MIKE SECCOMBE

The ex­pul­sion of a group of neo-Nazis from the Young Na­tion­als high­lights the way ex­trem­ist and spe­cial in­ter­est groups can in­fil­trate ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties, es­pe­cially as fall­ing party mem­ber­ships put takeovers more eas­ily within reach. Mike Seccombe r

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They hid be­hind aliases, or­gan­ised them­selves through pri­vate so­cial me­dia groups and com­mu­ni­cated their racist and anti-Semitic be­liefs in coded mes­sages and ges­tures. Their aim was to re­make a po­lit­i­cal party in their own ex­trem­ist im­age.

The tale of the push by alt-right ac­tivists, self-ac­knowl­edged fas­cists and neo-Nazi sym­pa­this­ers to in­fil­trate the Na­tional Party through its youth wing – and of how they were even­tu­ally ex­posed and banned – is not just a great po­lit­i­cal story, it’s a great de­tec­tive story. Not to men­tion a timely warn­ing to po­lit­i­cal par­ties, not only those of the con­ser­va­tive side, to watch care­fully for weeds grow­ing among the grass­roots.

It be­gan early this year, when sus­pi­cion dawned among some of the Young Na­tion­als that there was some­thing odd about a re­cent in­flux of dozens of new mem­bers. These weren’t bushies; they came with city ad­dresses.

Sus­pi­cion turned to worry in May, at the Young Nats’ an­nual gen­eral meet­ing and con­fer­ence in Lis­more, when it be­came ap­par­ent the new mem­bers were an or­gan­ised bloc with a far-right agenda.

Two mo­tions they pro­posed caused par­tic­u­lar con­cern. One, in the name of a Clif­ford Jen­nings, called for the Young Na­tion­als to “en­dorse im­mi­gra­tion from cul­tur­ally com­pat­i­ble peo­ple and na­tions but sup­port strict im­mi­gra­tion con­trols from those who are not”.

An­other mo­tion moved by Jen­nings pro­posed that the party “de­nounce ra­cial vi­o­lence against white South Africans” and called for them to be of­fered refugee sta­tus.

To the credit of the Young Na­tion­als, says Ross Cadell, the New South Wales state di­rec­tor of the party, “the one about cul­tural com­pat­i­bil­ity was pulled be­fore the con­fer­ence, after some con­cern ex­pressed by the party. They had 90 min­utes of de­bate on the white farmer one, but it didn’t get up, even with the in­flux of new mem­bers.”

While they failed to get their mo­tions up, the new bloc did suc­ceed in get­ting Jen­nings elected to the ex­ec­u­tive of the NSW Young Na­tion­als.

By then, mod­er­ate el­e­ments had al­ready dis­cov­ered the first ev­i­dence of the du­bi­ous an­tecedents of their newly in­stalled metro re­gional co-or­di­na­tor. It was a grainy video in­ter­view, posted to Face­book in Jan­uary 2017, in which Jen­nings, speak­ing un­der the alias of “John Smith”, claimed to have “cre­ated alt-right Aus­tralia”.

But when Jen­nings was asked about the video, The Land re­ported, “he said it was a ‘long time’ ago and de­nied any cur­rent in­volve­ment, or sym­pa­thies towards white na­tion­al­ism or the alt-right move­ment”.

And there the mat­ter rested un­til four weeks ago, with the air­ing of a bomb­shell re­port on the ABC’s Back­ground Brief­ing pro­gram, which de­tailed “a covert plot by Aus­tralia’s alt-right move­ment to join ma­jor po­lit­i­cal par­ties and in­flu­ence their pol­icy agen­das from within”.

The re­port drew heav­ily on the work of Dr Kaz Ross – a lec­turer in Asian stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Tas­ma­nia, who started out track­ing anti-Chi­nese on­line ex­trem­ism a cou­ple of years ago – and, through her, a group called the White Rose So­ci­ety, which mon­i­tors the on­line ac­tiv­ity of ex­treme right or­gan­i­sa­tions in Aus­tralia.

Over al­most two years, they had com­piled dossiers that linked a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber of Young Na­tion­als to the group and to other ex­treme right or­gan­i­sa­tions and in­di­vid­u­als, gain­ing ac­cess to so­cial me­dia posts and closed Face­book groups, in­clud­ing one called “The New Guard”.

On Back­ground Brief­ing, the

ABC’s Alex Mann pre­sented a damn­ing body of ev­i­dence of Young Na­tion­als “shar­ing alt-right talk­ing points, racist in-jokes con­tain­ing coded ref­er­ences to Hitler, and the­o­ries of a global Jewish con­spir­acy”.

