Peter Wertheim published in "The Contributor": Can the centre-right hold in an age of polarisation?

August 14th, 2018

The following article was originally published in the fourth edition of the WA Liberal Party’s policy journal, The Contributor, August 2018.
UPDATE: This article has also been published by ABC Religion & Ethics.

Can the centre-right hold in an age of polarisation?

Peter Wertheim
The Contributor, Vol 4.

August 2018

Miniscule far-right political groups have for decades inhabited the murky fringes of Australian politics. The last 10 years have seen a burgeoning of such groups. They represent every conceivable gradation of far-right political opinion, from anti-immigrant and anti-globalist groups who seek to ‘restore’ Australian democracy, to secretive cabals of Hitler-saluting neo-Nazis who are intent on overthrowing it. Young white males in search of meaning and purpose seem especially susceptible to their call, the mirror opposites of their jihadi counterparts.
The insecurities engendered throughout the western world by technological disruption, financial collapse, political scandals, mass migration and the spread of terrorism have convinced these groups that the international and supranational institutions which have formed the political, economic and military architecture of the post-World War II world – including the UN, NATO and the EU – no longer work. In their place, they have sought refuge in nationalism and a re-assertion of state sovereignty.
With the electoral success of Donald Trump in the US on a platform of “America First”, of Brexit in the UK and of ultra-nationalist parties in Europe, it is little wonder that these groups feel that they have the political wind in their sails. Each in their own way taps into “a deep current of anger, resentment and nostalgia for an imagined past that was orderly, predictable and patriarchal”.i
Still largely hidden from the wider community, but destined to burst into open acrimony at some stage, are the ideological fault-lines that divide these groups. My colleague, Julie Nathan, has discerned three categories of far-Right groups who she identifies as “civic patriots”, “nationalists” and “racialists”.ii
“Civic patriotism” is the stream that is closest to the views of Australia’s mainstream political parties, except that it is overtly and implacably anti-Islam and favours an immigration policy that explicitly excludes Muslims. Civic patriots, in common with many conservatives, believe that Australia’s constitutional, political and legal foundations have been distorted and undermined by a concatenation of global and local forces – “international bankers”, “cultural Marxists” and “global Islam” – which they believe have operated to enrich a small elite at the expense of the many. They seek a restoration of the integrity of “compromised” traditional western institutions.
Civic patriots subscribe to the stereotype of Muslims as having a supersessionist theology and proselytising history, which makes them incapable of assimilating into Australia’s secular society. However, the concern of civic patriots is to preserve what they see as Australia’s traditional political and civic culture, not a biological race. Civic patriotism thus differs from much of traditional far-Right discourse by distancing itself from antisemitism. Indeed many civic patriots see Israel as western civilisation’s front line of defence against the threat of “global Islam”.
Australia’s “nationalists” share the anti-Islam and anti-globalist creed, but they differ from the civic patriots in that they see traditional western institutions as part of the problem. While criticising “cultural Marxists” for poisoning society with “identity politics”, they loudly promote the identity of Australia’s majority racial or ethnic group, aping their counterparts in the US with the slogan “white power”. They define themselves primarily as members of a perceived race and ethnicity, not as citizens of a State. For the moment, Muslims are their main target, but their bigotry extends to all minority ethnic communities. Jews are earmarked as a long-term target.iii
The “racialists” are a more extreme version of the nationalists. They seek the violent overthrow of democracy and the imposition of an explicitly Nazi dictatorship by “Aryan” whites. The newest such group, Antipodean Resistance, whose Hitler-saluting members hide behind the anonymity of “death’s-head” masks in all their videos and photos, actively promotes and incites hatred and violence. Its anti-Jewish and anti-homosexual posters include graphic images depicting the shooting of Jews and homosexuals in the head. One poster called to “Legalise the execution of Jews”. Other posters urged homosexuals to commit suicide; one of these was widely distributed during the same sex marriage debate.
