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Jacobin - February 17, 2022

If there was any doubt before, 2021 made it clear that leftists in Australia have to take the threat of the far right seriously. The media exposed the extreme right’s activities nationwide, as well as their links to overseas neo-Nazis. The police arrested far-right activists in relation to violent crimes, and on top of this, the far right mobilized as part of the anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown movement, which was centered in Melbourne. They often appropriated trade union uniforms and symbols to lend their cause legitimacy.

On the electoral front, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is hoping to capture Senate seats, while Craig Kelly and Clive Palmer have teamed up in the United Australia Party to take advantage of anti-lockdown and anti-vax sentiments.

These developments have prompted debates among the center and the Left about how to respond. While the situation in some respects is a new one, Australian history has seen its fair share of fascists and ultranationalists. And more important, the workers’ movement and the Left have beat them back before. It’s more than a history of victories — it’s a gold mine of valuable experiences that can help inform our response today.

Crackdowns or Counterprotests?

Mainstream conservative politicians have usually refused to acknowledge the threat. Or, at best, government MPs — for example, Defense Minister Peter Dutton and Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells — have refused to mention far-right political violence without also mentioning Islamic and “left-wing” terrorism. In the aftermath of the Capitol Hill riot, the deputy prime minister Michael McCormack compared the action with Black Lives Matter protests, characterizing both as “unfortunate events.”

The Labor Party, at least, has acknowledged the problem. In August, Labor’s shadow minister for home affairs, Kristina Keneally, called for greater action by the state in dealing with the far right. This included proscribing far-right organizations, increasing funding for counterextremist programs, and initiatives to counter extremism on social media. After the anti-vaccination protests in Melbourne last October, the Victorian Trades Hall Council demanded a royal commission into the organized far right in Australia. 

There are, however, a number of problems with looking to the state to counter the far right. First, the tools that the state can use against extreme right-wing groups were predominantly forged during the “war on terror.” Defenders of civil liberties have criticized them for their draconian nature, as well as the potential for human rights violations. Second, Keneally’s proposed crackdown would only address the most violent expressions of the far right. It wouldn’t do anything to counter growing far-right political parties, street campaigns, or presence on social media.

Third, police crackdowns can stymie left-wing anti-fascist and anti-racist organizing. Historically, the state has treated far-right events and street protests as a public order issue, which has meant heavily policing counterprotests as well as right-wing marches themselves. ...
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