The re­port re­vealed aliases and named names. It showed, for ex­am­ple, one Young Na­tion­als mem­ber – who went un­der the name “Nik­laus Velker” on­line – com­mem­o­rat­ing the an­niver­sary of Adolf Hitler’s death on April 30 this year, with a Face­book post read­ing “Rest in Peace. 88!” It was code – the num­ber 8 stands for the eighth let­ter of the al­pha­bet, H, and 88 for “Heil Hitler”.

An­other Face­book pro­file linked to a Young Nats mem­ber listed his place of work as “Auschwitz Con­cen­tra­tion Camp”.

The re­port fo­cused largely on Jen­nings, not­ing among other things that, on March 12 last year, he re­sponded to a Face­book poll seek­ing his main po­lit­i­cal opin­ions.

“Mr Jen­nings se­lected ‘Eth­nona­tion­al­ism (race over all)’ and

‘Fas­cism’,” Mann re­ported.

Also noted was an­other post by Jen­nings, in which he wrote: “All I care about is the four­teen words” – an ap­par­ent ref­er­ence to a phrase widely used by white su­prem­a­cists. The 14 words are: “We must se­cure the ex­is­tence of our peo­ple and a fu­ture for white chil­dren.”

Mann’s story con­nected var­i­ous mem­bers of the Na­tion­als’ youth wing to ex­trem­ist groups and high-pro­file white na­tion­al­ists, in­clud­ing Blair Cot­trell, the for­mer leader of the United Pa­tri­ots Front who was con­victed last year of in­cit­ing con­tempt towards Mus­lims. The link was through a men’s-only fight club, called the Lads So­ci­ety.

There was more, too, much more, and when the story aired it stirred the Na­tion­als to be­lated ac­tion.

Ross Cadell de­fends the party from claims it has ig­nored the can­cer grow­ing in its ranks.

“We did go look­ing,” he tells The Satur­day Pa­per. “We went into our own so­cial me­dia. But the ma­jor­ity used pseu­do­nyms or dif­fer­ent Face­book pro­files. A lot of the chats were in closed groups, so we had very lit­tle abil­ity to vet – even when we were con­cerned with what was hap­pen­ing – where these peo­ple came from and what their views were.

“It was not un­til we got the as­sis­tance of some out­side ex­perts – Dr Kaz Ross, the Jewish Board of Deputies, other groups – that we were fi­nally able to get a body of ev­i­dence that linked it to­gether,” he says.

Even so, it was a tor­tu­ous and timein­ten­sive process.

“These guys hid be­hind a lot of ex­plain­able things,” he says.

“The white power hand sig­nals they say means ‘okay’ or ‘bon ap­pétit’. The 88 num­ber, for Heil Hitler, is just a co­in­ci­dence. The 14 words and num­ber 14, just an­other co­in­ci­dence.”

In all, the Na­tion­als in­ves­ti­gated 35 peo­ple, go­ing back two years and “look­ing at every­one who was in a photo with these peo­ple at the con­fer­ence, or who had shared friend­ship on so­cial me­dia with one of these peo­ple”.

“We had three staff on it, full­time,” says Cadell. “I was on it about half-time, so prob­a­bly eight weeks of man­power in all, plus those third par­ties, be­ing very sup­port­ive in the ex­change of in­for­ma­tion.”

They iden­ti­fied 22 mem­bers with un­ac­cept­able links.

In the end, most jumped be­fore they could be pushed out of the party.

Last Wed­nes­day, Jen­nings made pub­lic a res­ig­na­tion let­ter from 15 of them, in which he stri­dently at­tacked “left­ist jour­nal­ists”, “glob­al­ist elites”, the “ABC and other rad­i­cal forces” and the “hope­less lead­er­ship” of the Coali­tion par­ties, whose com­mit­ment to “third world im­mi­gra­tion” would make Aus­tralians “a mi­nor­ity in their own coun­try”.

Last Fri­day, the Na­tional Party’s cen­tral ex­ec­u­tive, the peak body in

NSW, passed a res­o­lu­tion declar­ing that “in­volve­ment in the Lads So­ci­ety, Squadron 88, The Din­goes, New Guard or An­tipodean Re­sis­tance is in­com­pat­i­ble with mem­ber­ship of the Na­tional Party of Aus­tralia – NSW”.

It had been some 40 years since the Na­tion­als – then the Coun­try Party – passed such a res­o­lu­tion, at that time against the ex­treme right-wing group the League of Rights.

Is that the end of the mat­ter?

Maybe not. Even Cadell ad­mits the party may not have iden­ti­fied all the in­fil­tra­tors. And Ross says the alt-right con­tin­ues to shapeshift and grow. She gives credit to the Na­tional Party for its ef­forts, but notes the dif­fi­culty faced by all po­lit­i­cal par­ties in vet­ting their mem­ber­ships.

