How Australia incubated far-right terror

The politics of hate have moved from the fringe to the mainstream. 

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No place is immune from the rise of hate and extremism. Not even New Zealand, until now a relative haven from the world’s political monstrosities.

The deadly terrorist attack on two mosques on 15 March in Christchurch (in which 50 people died and dozens were injured) appalled the world. New Zealand is not renowned for either far-right activity or mass shootings.

The attack’s Australian dimension has also prompted questions over that country’s readiness to combat far-right terrorism. The Christchurch gunman, 28-year-old Australian Brenton Tarrant, appeared to be unknown to the authorities. Should he have been on terror watch lists? And what does his radicalisation and murderous spree against Muslims as they prayed tell us about his home country?

In recent years, far-right movements have enjoyed success in Australia. Political debates have reflected the creeping normalisation of racist hate and bigotry. In view of the relationship between hate speech and political violence, a white supremacist terrorist attack with some Australian connection seemed grimly inevitable.

The return of race politics began with the former prime minister Tony Abbott’s Liberal-National coalition government, which sought to alter national racial discrimination laws. On two occasions, in 2014 and 2017, the administration attempted to weaken laws prohibiting racial hatred. While both bids failed, they emboldened extremists and others to believe that free speech permitted hate speech – that they enjoyed the right to be bigots.

There have been other forms of race politics too. For most of the past two decades, anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiments have been rife in public debates. Conservative politicians have fanned panics over African crime and refugees, and dog-whistled about immigration and multiculturalism. Some have openly called for Australia to take in persecuted white South African farmers, and to end Australia’s racially non-discriminatory immigration policy. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has used the Christchurch attack to argue for a cut to immigration, an ominous development ahead of this year’s general election. 

Much of this isn’t done with subtlety. The Australian parliament is regularly the scene of brazen far-right political stunts. White supremacist slogans and language are used with impunity. Last year, when One Nation leader Pauline Hanson moved a motion stating that “it is OK to be white”, she was backed by government senators (who later recanted, claiming administrative error). Another far-right senator, Fraser Anning, invoked Nazi rhetoric when he called for a “final solution” to Australia’s immigration problem.

These political shifts have been reinforced by the media’s indulgence of hate. Various mainstream outlets have provided uncritical and sympathetic platforms to neo-Nazi activists and figures associated with the alt-right. Australia’s most prominent right-wing commentator, Andrew Bolt, has written of “a tidal wave of immigration”, and argued that Jewish, Chinese and Indian “colonies” are being formed across the country.

This is a symptom of a broader international trend: the monetisation of hate. Sections of a fracturing media industry, under strain from technological change, are using hate as part of their business model. Faced with the proliferation of news and entertainment sources, many outlets are confecting and stoking racial controversies to gain attention, generate clicks and retain their audiences. Racism has become an instrument of commercial viability.

How then must the fight against hate be waged? There are some general principles that transcend borders.

First, the politics of hate must be taken more seriously. This begins with recognising the relationship between hate speech and racist violence. Not every instance of hateful speech will result in violence, but racist violence will always begin with racist ideas.

Too often, however, the danger posed by far-right extremists is routinely downplayed – not least by political leaders who see partisan advantage in race politics. Neo-Nazis and other extremists have also been sophisticated at disguising their noxious beliefs and making their doctrines appear superficially benign.

In Australia, as elsewhere in the Anglosphere, the media and political authorities have treated the threat of white supremacist terrorism with a casual disregard when compared with Islamist terrorism. It was unsurprising that, in the aftermath of the Christchurch attack, some Australian media outlets seemed intent on humanising Tarrant as a lost or misguided working-class youth (as opposed to a committed white supremacist terrorist).

Second, there’s a need for progressives to be more worldly about freedom of speech. The conventional liberal wisdom, as inspired by John Stuart Mill and others, remains that bad speech is best countered with good speech.

But we cannot be naive about the marketplace of ideas; there can be market failure. The accommodation of far-right voices in public debates has had the effect of sanitising white supremacism. Extremism has gained the veneer of respectability.

This brings us to a third principle: combating the politics of hate isn’t merely about defending minorities, it’s about defending democracy itself. Most reasonable people wouldn’t grant equal time to paedophiles or Islamist terrorists. Why should white supremacism be an exception?

Perhaps it’s because of the crisis of democracy around the world. Many view any upsurge in hate as part of a nationalist populist correction passing through the system.

Yet the threat is grave. Under certain conditions, nationalist populism is not just an episodic venting of cultural and racial anger. It is a prelude to fascism.

Tim Soutphommasane is professor of sociology and political theory at the University of Sydney and author of “On Hate”

This article appears in the 22 March 2019 issue of the New Statesman, State of emergency