Liberal democracies protect our generation’s core values and history’s hard-won liberties; without them, the identity and power of Australia would be lost. The rule of law, freedom of speech and association, a multiparty system, and a robust civil society are at the heart of prosperity in Australian society. That system is deliberately organised in such a way that defines and limits power, in order to promote legitimate government within a framework of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play, compassion and pursuit of the public good. However, as our world becomes ever more interconnected and globalised, the vitality of liberal democratic values face a paradoxical conundrum. The integration of economies, blurring of legal jurisdictions, the reshuffling of global power, the rising tide of inequality both within and between borders, and the threats of transnational crises have simultaneously unified and fractured our democracies.
International institutions that herald liberal democratic values aim to unite and achieve cooperation in solving global economic, social, cultural or humanitarian problems, and coordinate the actions of nations to achieve shared prosperity and for betterment of humanity. Nonetheless, just as it is imperative that liberal democracies deepen their international cooperation, it is also essential that we learn from one another in the ways we seek to protect ourselves and our democracies from threats that are evolving and cultivated domestically. Moreover, it is imperative we look to the heinous moments in modern history, and learn from humanity’s downfalls - the rise of European nationalism and the corresponding political discourses heralded during the interwar period is of particular relevance. A pervasive threat grows from within our borders, aiming to radically dislocate the foundations of our institutions and fracture trust in liberal democracy. Tangible threats against our security and safety are not smuggled in by boat, nor are they hidden amongst the plight of refugees who flee war, ethnic violence and brutal persecution. Rather, they spread in the form of domestic offshoots of the growing far-right sentiment within national discourses and political processes.
Around the world, far-right voices and forces have managed to blend their prerogatives and ideologies into viable - and often successful - electoral projects. Conspiracies are no longer at the fringe. They are weaponised and deployed to mobilise millions of people1. Far-right groups and ultra-conservative politicians capitalise on fostering public fear, peddling misinformation, and provoking hysteria. Their anti-establishment and anti-immigration rhetoric is a mere façade, designed to cloak racist ideologies and their far-right extremist personas in the language of concerned citizens who are the triumphs of truth and rational thinking. However, these groups and their sentiments actively drive a wedge not only through social cohesion and multicultural prosperity but through the faith in the success of our liberal democracy. Fuelled by disinformation and pseudo-scientific evidence, extreme right-wing narratives paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing. Underpinning the ‘plight’ of white nationalists is the central theme of a white identity under threat from the ‘Great Replacement’. This credo connects right-wing extremist communities in Australia with those in North America and Europe. The interconnectedness of these communities, aided by the internet, seek to widen the range of acceptable social and political discourse in our societies by pushing calculated narratives which oppose, and at times fracture, liberal democracy.
Australia and other Western democracies have seen a sharp increase in the emergence and prominence of far-right extremism. In June this year, Germany’s Federal Interior Minister Horst Seehofer and President of the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution (BfV) released the Constitutional Protection Report 2020.2 The report revealed some disconcerting statistics in which the number of crimes, the number of people in the far-right scene and their preparedness to commit violence continues to grow. The report puts the number of right-wing extremists at 33,300 and, of these, 13,300 people are classified as violence-oriented. Haldenwang underscored that right-wing extremism has the "highest propensity to violence of all extremist groups".3 Further, the number of crimes motivated by right-wing extremism rose by 5.1% and the number of violent crimes motivated by right-wing extremism rose by 10.6%, with Germany recording almost 24,000 far-right crimes during 2020 — the highest level since records began in 2001. Crimes ranged from displaying Nazi symbols and antisemitic remarks to physical attacks and murder, targeting predominantly immigrants, refugees, muslims, black Germans, and a rise in anti-Asian violence due to the pandemic. Moreover, an increasing virtual networking of right-wing extremist actors and a disinhibited language on the internet functions as an echo chamber for hatred and agitation, in which the right-wing extremists reinforce each other and radicalise themselves further. To Seehofer, the dramatic rise in right-wing extremist crime demonstrates a ‘brutalisation’ of society, and poses the "greatest danger to our security as well as to our democracy."4
