Public menace or provocateur? The Australian government and the issuing of visas to far-right speakers

In recent years, Australia has become a popular destination for notorious alt right figures on speaking tours. In late 2017, alt right ‘provocateur’ Milo Yiannopoulos toured Australia and was invited to Parliament House by Liberal Democrats Senator David Leyonhjelm (amongst some media appearances). The following year, Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, known for arguing that white people are a persecuted minority, came to the country and spoke in several cities. This February, controversial psychology professor Jordan Peterson visited Australia and was even invited on ABC’s Q&A. Yiannopoulos sent in a video question that was aired during the show.

Over the same period, however, several figures of the alt- and far-right have also been denied visas. In the last few months, Yiannopolous has had his visa revoked, while the co-founder of the English Defence League Tommy Robinson (aka Stephen Yaxley Lennon) and the Proud Boys’ Gavin McInnes were denied visas after they had been invited to speak as part of a ‘Deplorables’ tour. Both Robinson and McInnes are believed to have failed the ‘character test’ required to entry clearance to visit Australia under the Migration Act 1958 – the primary piece of Commonwealth legislation regarding immigration and border control.

Since the introduction of the Act, the Australian government has attempted to keep out politically undesirable visitors through its visa system. As Jon Piccini has shown, this tactic was initially used to prevent left-wing activists from coming to the country. The Act allowed the minister for immigration ‘absolute discretion’ in determining who could be allocated an entry visa to Australia and relied heavily on ASIO to provide information on those seeking entry. The primary focus of ASIO in the 1960s and 1970s was counter-subversion from the left and progressive groups, which resulted in the barring of a number of high profile radicals, such as Trotskyist Ernst Mandel and African-American comedian and activist Dick Gregory.

From time to time, the Australian government was also called upon to make decisions regarding visas for high-profile visitors from the far right as well. In 1960, former Director of Propaganda for the British Union of Fascists and then the leader of the League of Empire Loyalists, AK Chesterton, was allowed to visit Australia. He had established links with Eric Butler’s antisemitic Australian League of Rights in the mid-1950s and the ALOR promoted Chesteron’s tour in their publications. The following year, American Nazi Party leader, George Lincoln Rockwell, was invited to Australia by the minuscule Australian National Workers’ Party. The minister for immigration, Alexander ‘Alick’ Downer, refused a visa on advice from ASIO. In subsequent years, Rockwell was also deported from the United Kingdom after being smuggled in via Ireland by British neo-Nazis. When Oswald Mosley, who founded and led the British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, announced in 1969 that he planned to visit, ASIO recommended to the Department of Immigration that Mosley did not present such a security risk that a visa should be withheld, but a close eye was to be kept on him if he visited. This decision was made moot by the fact that Mosley did not follow through with his plans.

There have also been inconsistent decisions as regards to the entry of Holocaust deniers. David Irving toured Australia in 1986 and 1987. Despite denunciations of his arguments by Prime Minister Bob Hawke and other Labor MPs, no restrictions were placed upon his entry. In 1993, however, then Labor Minister for Immigration Gerry Hand refused to grant Irving a visa for failing the character test. After a court case in 1991 challenged the discretionary powers of the minister to deny entry on character grounds, Cabinet granted the minister the powers to reject an application if they deemed that an individual ‘represent[ed] a danger to the Australian community or a segment of the community, or would engage in vilification of a segment of the community or would foment discord in the community’. Irving challenged the ruling, but it was eventually upheld by the Federal Court of Australia in 1996.

Irving applied again several times in the early 2000s, arguing that he should be allowed in to see his daughter, a naturalised Australian citizen. His notoriety, however, especially in the wake of his unsuccessful libel case against scholar Deborah Lipstadt, convinced the Liberal minister for immigration, Phillip Ruddock, to maintain the Australian government’s stance. Most recently, Irving intimated that he would apply again in 2013, although by this stage, he had served a prison sentence in Austria. It is unclear whether he followed through with his 2013 application, but the fact that he had a criminal record would have made it much more straight-forward for the government to reject his application.

Another Holocaust denier, British Catholic cleric Richard Williamson, was denied a visa by Immigration Minister Scott Morrison in 2014. Williamson, an acolyte of the ultra-conservative Society of Saint Pius X, had planned to attend various services and deliver sermons in rural Australia.

As well as such extra-parliamentary figures, far-right members of the parliaments of various countries have travelled or sought to travel to Australia. In 2015, Dutch right-wing politician Geert Wilders was allowed into the country, where he promptly helped launch the Islamophobic Australian Liberty Alliance. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage went on a speaking tour of Australia in early 2018. By contrast, Georgios Epitidios – a former army general and current member of the European Parliament from the far-right Golden Dawn in Greece – withdrew his visa application in 2014, blaming the Australian Embassy in Athens for delaying the decision and disrupting his plans to address supporters and hold fundraisers in Sydney and Melbourne.

The single constant in all of these cases, from 1960s up to the present day, is the apparent inconsistency concerning the granting of visas to politicians, activists and other exponents from the far right. In his examination of the use of border system to deter left-wing activists from coming to Australia in the 1960s and 1970s, Jon Piccini has argued that the system was used by ‘anxious conservatives’ attempting to quarantine the country from ‘possibly subversive overseas ideas and practices’. When it comes to the right, the Australian government has used the visa system to keep out overt Nazis, such as George Lincoln Rockwell, or those involved in Holocaust denial, such as David Irving and Richard Williamson, or those associated with acts of street violence, such as Tommy Robinson and Gavin McInnes, while purveyors of a more ‘respectable’ form of racism and xenophobia, such as AK Chesterton or Geert Wilders, have been allowed to enter. It seems that, in most cases, the expression of racist or other far-right ideas is not enough for the Australian government to reject a visa on character grounds. More often, it seems, a visa is denied or revoked when the government sees the possibility of public disorder and a strong backlash against the applicant.

Since the Christchurch terrorist attacks, there has been much discussion about the mainstreaming of far-right ideas and the tolerance of such ideas by the Australian government. The allowing of far-right speakers into the country could be seen as a sign of this tolerance, although the recent decision against Milo Yiannopoulos suggests the government may be changing its approach.

Whether this is a truly welcome development is debatable, however. While anti-racists and progressives would not shed a tear for any far-right personality who has had their visa denied or revoked, it is problematic to rely on the discretion of the immigration minister to regulate who is allowed into the country based on their politics. The Australian government is responsible for a strict, discriminatory and cruel border control system. Appealing to them to wield their powers against a political opponent puts faith in this authority to do the ‘right thing’. Since Federation, the Australian border control system has been to maintain white settler colonial dominance in this country and used to keep out proponents of radical or progressive political programmes. Instead of petitioning the Immigration Minister to ban people like Yiannopoulos and Robinson from entering the country, anti-racist and anti-fascist activists will achieve more by continuing to focus on organising grassroots opposition to those speakers if and when they come to Australia.

This piece is based on research conducted as part of the ARC Discovery Project ‘Managing Migrants and Border Control in Britain and Australia, 1901-1981’ (DP180102200).

Image: Milo Yiannopoulos at an event in London in 2012, Flickr

Evan Smith

Evan Smith is a Lecturer in History at Flinders University in South Australia. He has published widely on political extremism, social movements and policing in Australia, Britain and South Africa.

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Andrekos Varnava

Andrekos Varnava is an Associate Professor in History at Flinders University, South Australia.

More by Andrekos Varnava ›

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