SYDNEY – Matt Quinn was once a youth leader with a passion for overcoming injustice – an unlikely candidate, perhaps, to form a white supremacist gang.
But the Australian said he was bullied as a teenager too. “I was constantly beaten,” recalls Quinn, now 40. “Having this group was like a refuge to me, no one was going to touch me.”
Her change of heart didn’t happen overnight, but the moment an Asian man saved her from being attacked marked a turning point. Currently, Quinn heads Exit Australia, a non-profit organization that seeks to deradicalize extremists. He is the person Australians are aiming for – not fleeing – as the country searches for answers to right-wing ideology.
However, two years after a 28-year-old Australian man carried out New Zealand’s deadliest mass shooting – the killing of 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch on March 15, 2019 – some experts say authorities have still not done enough to fight back. danger growing at home. Some say Australia is still grappling with its own values, ideas and history, so it is reluctant to face these threats head-on.
Quinn knows how real the danger is. To him, his grandfather’s graphic stories of persecution as Japanese prisoners during World War II and right-wing political rhetoric about Australia being “swamped” by Asian immigrants in the 1990s proved to be a flammable mixture. His gang will roam the western part of Sydney, looking for Asians to harass.
Soon Quinn recruited more angry young men – and fell deeper into the extremist rabbit hole itself. “It got worse and worse until I got to the point where I thought about carrying out an attack,” he said, “going into town and shooting an Asian.”
He pulled himself back from the brink. But in his view, there are still few support services to help those at risk of being ensnared by white supremacy, in contrast to the millions of dollars allocated by the federal government to fight Islamic terrorism.
“They have no support for them [underlying] problem, whether it’s about looking after their family or dealing with trauma, they’re always being pushed away, “he said.” As soon as you give support to some of these people, they let go of resentment. “
Quinn’s analysis can explain, in part, why right-wing groups are now present in regional cities and metropolitan cities around Australia. ASIO, the Australian spy agency, warned that young people who were “nearing adolescence” were being radicalized by these groups.
The agency said right-wing extremism now constitutes about a third of its counterterrorism workload, up from just 10% to 15% in 2016.
Australia’s national intelligence and security committee, made up of members of the cross-party federal parliament, is conducting an investigation into how to deal with the matter. Meanwhile, the federal government led by Prime Minister Scott Morrison is preparing to designate far-right groups as a terrorist organization – a first in Australian history – but faces opposition accusations that they are “downplaying” domestic threats.
This is by no means a peculiar Australian problem, but recent incidents have raised concerns. In January, dozens of neo-Nazis rallied in a national park where they burned crosses and chanted slogans. In the city of Albury-Wodonga the following month, members of the Proud Boys from Australia threatened people they believed to be Antifa members in their homes and workplaces. An Aboriginal woman was also blown up by a neo-Nazi in broad daylight.
COVID-19 only perpetuates discrimination against Australian minority communities. In a survey released this month, nearly one in five Chinese Australians reported being physically threatened or attacked because of their identity, while ASIO said far-right groups had exploited anxiety from the pandemic to recruit members.
The Jewish organization also sounded the alarm. “It’s not just white nationalist ideas or white supremacy, it’s actually neo-Nazi ideology that is becoming much broader and actively supported, aimed at Hitler’s rehabilitation and rejection of the Holocaust, while advocating another genocide against the Jewish people,” said Julie Nathan, director of research on the Australian Jewish Executive Council.
A recent report by the ECAJ found a marked increase in serious anti-Semitic incidents in Australia, including a doubling of physical assault. Anti-Semitism is also creeping into mainstream institutions, the council said, as more Jewish students report incidents of persecution at Melbourne schools.
“The school’s failure to take this matter seriously is testament to the acceptance of anti-Semitic ideas and abuse,” said Nathan. “The Jewish community is out loud because this situation is now being handled.”
The difficulty of dealing with racism and extremism in Australian society is rooted in the country’s history, according to Chin Tan, race commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission.
Although Australia is now one of the most multicultural countries in the world, Australia is built on openly racist policies. The government of Prime Minister Edmund Barton’s first in 1901 laid the groundwork for what became known as the “White Australia” policy – a series of bipartisan legislative measures to maintain racial and cultural homogeneity. This is on top of a devastating policy of assimilation targeting Indigenous populations.
It was only in 1973 when the last vestiges of White Australia policy were completely eradicated.
The country will then undergo a demographic transformation, receiving waves of immigrants from Asia and the Middle East. By 2023, this former British Empire colonial post is expected to be home to more Chinese-born than British-born.
“Australia has taken a bit of a quantum leap in terms of social movements,” said Tan. “We have people here today who lived in that era of white policy. [They] may still live under the values we had in the past. “
Tan believes that Australia has an obligation to “reflect more clearly what multicultural society means to us in the context in which we were previously a country,” stressing right-wing ideology is “undermining our social cohesion.”
And while White Australia’s policies are in the trash, the legal system is still too accommodating of racists, according to ECAJ’s Tan and Nathan. In Victoria, Australia’s second largest state, racial defamation laws have resulted in only one successful prosecution in 20 years. The state parliamentary committee has called for the law to be expanded and the Nazi symbol banned.
Another problem, according to federal lawmaker and counterterrorism expert Anne Aly, is that security services are struggling to adjust to threats from individuals rather than organizations.
Two years later from Christchurch, where Australia’s only gunman carefully planned and executed his attack on Muslim worshipers, Aly said the authorities were still “seeing terrorism through an Al-Qaeda lens or having a base.”
The security committee member said the reality was that terrorism was less hierarchical, and the country still lacked a “recipe” for the right despite having the largest set of terrorism-related laws in the Western world.
Indeed, Australia has enacted more anti-terrorism laws than the US, UK and Canada since the September 11, 2001 attacks. The scope of these laws is so broad that the federal government has the power to revoke Australian dual citizenship if they are convicted of a terrorism offense. One expert calculated that from 9/11 to the end of 2007, new anti-terrorism laws were enacted almost every two months.
Complicating the battle is social media, which allows extremists to operate and recruit transnationally. Quinn Australia, whose organization works with Facebook to identify and remove their material, is deeply concerned about foreign interference from groups based in the US, Europe and Brazil.
“The biggest threat we have is foreign groups linked to terrorism trying to get involved in Australian space,” he said. “They are basically looking for angry people, who are looking for darker and darker extremist material.”
Many groups, he added, “are only interested in chaos.”
Aly hopes a security committee investigation, scheduled for next month, will “reveal the extent of the right-wing threat and prompt some response.” He, like Tan, believes Australia needs some introspection.
“It’s very difficult to turn the mirror on yourself and examine your own responsibilities in that space,” says Aly, “but it needs to be done.”