I thank the member for Spence for this motion. It’s only a few weeks since pupils from a college in the Goldstein electorate were threatened by a knife carrying assailant shouting anti-Semitic abuse as they headed home from school. Not long before that, I was informed of the circulation in Goldstein and Kooyong of a Neo-Nazi flyer laden with anti-Semitism and vilifying current and former MPs with language redolent of the catchphrases of the Nazism of Germany in the 1930s and 40s. But, as the AFP informed my office, the behaviour of extremist organisations and actors is very hard to source because many of the actors are very sophisticated in covering their tracks.
Violent extremism is becoming more widespread, more complex and more nebulous, driven by online actors’ accessibility to exploit and activate feelings of exclusion, alienation and resentment. The digital landscape enables people to not just spout extremism but interact with each other and seduce those vulnerable to their arguments. There is a danger in pointing the finger at one cohort in the community, reflected in ASIO’s 2021 decision to talk more broadly about religiously motivated violent extremism and ideologically motivated violent extremists rather than labels like Right and Left, which ASIO chief, Mike Burgess, said often distract from the real nature of the thread.
There is also another ‘disturbing development’, as Burgess put it, in last year’s threat assessment: the proliferation of extremist content online means individuals are radicalising very quickly, in days and weeks, so the time between flash to bang is shorter than ever. As Lydia Khalil, the Lowy Institute’s project director of Digital Threats to Democracy Project put it in a submission to the inquiry into extremist movements and radicalism in Australia conducted in the last parliament: … conspiratorial movements or individuals who believe in a conspiracy and are connected online, are now emerging as a standalone domestic extremist threat. Khalil quotes the FBI as stating: Anti-government, identity-based, and fringe political conspiracy theories very likely will emerge, spread, and evolve in the modern information marketplace over the near term…occasionally driving both groups and individuals to commit criminal or violent acts.
The 6 January US Capitol insurrection is a most telling example. AVERT, a multidisciplinary research initiative at Deakin University, argues that 6 January clearly demonstrated how a networked online conspiracy movement can migrate from the online environment to cause real-world harm and to radicalise individuals to violence. Our mainstream media has a role and responsibility here too. As a foreign correspondent in the US, I observed first hand these disturbing developments gathering pace and traction. As I and my co-author, Roscoe Whalan, noted in our book about this very matter, violent white nationalism does not begin with Donald Trump, but his failure to fully condemn it fans century-old racial hatred that festered during the eight years of the Obama administration. The Center on Extremism estimated that right wing extremists were responsible for 90 per cent of extremist killings in the US in 2019. But, if ASIO is right, extremists don’t fit into neat Right, Left or indeed religious boxes.
The two examples I noted at the start of this speech are among dozens I could have cited. The recent murders of two Queensland police officers and an innocent neighbour is the most recent tragic example here in Australia. In that case, the perpetrators claimed Christian faith. Neo-Nazis with their Hitler salutes infiltrating public events are another increasingly visible warning. The recent display on the steps of the Victorian parliament was a disgrace. I welcomed the Tasmanian government’s recent decision to ban the Nazi salute, the first jurisdiction in Australia to do so, and Victoria has moved to follow suit.
Before too long, we’ll be debating legislation to ban hate symbols nationwide. Whether the legislation goes far enough is another question. The Executive Council of Australian Jewry, for example, argues that the federal legislation should follow the Tasmanian example and prescribe the public performance of Nazi salutes and similar gestures as well as a broader ban on trading in Nazi memorabilia. I do hope this is addressed in the current inquiry into the legislation. Free speech is not hate speech, and hate speech should not be defended as such. The two things are very different and should be called out, as should extremism and those who fan it for their own ends.