The ‘Reclaim Australia’ rallies of 4 April were the largest mobilisations by the Australian far right for many years. While estimates vary, at least several thousand Australians took to the streets of in more than a dozen towns and cities on Easter Saturday. It was in order to ‘reclaim’ their country from the minorities and Muslims who have allegedly usurped it. Opposition to the rallies was limited outside of Melbourne, where amid some fiery clashes perhaps 300-500 Reclaimers faced off a crowd at least twice that size.
Neo-Nazi and fascist involvement in Reclaim Australia was present at its inception and is direct and ongoing. This extended from the agitprop promoting the rallies through to the appearance of a considerable number of neo-Nazi skinheads at the rally in Melbourne. Indeed, Reclaim Australia provided precisely the kind of warm, nurturing environment of ultra-nationalist rhetoric which meant that neo-Nazis could stand shoulder-to-shoulder with a much larger mob of angry white men draped in the Australian flag. All the while they imagined themselves as the inheritors of The ANZAC Spirit. They also formed part of the vanguard used to attack the anti-racist picket.
While there are many claiming to speak on its behalf, Reclaim Australia was the brainchild of Shermon Burgess, a council worker from Cooma in NSW and a member of the Australian Defence League (Southern NSW Charter). It was in his capacity as an ADL member and singer in the band Eureka Brigade that Burgess first came to media attention in April 2014. Greg Ansley wrote in The New Zealand Herald:
Footage of navy ships has been used in videos made by heavy metal band Eureka Brigade formed by ADL member Shermon Burgess, whose lyrics proclaimed the riot between white Australians and Lebanese youths at Cronulla in 2005 ‘Australia’s Muslim holocaust’. Eureka Brigade’s inflammatory songs ‘Border Patrol’ (supporting operations against asylum seekers) and ‘ADL Killing Machine’ are posted on the internet.
These videos, along with a range of other provocative materials, have since been removed from YouTube. One video, in which Burgess expresses racism towards Indigenous peoples and hatred of the left, escaped deletion and was the subject of further reportage. Following the arrest of ADL leader Ralph Cerminara for inciting a brawl in Lakemba in December 2014, at the beginning of 2015 Burgess rebranded himself as ‘The Great Aussie Patriot’. In collaboration with a tiny Melbourne-based neo-Nazi group called ‘Nationalist Republican Guard’ (NRG), Burgess then began producing a series of YouTube videos promoting ‘Reclaim Australia’. NRG’s chief claim to fame prior to this was when one of its members, Neil Luke Erikson, was convicted in February 2014 of harassing a rabbi.
While the appearance of a considerable number of neo-Nazis and fascists at Reclaim Australia rallies surprised some, the far right made no secret of the fact that they would be present. Locally, fascist parties such as Australia First committed themselves to attending, and popular US-based neo-Nazi sites such as The Daily Stormer and Stormfront implored their readers to do likewise.
Of course, Reclaim Australia’s appeal extended far wider than the very small, radical right-wing circles from which the rallies emerged and in which they were chiefly promoted. The Christian right, in particular Danny Nalliah’s Catch the Fire Ministries/Rise Up Australia Party, jumped on board, as did a dizzying array of anti-Muslim blogs, sites and/or Facebook pages . Somewhat comically, Nalliah claimed that the presence of one (sic) neo-Nazi at the Melbourne event was the result of a socialist plot to discredit Reclaim Australia. Nalliah’s denial of neo-Nazi involvement otherwise mirrors that of Reclaimers in general.
Whatever the precise extent of neo-Nazi and fascist participation in Reclaim Australia, the central questions posed by the rallies – where did they come from and how significant are they? – have been addressed by a range of commentators.
Writing in The Guardian, the national director of Welcome to Australia, Brad Chilcott, argues that the counter-rallies were counter-productive and that ‘violence’ obscured the anti-racist message in Melbourne. In essence, Chilcott claims that there is a radical equivalency between the actions of Reclaimers in Melbourne and those who attended the opposing Rally Against Racism, both parties being guilty of uncouth behavior.
Chiclcott’s argument has been effectively debunked by Wenny at the Crossborder Operational Matters blog. The political implications of his line of thinking are examined by Liz Fekete in ‘Anti-Extremism or Anti-Fascism?‘ and Kieran Bennett’s account tackles both Chilcott’s argument and makes the case for militant opposition to the ‘fascist’ Reclaim Australia. In New Matilda, Tad Tietze argues that:
… it would be mistaken to exaggerate their strength, to make unwarranted inferences about what reach their politics has in society, and to presume that simply organizing counter-protests will be of much use in preventing or minimising any threat they may pose. Yet much of the radical Left response so far has done exactly those things.
In Crikey, Guy Rundle situates Reclaimers within the folk-nationalist tradition of the left, now subject to a rightist re-interpretation.
How the left should respond to Reclaim Australia is an intriguing question. In this context, it’s worth noting that the last time anti-Muslim bigots belonging to the ADL assembled at Federation Square in May 2011 they numbered no more than a few dozen; a previous ADL rally ‘Against immigration and Islam’ in April 2010 was a complete farce. The Easter Saturday rally, on the other hand, attracted hundreds in Melbourne and thousands elsewhere in the country. Thus, there is some evidence to suggest that this may be a growing movement, one nurtured by a prevailing Islamophobia on the one hand and white anxiety on the other.
Secondly, while the basis of the Reclaimer’s complaints may be easily addressed, it becomes rapidly apparent when reading the vast number of Facebook pages dedicated to attacking Muslims that the nature of their beliefs are impervious to reason. Indeed, in the weeks before the rallies, some expressed skepticism that the irrational fears that Reclaim Australia mobilised on the day could result in anything of political significance. And yet myths about Islam and a (white) nationalist mythos has proven to be a highly potent combination. The whiteness of the counter-protest in Melbourne is examined by Sanmati Verma for New Matilda, who queries the reliance upon some concept of ‘progressive’ (as opposed to reactionary) nationalism and asks:
What does it look like to engage in anti-racist and anti-fascist organising in Australia, in the immediate context of the ongoing displacement of First Nations people from their homelands in Western Australia, and during the height of Australia’s mass incarceration and illegalisation of people seeking asylum in this country?
Finally, the only union body in the country to make any statement with regards Reclaim Australia was UnionsWA, a statement presumably prompted by the fact that the rally in Perth was scheduled to take place on union territory at Solidarity Park. In the event, the Park was rendered inaccessible by being fenced off. Otherwise, trade union involvement in countering Reclaim Australia was minimal, though Newcastle Trades Hall helped to promote a Harmony Day event on March 21 and individual unionists counter-protested across the country. It will be very interesting to see if the alarming images of neo-Nazis and other avowedly patriotic Australians generated by rallying to Reclaim Australia over Easter translates into opposition at future such events. So too if the labour movement responds to this challenge or prefers to view Reclaim Australia as the latest inconsequential flash in the (white) nationalist pan.
Image courtesy of Zebedee Parkes: http://www.zebedeeparkes.com/
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