There remains an ideological bright line that divides the mainstream right-of-centre parties in Australia from the far Right. A cornerstone of the Liberal Party in particular is its commitment to the freedom of the individual, which takes priority over the demands of any collective – State, social class, ethnic group or “race”. The Liberals are also ideologically committed to democracy, the rule of law and the equal rights of all Australians regardless of race, gender or sexual preference. There are elements within the thinking of all three categories of far Right groups which are incompatible with these values.
Yet Australian history suggests that some followers of the contemporary far Right will adopt the tactic of “entryism” (or entrism) of the centre-Right parties, if they have not already begun to do so, if only to push the latter’s policies further rightwards. The tactic was invented by Trotskyists in the 1930s in their attempt to make social democratic parties more militant, but it has also been adopted in Australia over the years by the far Right.
The presence of several hundred Nazi collaborators and war criminals among the 2 million migrants who arrived in Australia from Europe in the first 20 years after World War II has been well-documented.iv
They came from the Balkans and central and eastern Europe and were fanatically nationalist, anti-communist and anti-liberal in their politics.
Several of them and their sympathisers allegedly went on to commit terrorist and other violent acts on Australian soil.v
Some became active in the Liberal Party from the 1950s onwards. László Megay, who had been listed as a wanted war criminal by the UN War Crimes Commission, was a leader of the Liberal Party’s Migrant Advisory Council in the late 1950s, sharing a speaking platform with senior Liberal politicians, including a Federal Minister. As mayor of Ungvár in wartime Hungary, Megay is accused of enthusiastically aiding the Nazis in rounding up the town’s 18,000 Jews and confining them to a ghetto in appalling conditions before they were transported to the Auschwitz death camp where most of them were
Another figure, Ljenko Urbančič, presided over the Liberal Ethnic Council in the late 1970s and was a member of the Executive of the NSW Liberal Party. His rise within the Liberal Party was interrupted in 1979 with public revelations about his role in wartime Slovenia as an anti-western, antisemitic propaganda broadcaster for the Nazis.vii
Urbančič nevertheless escaped expulsion from the party. He and his associates, who included other extreme-Right emigrées with histories of collaboration with the Nazis, were among the ‘Uglies’ faction and continued to be active within the NSW Liberal Party well into the 2000s. Their openly declared mission was to push party policies and operations further to the Right, and at times they turned on moderate Liberals who stood in their way.viii
Another notorious attempt to infiltrate a Coalition party was the push in the early 1970s by the antisemitic, white supremacist Australian League of Rights to flood the National Party of Australia with its members and effect a takeover. After a struggle lasting several years, mainstream Nationals under the leadership of Doug Anthony defeated the League.ix
Looking back, one can say that in the climate of the Cold War those on the centre-Right of politics, who were understandably pre-occupied with Soviet aggression abroad and Soviet espionage within Australia, were blind-sided on the opposite political flank. They were often oblivious to the threat to democracy and individual freedom posed by those on the extreme Right.
In our own time, one can only hope that this kind of mistake is not repeated. Legitimate concerns about Islamist terrorism and threats to democracy ought not to become pre-occupations that leave us with a blind-spot about the gathering threat to our democracy, freedoms and safety emanating from the far Right of politics.
Peter Wertheim AM is co-CEO of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry
i Anne-Marie Slaughter, ‘Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin want to create a new world order’, Financial Times, 22 July 2018:
ii ‘The Rise of Australia’s activist far Right’, ABC Religion & Ethics Report, 31 January 2018:
iii Ibid.
iv Mark Aarons, War Criminals Welcome (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2001).
v “In the 1960s and 1970s there were sixteen bomb attacks and numerous other incidents against Yugoslav interests in Australia, many if not most of them attributed to [ultra-nationalist] Croatians, although some were believed to be the work of the Yugoslav Intelligence Service”: John Blaxland, The Protest Years – The Official History of ASIO: 1963-1975 (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2015), p.123
vi Mark Aarons, War Criminals Welcome (Melbourne: Black Inc, 2001), pp.318-329
vii Ibid, p.384.
viii Ibid, pp. 387-9.
ix Andrew Campbell, The Australian League of Rights: a study in political extremism and subversion, (Collingwood: Outback Press, 1978).