The threat of far-right extremism is growing on this government’s watch, and today’s commentary from Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton shows why. Last night ASIO director-general Mike Burgess delivered his first annual threat assessment, and highlighted the rise of right-wing extremism, particularly since last year’s horrific Christchurch massacre: “In suburbs around Australia, small cells regularly meet to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.” Burgess mentioned the right-wing threat half a dozen times. He mentioned the left-wing threat zero times. Yet Dutton, in a doorstop press conference this morning, immediately started gaslighting with a false equivalence about risks on both the far right and far left: “If the proliferation of information into the hands of right-wing lunatics or left-wing lunatics is leading to a threat in our country, then my responsibility is to make sure our agencies are dealing with it, and they are.” Dutton’s wilful blindness apes that of Donald Trump, who infamously claimed there were “very fine people on both sides” after the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville in 2017, where a far-right extremist drove a car into anti-fascist protesters, killing one.
Equating a very real threat to a non-existent one is the same as downplaying it. Downplaying the threat of far-right extremism allows it to flourish, and has very real consequences. Labor’s Tim Watts, for example, responded to Burgess’s speech by pointing out the June 2019 terrorism taskforce recommendation: Australian government agencies, academia, researchers and civil-society bodies that monitor and review terrorist and extremist organisations share with digital platforms indicators of terrorism, terrorist products and depictions of violent crimes. That hasn’t happened.
As deputy Labor leader Richard Marles asked at the beginning of Question Time today, “Why has the Australian government not listed a single right-wing extremist group as a terrorist organisation?” Prime Minister Scott Morrison fobbed that question off with some partisan mudslinging: “In 2013, this government came to office to keep Australians safe, and no government has invested more and applied itself more to give those who are working on counterterrorism in this country the resources they need to go after those who would seek to do Australians harm. That includes right-wing extremists, Mr Speaker. That includes Islamic terrorists – extremist Islamic terrorists, Mr Speaker. Whatever their cause of hate, whatever their motivation to do Australians harm, this government is standing up to them with the resources and the commitments and the legislation and the powers and the tools that those opposite never had the stomach to put in place. And on each occasion, Mr Speaker, it would seem that every time we’ve sought to get stronger national security legislation achieved in this place, those opposite have sought to water it down.”
Morrison cannot give a straight answer about why his government has failed to crack down on right-wing terrorists. Dutton plays down the threat by downright lying – he can point to no left-wing terrorists. So no wonder the threat of right-wing extremism is growing. Notwithstanding ASIO’s efforts, an Australian terrorist last year live-streamed the murder of 51 people at a Christchurch mosque, a horrific act that shares much in common with last week’s anti-immigrant killing spree in Hanau, Germany, in which 10 people were shot dead by a far-right extremist.
The result, too, is a resurgence of anti-Semitism, as Holocaust survivors observed at the recent 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp. This resurgence is also happening in Australia: the most recent report on anti-Semitism by the Executive Council of Australian Jewry noted a marked increase in some of the more serious categories of incidents including direct verbal abuse, harassment, intimidation and graffiti attacks.
Dutton today said he was proud of the work that ASIO does and “very, very proud of the speech last night, frankly, that Mike Burgess made”. So perhaps he should do something about it.