascist tendencies of the movement, but instead is a tactical endeavour to build it; Italian fascism, after all, supported expanding democracy, including the universal suffrage of women, and artistic movements such as Futurism. Progressivism in some areas veils an overall reactionary agenda.
Like the EDL, the Australian Defence League (ADL) focuses specifically on Islam. But the ADL is a grassroots movement, utilising street demonstrations and mass mobilisation to affect change. My first encounter with the ADL was on a Facebook event, when a member threatened to murder me. Although most of its demonstrations are unsuccessful, it is a growing movement, one that encourages current discourses of disintegrating borders. Searching through the closed ADL Facebook group, users complain about “muzzies”, promote gun culture against Islamic immigration, and refer to Muslims and left-wingers as “scum”.
These groups are not the main organising tools of the movement, but do provide insight into the models through which ultra-nationalism and Islamophobia develop. The ADL may ultimately not be successful, but it is a glimpse into the future of reactionary activism – on the streets, in community groups, in churches and unions, at dinner parties. Skinheads and Nazis such as the Nationalist Alternative and Southern Cross Hammerskins likewise react on the streets. The old methods of the Left have been appropriated into a movement that is reacting against the supposed failure of the political class to protect Australians.
Fascism is a word prolific in dusty archives but hushed in current affairs. It is a word that is historical, that is used to define the past, but one that can never happen again. We’ve moved on: fascism is passé, thrown into the dustbin of history where it pathetically lies.
But Australia is at risk of forgetting the dangers of fascism. From experience, the term ‘fascism’ is met with mockery – it is a term people define as an extreme, and Australia is seen as a country of moderation. Popular opinion divorces fascism from an intellectual history, from its philosophy, from its economic and political strategies, and from its realness.
Although there are groups and individuals that oppose fascism in Australia, they fail to make an impression in public opinion. Anarchist blogger slackbastard follows the trends of fascism in Australia, but is a lone writer. Fight Dem Back was prolific in combating racial hatred in Australia, but is effectively defunct now. Compare this to the United Kingdom, where the National Union of Students holds a policy of ‘No Platform’, where office-bearers refuse to share a stage with members of fascist organisations; or where the Conservative, Labor, and Liberal Democrats collectively oppose the BNP, citing the legacy of Churchill who was a member of all three parties; or where the organisation Unite Against Fascism regularly demonstrates against fascist groups; as do squads of anti-fascist socialists and anarchists who clash with fascists in English communities.
One could argue that the rise of fascism is not likely in Australia. But the policies – or the trajectory of policies – of many of the groups mentioned in the article, say otherwise. While not every individual in One Nation or the Australian Protectionist Party may espouse negative attitudes towards migrants or non-white Australians, there is an organisational pressure to strengthen the state, to mobilising workers against immigrants, and to isolate Australia by solidifying its borders – and military. Authoritarianism, nationalism, and, ultimately, fascism are not ghosts of the past, but real existing tendencies in Australian politics.