The report reaffirmed that antisemitism, racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia continued to be focal points of right-wing extremist activity; however, such ideologies are concomitantly weaponised in the undercurrents of much of the discourse from Germany's right-wing populist party - the country's third largest party - Alternative für Deutschland (AfD). The AfD was propelled into national parliament four years ago by staunchly opposing Angela Merkel's decision to let in 1.3 million undocumented migrants and refugees, mainly from the Middle East. In the 2017 federal election, their explicit anti-Islam policy, anti-establishment rhetoric and slogans such as 'Lügenpresse' (lying press), which the Nazis also used, won the party 12.6% of the vote and 94 seats in Federal Parliament. While it may not have started out as a far-right party, the AfD has since embraced far-right policies, with many of its leaders having espoused far-right rhetoric. The worrying rise of the AfD and their role in stoking a climate of resentment toward the government, has come under increasing scrutiny from Germany's domestic intelligence agency (BfV) - who even plan to place the entire AfD under surveillance over potential ties to far-right extremism. However, ongoing legal challenges brought by the AfD are holding up the domestic intelligence agency's plans to monitor the party. In a true demonstration of the separation of powers, an administrative court in Cologne ruled that the BfV could not initiate its surveillance of the AfD until the party’s legal challenges against the measure had concluded. It was held that spying on the AfD violated the principle of equal opportunities for all political parties guaranteed by the German Constitution and amounted to interference with the democratic process.
Over to the ‘land of the free’ and the January 6 insurrection at Capitol Hill. Notwithstanding the 61 court decisions (some of which were decided by judges appointed by former President Donald Trump) siding with a valid and fair election, nor the assertion from Trump’s own Department of Homeland Security of no election fraud, the insurrectionists — supported both explicitly and implicitly by Trump and fellow Republican lawmakers — saw the free and fair 2020 US presidential election as a farce. The march on the Capitol to ‘save’ the election from being ‘stolen’ became arguably the most globally symbolic showcase of democratic government being overrun. While indistinguishable between circus and siege, the unbridled fun and buffoonery of the mob made the gravity of the situation easy to downplay, deflecting from the disturbing anti-democratic violence at hand. However, the insidious normalisation of far-right discourse, and the intersection of white supremacy and Trump should come as no surprise. Trump and his followers, after all, have gotten away with so much violence precisely because it is so difficult to take him seriously.
Nevertheless, the assault on Congress that left five people dead, scores injured, the Capitol building desecrated, and American democracy deeply shaken was the culmination of what several national security experts claim as a campaign of stochastic terrorism, led by the then-President of the United States. Stochastic terrorism is a process of incitement where the instigator provokes extremist violence under the guise of plausible deniability.5 While the description of Trump as a terrorist leader would seem to be a hyperbolic metaphor, it is the versed opinion of both former Assistant Secretary at the Department of Homeland Security, Juliette Kayyem, and former Deputy Secretary of State to the George W. Bush administration, Richard Armitage.6 To these experts, his goal was to promote violence for political gain. And that, simply, is terrorism. After all, those tiki-torch-wielding white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville in 2017, included — in Trump's own words — some "very fine people"...
Closer to home, we need only look across the ditch for concerning evidence of mass violence at the hands of right-wing extremism; 51 people slain and dozens more wounded in an attack fuelled by the online radicalisation of an avowed white supremacist, born and raised in Australia, who mowed down innocent worshippers at two Christchurch mosques in March 2019. The vile toxicity of white supremacists and far-right groups that festered out in the open on social platforms had manifested their calling; a vile splurge of violence revealed these threats were no longer empty. Although the Christchurch terrorist carried out his barbaric attacks alone, he was very much a part of Australia’s far-right ecosystem of hate and saw himself as a member of a global community of fellow white supremacists. New Zealand's royal commission into the attack found that although the shooter was active in far-right groups in Australia, he escaped the attention of authorities, despite allegedly being reported to Australian police. The unacknowledged, or purposefully downplayed, potential for violent far-right extremism had then been realised by the Australian Government. Arguably, public debate and acknowledgement of this growing internal threat, which seeks to harm our society and those within it, has been rather lacklustre. While Australian politicians have taken heed — the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s current inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism in Australia as an example — there remains a substantial desire for (some of) our elected representatives to sidestep or more ominously hoodwink the issue and evidence at hand. Director General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), Mike Burgess, has consistently warned of the increasingly real and growing threat of right-wing extremism in Australia. Triggered by such an ‘impartial’ claim from Australia's top intelligence chief, Peter Dutton reminded the public that the ‘left-wing lunatics’ pose an equally worrying problem too.7 When Dutton's Office was queried to give examples of left-wing extremism in Australia, Extinction Rebellion (you know, the non-violent environmental movement, whose members sometimes glue themselves to roads) were such culprits.
