Melbourne, Australia – “Tommy Robinson’s real name is Stephen Christopher Yaxley-Lennon. He changed it to hide the fact he is a life-long Nazi,” said an activist addressing a rally outside Australia’s Department of Home Affairs in Melbourne in late November.
“He was a member of the fascist British National Party in the 2000s and a march of 15,000 people organised while he was in jail in June this year saw marchers giving the Nazi salute in his honour.”
For months, anti-racism campaigners in Australia have called for the denial of visas to Robinson and Gavin McInnes, both prominent figures in the global far-right movement. McInnes was a cofounder of Vice magazine before leaving the organisation in 2008 and founding the Proud Boys, who describe themselves as “a pro-Western fraternal organisation for men who refuse to apologise for creating the modern world; aka Western Chauvinists”.
McInnes and the Proud Boys were banned from Twitter this August and after the Guardian revealed the FBI had listed the organisation as “an extremist hate group with ties to white nationalism”, while the Southern Poverty Law Centre classifies it as a hate group.
The pair intended to do an Australia-wide “Deplorables” speaking tour, embracing former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton’s pejorative description of supporters of US President Donald Trump. Tickets for the tour are listed as starting from 85 Australian dollars ($61), with pre-show “private dinner” tickets demanding $995 Australian dollars ($719). It has been organised by Penthouse Australia, a pornographic men’s magazine that last year hosted a tour by anti-Islam, anti-feminist commentator Milo Yiannopoulos.
Last month, Shayne Neumann of the opposition Australian Labor Party wrote to Immigration Minister David Coleman calling on him to deny McInnes a visa on the basis he had “repeatedly and publicly advocated for violence against women and has pledged to ‘assassinate’ his enemies”.
“You, as the responsible minister, have the power to refuse visas for individuals if there is a significant risk that the individual would: vilify a segment of the Australian community … or represent a danger to the Australian community,” Neumann wrote.
A Change.org petition started by prominent African-Australian lawyer Nyadol Nyuon calling for McInnes to not be allowed into Australia gathered more than 81,000 signatures. The same day that protesters took to the streets of Melbourne, McInnes was reported to have had his visa denied on character grounds.
Aboriginal rights activist and academic Professor Marcia Langton, who along with Nyuon handed the petition to parliament in Canberra, told Al Jazeera there was “an enormous sense of relief” at the decision. “I don’t want people like McInnes recruiting for the far right and setting up branches out here.”
Penthouse’s promotional page makes no mention of McInnes’s calls for violence, describing him as “famous for his use of humour and satire to lampoon the excesses of political correctness” and promising audiences to bring a “unique blend of comedy and politics to the stage for an unforgettable evening”. Robinson, meanwhile, is described as a “man of the British people”.
Penthouse’s publisher Damien Costas did not respond to Al Jazeera’s requests for comment.
“We’ve got to draw the line somewhere,” Mehreen Faruqi, the first female Muslim senator in Australian history and a speaker at the Melbourne rally, told Al Jazeera. “These are people who are inciting violence and hate and misogyny. Especially because of violence, we have to just say ‘no’. There are limits to freedom of speech.”
Even if the Deplorables tour is called off, many worry the racist ideas of McInnes and Robinson are fomenting among fringe elements of the Australian population. “Over half our support in recent months has come from Australia,” declares the Deplorables tour page. “We’re coming to say ‘thank you’.”
“This Australian ultranationalism is importing its major themes from overseas,” said Shakira Hussein, an expert on Islam in Australia from the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, noting far-right Australian Senator Pauline Hanson’s assertions that Islam is not a religion but a political ideology.
“Pat Robinson was making comments like that in the United States and the first time I heard that line was when Geert Wilders visited Australia in 2014.”
Members of far-right parties have enjoyed increased electoral success in Australia in recent years. Hanson, who rallied against Asian migration and Aboriginals in the 1990s, was re-elected to the Senate in 2016 on a policy platform hostile to Muslims and refugees. Her party One Nation – which has called for a travel ban from Muslim countries, a boycott of halal-certified products and an end to “government funding of radical Islamic politics, dressed up as ‘arts and culture'” – won nine percent of the popular vote in the state of Queensland.
“There are interesting parallels between the halal certification panic mongering and the far right in the United States, which has had similar scares about kosher certification,” Hussein told Al Jazeera, including the conspiracy theory that there is a “Kosher Nostra, as the far right like to call it. That it’s a tax to support Jews”.
