03 Mar 2020
ASIO sounds the alarm
By John Coyne
Last week, ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation)’s new Director-General, Mike Burgess, made his initial move to bring his organisation out of the shadows by releasing its first unclassified annual threat assessment.
Burgess painted a rather bleak picture of Australia’s domestic security situation. The official terrorism threat level has remained probable, and the levels of foreign interference and espionage in Australia have reached levels reminiscent of the cold war era.
The revelation that right-wing extremism was growing in Australia was of little surprise to many, however, the idea that it is becoming more organised could be a game-changer. A more organised and security-conscious right-wing extremist threat will present a tough target for ASIO and the Australian Federal Police to work against.
So what’s driving this growth, and how can government respond?
To be clear, right-wing extremism has been on ASIO’s radar for several decades.
While last year’s Christchurch massacre was the first mass-casualty terrorist attack by an Australian right-wing terrorist, Australia’s extreme right groups have a long but mercifully unsuccessful history.
In the 1980s the Australian Nationalist Movement, led by Peter Joseph Van Tongeren, demonstrated its willingness to use violence to forward its white supremacist agenda by firebombing several Asian-owned businesses in Western Australia. However, its reign of fear was quickly ended by law enforcement.
By the mid-1990s, ASIO had identified two organisations – the Loyal Regiment of Australian Guardians and the Ausi Freedom Scouts – as extremist paramilitary groups. These organisations were quickly disbanded under concerted intelligence and law enforcement scrutiny.
More recently, we’ve seen the rise of such groups as the United Patriots Front. While their protests have been vocal, divisive messages from leadership figures like Blair Cottrell have been quickly disrupted by social media bans on platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
It is, of course, easy to argue that the driver for change is global in nature, especially when extreme right-wing violence and terrorism is an increasing threat across most western liberal democracies.
However, Australia’s problems have been driven more by the normalisation, and mainstreaming, of extreme right and racist discourse in public life specifically in Australia over the last decade, much more than they have by global trends. For several years, increasingly frequent political statements about race and immigration have brought white supremacist and right-wing extremist perspectives ever closer to the mainstream.
Social media has created the kind of anonymity that has emboldened the expression of right-wing extremist views and perspectives that would never be publicly shared in the real world. It has been used by some to legitimise hate speech as simply an act of personal expression. Easy access to encryption and the dark web has created global echo chambers for the most committed and active right-wing extremists. Within these spaces extremists share views and knowledge, while at times encouraging real-world violence.
Fortunately, despite ASIO’s warning, Australia’s organised right-wing extremist communities are still relatively small. Those groups that do exist are usually quickly torn apart by internal ideological rifts. They also lack the strong leadership and organisational frameworks necessary to develop widespread appeal.
While ASIO and law enforcement counter-terrorism measures will be able to disrupt right-wing extremist motivated terror plots, dealing with right-wing extremism will require efforts to counter its narrative by removing the cloak of respectability it has achieved in recent years.
To address this problem all of Australia’s governments need to call out hate speech. This needs to be done in a way that cannot be exploited by right-wing extremist groups as evidence to divide Australian communities.
Australia needs a national hate crime unit. The Council of Australian Governments and the Department of Home Affairs’ National Counter-Terrorism Coordinator need one to inform the development of targeted anti-hate crime programs.
Some of this work has already been done by Deakin University’s Professors Michele Grossman and Greg Barton and Senior Lecturer Matteo Vergani. Now is the time to invest in this work and expand its focus to include hate speech.
Finally, there’s a need for the Commonwealth government to continue to invest in national school and social media based programs designed to counter violent extremism and white supremacy. A key component of this work should be challenging online hate speech.