In February this year, Labor introduced a Senate motion to condemn the far-right. However, the Coalition, One Nation, and crossbenchers revised the motion. The original motion’s line that “there has been a significant increase in far-right extremism in Australia” was deleted and replaced with the following: “Australia is one of the most successful multicultural countries in the world”. The revised motion was said to attempt to white-out the advice of national security agencies. Home Affairs, ASIO, the AFP and even Treasurer Josh Frydenberg have all publicly acknowledged that right-wing extremism is on the rise. But according to Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, the threat is being ‘over-emphasised’ and he strongly rejects the ‘thesis’ that there is a rise in far-right extremism occurring in Australia.8 Similarly, Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells, was critical of ASIO’s terminology, claiming ‘far-right’ can offend conservatives. In Victoria early this year, neo-Nazis were free to parade through national parks and public places, burning crosses, yelling “heil Hitler” and praising the Ku Klux Klan, while supporters of the Proud Boys — one of the far-right militia behind the attack on the US Capitol — were simultaneously marching in Melbourne. While extremism in all forms should (and was) denounced, the majority of our elected representatives sided with downplaying the evidence of the worrying threat of far-right extremism from numerous executive departments.
The domestic fragmentation of our community and democracy through right-wing extremism poses a material and a largely unaddressed threat to the relatively homogenous nature of contemporary Australian society. In the wake of COVID-19, right-wing activists have seized the opportunity to further indoctrinate impressionable individuals and believe the pandemic reinforces the narratives and conspiracies that are, at their core, ideologies. Many perceive the pandemic as proof of the failure of democracy, globalisation, multiculturalism, and confirmation of the inevitable collapse of modern society and impending ‘race war’. ASIO Deputy Director General, Heather Cook, warned that the pandemic had created both a greater opportunity for far-right extremists to recruit online and send a powerful anti-government message for those who resent lockdowns.9 Further, she revealed the organisation has seen an extraordinary increase in focus on the far-right in Australia since the pandemic. According to ASIO’s latest annual report, investigations related to far-right extremism make up between 30 and 40% of its ‘priority counter-terrorism’ workload.10 That’s up from 10 to 15% in 2016, with ASIO saying that extremists including neo-Nazis represent a "serious, increasing and evolving threat to security" and that the 2019 Christchurch attack is continuing to be drawn on as ‘inspiration’ for right-wing extremists across the world.11 Worldwide, far-right violence flourishes, with the UN Security Council’s Counterterrorism Committee finding a 320% increase of far-right terrorism globally, from 2015 to 2020.12
Like every other form of government both past and present, liberal democracy has fundamental flaws and weaknesses — which are exacerbated during times of difficulty, crisis and change. Wise leadership can mitigate these weaknesses, but it cannot eliminate them. Far-right extremism is the ugly face of a much larger system of toxic synergies and political failures. Although it has no clear, single origin or solution, the cocktail of toxic nationalism, white supremacy, antisemitism, Islamophobia, fascism and hate that embodies far-right sentiment, needs to be stood up against. Our society and the vitality of our democracy urgently requires multifaceted action to address this internal ticking time bomb. Pressingly, we require leadership that unites Australians from all walks of life and leaders that understand the reasons that drive the domestic forces that attempt the upheaval of our democracy. We all need to stand up against hate.