February 8, 2021
Liberal James Paterson says he is comfortable using the term ‘far right’, despite some government conservatives objecting to the label.
The new head of parliament’s intelligence committee has vowed to take seriously the rising threat of far-right violent extremism, saying Australia needs to learn the lessons from the “horrific” Christchurch shooting and other “very troubling” incidents.
James Paterson, a Victorian Liberal party senator who will oversee an inquiry into extremist movements in coming months, told Guardian Australia the fact the shooter who killed 51 Muslim worshipers at a mosque in New Zealand in 2019 was raised in Australia had not triggered enough public policy debate in his birth country.
Paterson, appointed to head the powerful committee on Thursday, said Australia “must ensure that violent extremism does not take hold” and he indicated he was comfortable using the term “far right”, despite some government conservatives previously objecting to the label.
“You only have to look around the world to see other countries are grappling with this problem, and it does appear to be particularly happening on the far right of the political spectrum – whether that’s in Europe or the United States,” he said.
Paterson said Australia had its own issues, citing the Christchurch shooting as “a very troubling one”, and he argued there were “lessons to be learned” from the case.
“I think Australians were deeply shocked by those events and it had a big impact on our psyche at the time, because it was such a horrific crime and because it was broadcast and it was very visible and because it occurred at a near neighbour. And there was an additional element of shock that he was an Australian citizen and had largely grown up in Australia and lived in New Zealand more recently,” he said.
“There’s been probably less public policy debate about that than you might expect, given that [connection]. And I think the New Zealand royal commission is a good starting point. We should lean very heavily on that, and I think we will consider that evidence very carefully in the inquiry.”
The royal commission found the shooter was active in far-right groups in Australia but escaped the attention of authorities, despite allegedly being reported to Australian police for sending threatening messages.
Paterson said another “very troubling” incident was a report in the Age and the Sydney Morning Herald that dozens of far-right extremists gathered in the Grampians and Halls Gap over the Australia Day weekend, chanting white supremacist slogans, raising their arms in Nazi salutes and some wearing army fatigues.
“I fear about that on behalf of all Australians, but I’m particularly close to the Jewish community in Melbourne and I know the impact that kind of behaviour has on them and their wellbeing,” Paterson said.
“You only have to visit a Jewish school and see the fences that they require, the security cameras, the security guards. In a perfect world, no Australian should have to have that level of security just to go to school, and no community like the Jewish community should have to bear the burden of having to … explain to their kids why people hate them for no other reason than who they are.”
Paterson said he looked forward to talking with security agencies about the steps they were taking to combat the issue. He accepted the advice of Asio, which says rightwing violent extremism now comprises up to 40% of its domestic counter-terrorism priority caseload.
“I’m comforted in some way by the fact that Asio is taking it as seriously as they are, that they’re devoting as much resourcing to it as they are. We should take it completely seriously.”
On Thursday Coalition senators rewrote a Labor motion, including by deleting references to a “significant increase in far-right extremism” in Australia – a move that prompted the opposition to claim the government had decided to “white out the advice of national security agencies”.
The move came on the same day the immigration minister, Alex Hawke, denied that extremism was on the rise in Australia. The home affairs minister, Peter Dutton, has previously said security agencies should pursue security threats whether by “rightwing lunatics or leftwing lunatics”.
Asked if conservatives were oversensitive about the use of the “far-right” label, Paterson said: “I’m completely relaxed about the labels. I don’t care if we call it far right or white nationalists or white supremacists or neo-Nazis or whatever.”
With Asio currently reviewing the language it uses to refer to extremist groups, Paterson added: “I think we should use whatever terms most accurately describe the ideology underlying these groups, and I’ll be guided by the security agencies and the language that they use.”
Paterson said he did not want the inquiry into extremist movements to “become a political football” as he intended to “dispassionately pursue this on its merits”.
He said he would seek to continue to strive for bipartisanship on the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security, which includes Coalition and Labor members and was formerly chaired by Andrew Hastie, now assistant defence minister.
Labor’s home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, cited news that Canada had listed the Proud Boys as a terrorist organisation and said Australia was the only Five Eyes country that had not listed a far-right group.
After calls for a closer look at far-right extremism in Australia, Dutton initiated an inquiry focusing on “Islamist and far rightwing extremist groups” among others.
Submissions are due next Friday, paving the way for public hearings before the inquiry wraps up in April.
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