In some ways, the prob­lem of in­fil­tra­tion is not new. John Warhurst, emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of po­lit­i­cal science at the Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity, cau­tions that any anal­y­sis needs to “build in a bit of his­tory”.

Just as the League of Rights and other ex­treme groups were a con­cern in

the Coun­try Party, the La­bor Party faced a stand­off be­tween the Com­mu­nist Party ver­sus the Catholics in the 1940s and ’50s.

“Po­lit­i­cal par­ties have al­ways been vul­ner­a­ble. But it makes it eas­ier when their mem­ber­ship is weaker. There’s no doubt the size of their mem­ber­ships is shrink­ing. It can make the ma­jor par­ties more ide­o­log­i­cal and prone to misreading the mood of the elec­torate,” says Warhurst.

An­other po­lit­i­cal sci­en­tist, Nick Economou, of Monash Univer­sity, has an even darker view. He sees party rank and file as a big fac­tor in the de­cline of ma­jor par­ties.

“The days of peo­ple join­ing a party just to in­di­cate they were sup­port­ers – you know, here’s my $5 a year and

I will just hand out how-to-vote cards – are over.

“The sorts of peo­ple who want to join po­lit­i­cal par­ties these days are in­creas­ingly ei­ther peo­ple as­pir­ing to a ca­reer in pol­i­tics, friends of peo­ple who aspire to a ca­reer in pol­i­tics – that is, branch stack­ers – or, most prob­lem­atic, peo­ple who ac­tu­ally be­lieve in pol­i­tics, the ide­o­logues.

“The most ob­vi­ous ex­am­ple of a takeover by the mo­ti­vated few is what’s hap­pened to the Amer­i­can Re­pub­li­can Party. The Tea Party phe­nom­e­non mo­bilised the dis­af­fected. Next thing you know, they were hav­ing a pro­found in­flu­ence over what are ef­fec­tively pre­s­e­lec­tion de­ci­sions.

“In­ter­est­ingly, the right-of-cen­tre par­ties are strug­gling more with this at the mo­ment.”

In Aus­tralia, says Economou, there are struc­tural fac­tors at play. La­bor keeps a tighter rein on branch ac­tiv­i­ties and the pre­s­e­lec­tion of can­di­dates. They have a state ex­ec­u­tive and a fed­eral ex­ec­u­tive over­see­ing things and able to in­ter­vene if they don’t like a can­di­date se­lec­tion.

“But it’s much less the case in the Lib­eral and Na­tional Par­ties,” he says.

They give greater au­ton­omy to the branches be­cause “that res­onates with the con­ser­va­tive no­tion of de­cen­tralised power”.

The prob­lem is ex­ac­er­bated by the rise of iden­tity pol­i­tics, as the Na­tion­als’ Cadell con­cedes.

His party, like all the oth­ers, is “strug­gling a bit be­cause we are for a shop­ping cart full of be­liefs and ideas, and peo­ple are be­com­ing more cau­sa­tional,” he says.

“Peo­ple might want to choose one or two things to sup­port, and not the rest. It’s harder to get them to buy into the over­all pack­age we rep­re­sent, and I think that’s true of all par­ties.”

There is ev­i­dence of that on the left, too. The Greens, for ex­am­ple, strug­gle to ac­com­mo­date the var­i­ous agen­das of their con­stituents. Economou re­calls the term the Greens’ hard-left so­cial ac­tivists use to dis­par­age those whose ma­jor fo­cus is the en­vi­ron­ment – “tree Tories”.

“Many of those flock­ing to the Greens are not all about sav­ing the en­vi­ron­ment, but about bring­ing Syr­ian refugees to Aus­tralia, or what have you,” he ob­serves.

One ex­am­ple of this ten­sion be­tween the Greens’ en­vi­ron­men­tal and so­cial agen­das is An­drew Wilkie, who stood twice for the party, in 2004 and 2007, be­fore leav­ing “in a bit of a huff ”.

“I joined the Greens in NSW and when I moved to Tas­ma­nia for the 2007 elec­tion I was not sup­ported,” Wilkie says. “In fact I was un­der­mined be­cause I came from a so­cial jus­tice, anti-war back­ground. Here they are much more a party of en­vi­ron­men­tal ac­tivists.”

In 2010, Wilkie stood for the seat of Deni­son, pre­vi­ously a La­bor elec­torate, and won nar­rowly. In the two sub­se­quent elec­tions, he has in­creased his share of the vote, from 51 per cent to 65 per cent in 2013 then to 68 per cent in 2016.