Fraser Anning, another far-right senator who, due to a peculiarity in Australia’s electoral system, was elected with just 19 votes, drew criticism for calling for a “final solution” on immigration in his maiden speech to parliament. He has echoed calls for a ban on Muslim immigration and a return to the racist White Australia Policy, which lasted some seven decades from the time the Australian nation was founded in 1901.
In recent months, the state broadcaster ABC uncovered a plot by self-proclaimed fascists to infiltrate the Sydney-based youth wing of the Nationals Party, part of the country’s conservative ruling coalition.
According to Mario Peucker, a Victoria University researcher on racism, “far-right groups – although electorally marginal – can exert disproportional power in shifting the social norms of what is acceptable to say in public and introducing certain themes to the public discourse”.
“The discussion around banning Muslim immigration is a good example for this mainstreaming and pushing the boundaries of social norms. Five years ago, we wouldn’t have had opinion polls asking Australians about their view on a religiously discriminatory immigration regime,” he said.
In October, Senator Hanson introduced a motion to the Australian Senate declaring “it is OK to be white” – a known slogan of white supremacists – which was narrowly voted down 31-28. Several government ministers voted in favour of the motion and later apologised, blaming an administrative error.
“In Australian society, we already are hearing people in the highest office legitimising, amplifying this hate against communities who are already marginalised,” Senator Faruqi said. “We’re seeing this rise of Islamophobia and I think what this tour will do is further exacerbate that.”
Beyond hostility to migrants and other minority groups, some say there is also the growing threat of far-right violence in Australia. “Community legal services are reporting there have been many incidents of racist violence,” said Langton.
Blair Cottrell, an Adolf Hitler sympathiser and founder of the anti-Islam United Patriots Front, was formerly jailed for stalking his former partner and attempting to burn down her new partner’s house. In August, cable network Sky News came under fire for hosting Cottrell for an interview and he later tweeted: “I might as well have raped [presenter Laura Jayes] on the air.”
Like McInnes, Cottrell regularly tweets about executing “enemies” and recently expressed that “human races of the world are not equal”.
“What we are seeing on social media platforms is a lot of hate speech and talk about violence, verbal threats of violence, incitement to violence,” said Peucker. “The main risk is not so much that any of the well-known far-right figures commit a violent act, an act of terrorism. But there is always the risk that someone at the margins of these groups wants to demonstrate his commitment to the nationalist far-right cause.”
“These risks are real and we need effective police intelligence to stop this from happening,” he said.
A spokesperson for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) told Al Jazeera “the sources of politically motivated violence in Australia are diverse – encompassing anyone who believes that violence is a justified means to further their political interests, which can include extreme right-wing ideologies”.
“In 2016 plans by a Melbourne-based man to conduct attacks in support of his extreme right-wing ideology were disrupted and he became the first person in Australia to be charged with terrorism offences motivated by an extreme right-wing ideology,” the spokesperson said.
The so-called Lads Society – an organisation reminiscent of the Proud Boys that is linked to the Cottrell and the UPF, as well as the neo-Nazi Antipodean Resistance – was recently met with a backlash when it was revealed to have opened a branch in Sydney’s multicultural inner-city suburb of Ashfield. A group calling itself Ashfield Community Action plastered posters around the suburb, stating “the Sydney branch is known to be led by committed Nazis… The Lads Society trains white men for racist violence”.
From the time White Australia was dismantled, the country has become one of the most multicultural on Earth. The 2016 Census showed almost half of the country was born overseas or had at least one parent not born in Australia. More than 300 languages were spoken at home while there were adherents about 100 religions. Only 2.6 percent were Muslim.
The Social Cohesion 2018 report recently released by the Scanlon Foundation found 85 percent of respondents agreed “multiculturalism has been good for Australia”.
“I do not think that far-right ideas have much appeal,” author of the report, Professor Andrew Markus, told Al Jazeera. “In my judgement, a good indication is the proportion that indicates ‘strong agreement’ with propositions in favour of discrimination in immigration policy on the basis of race or religion … it does not get beyond 11 percent. The proportion ‘strongly negative’ towards multiculturalism is only 6 percent.”
Nevertheless, almost one-third supported some degree of discrimination in immigration restrictions based on religion.
“The level of negative sentiment towards those of the Muslim faith, and by extension to immigrants from Muslim countries, is a factor of significance in contemporary Australian society,” the report noted.
“Racism sells and it sells very well,” said Langton. “I guess that’s a sad fact about Australia.”
A federal election is scheduled for April. Senator Faruqi worries it “could be fought on hate and fear and division”. “I think that is very damaging and harmful for marginalised communities, Aboriginal communities, LGBTQI communities,” she said.
“We should not allow that to happen in Australia.”