In­ter­est­ingly, last week­end an­other for­mer Green, Anna Reynolds, romped home as lord mayor of Ho­bart. She came out of the en­vi­ron­men­tal stream. An­other suc­cess­ful coun­cil can­di­date was also a re­cent de­par­ture from the party. The Greens in Tas­ma­nia are in real trou­ble.

For­mer hard-left Greens sen­a­tor Lee Rhi­an­non, dumped by the party last year, took to Face­book re­cently to claim the NSW di­vi­sion had just 426 mem­bers un­der the age of 31 as of mid- Oc­to­ber, com­pared with 629 mem­bers in June when mem­ber­ship re­newals were due. She blamed “the ac­tions of high-pro­file men in the Greens towards women”, though the ex­o­dus is plau­si­bly due to fac­tional in­fight­ing as well.

So, where is all this frac­tur­ing of the party sys­tem lead­ing? A re­port by the Grat­tan In­sti­tute ear­lier this year set it out clearly – we are headed towards more in­de­pen­dent and mi­nor party rep­re­sen­ta­tives in gov­ern­ment.

Be­tween 2004 and 2016, the in­sti­tute found, the vote for the Lib­eral and Na­tional par­ties de­clined al­most 10 per­cent­age points. La­bor lost six. The Greens barely im­proved, but other par­ties and in­de­pen­dents were up 15 per­cent­age points.

“In both the se­nate and the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives the vote for mi­nor par­ties reached the high­est level since the Sec­ond World War. This long-term shift towards vot­ing for ‘out­sider’ par­ties has ac­cel­er­ated in the past decade,” the re­port said.

No­tably, this drift was more pro­nounced in ru­ral and re­gional ar­eas, and did not sim­ply re­flect the rise of One Na­tion and other par­ties rep­re­sen­ta­tive of sec­tional and ex­treme views.

In­deed, as Grat­tan’s chief ex­ec­u­tive John Da­ley notes, one in­ter­est­ing as­pect of the rise of the in­de­pen­dents was the in­crease in rel­a­tively mod­er­ate mem­bers of the house of rep­re­sen­ta­tives.

“The se­nate has al­ways been a bit of a lot­tery,” he says. “Be­cause peo­ple can scoop up one-sev­enth of the elec­torate through pref­er­ences in a multi-mem­ber ex­er­cise, they can come in with quite low per­sonal recog­ni­tion and also hold­ing views that are not par­tic­u­larly rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the elec­torate.

“This is in strong con­trast to the lower house, where you need to come sec­ond at least, which means you need at least 30 per cent of the pri­mary vote, and pref­er­ences from which­ever of the ma­jor par­ties came third. There­fore those elected have much more cen­trist views.”

Wilkie agrees, and cites broad agree­ment be­tween the cross­benchers on a range of is­sues from the need for an in­de­pen­dent anti-cor­rup­tion body to con­cern about cli­mate change, to more hu­man treat­ment of refugees and other is­sues.

“As an in­de­pen­dent, you can ad­dress the tough is­sues the ma­jor par­ties won’t go near. One of the rea­sons their stocks are go­ing down is be­cause they have dodgy poli­cies on is­sues that are im­por­tant to the com­mu­nity. Gam­bling is an­other good ex­am­ple,” he says.

It’s a some­what self-serv­ing ar­gu­ment for Wilkie, but it car­ries the ring of truth.

In­de­pen­dents are less be­holden to vested in­ter­ests. Be­cause they rep­re­sent in­di­vid­ual elec­torates, they are more plugged in to lo­cal con­cerns. They don’t have to worry about how their poli­cies are viewed across the whole, di­verse na­tion and so are spared the ne­ces­sity of of­fer­ing dif­fer­ent mes­sages in dif­fer­ent elec­torates.

And, as Economou notes, they don’t have to worry about their branches be­ing stacked by the re­li­gious right, as in the case of the Lib­eral Party, or by the rad­i­cal left, as in the case of the Greens, or, as the re­cent Young Na­tion­als case shows, white su­prem­a­cists and neo-Nazis.

“It’s an aw­ful thing to say, be­cause it sounds pro­foundly anti-demo­cratic,” Economou says, “but the or­di­nary branch mem­ber is a big prob­lem in po­lit­i­cal par­ties.”•

“PO­LIT­I­CAL PAR­TIES HAVE AL­WAYS BEEN VUL­NER­A­BLE. BUT THERE’S NO DOUBT THE SIZE OF THEIR MEM­BER­SHIPS IS SHRINK­ING. IT CAN MAKE THE MA­JOR PAR­TIES MORE IDE­O­LOG­I­CAL AND PRONE TO MISREADING THE MOOD OF THE ELEC­TORATE.”

MIKE SECCOMBE is The Satur­day Pa­per’s na­tional cor­re­spon­dent.

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