The newly formed right-wing group ‘Reclaim Australia’ held anti-Muslim protests in major cities around the country on Saturday 4 April. In most places they were confronted with counter protests opposed to their bigotry and racist hate-speech.
Hundreds of anti-racist protesters turned out in Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Perth. The biggest anti-racist protest was in Melbourne where the Socialist Party (CWI Australia) worked hard to build a mass response.
Anti-racist protesters outnumbered the Reclaim Australia rally ten to one, with around 4,000 people filling Federation Square in central Melbourne. The goal of the Melbourne rally was to occupy the space and disrupt the Reclaim Australia event.
Reclaim Australia’s manifesto explicitly targets Muslims. In spreading conspiracy theories about Muslims, who make up around 2% of Australia’s population, the groups involved in Reclaim Australia hope to rebuild a broadly anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, white nationalist movement. The core of Reclaim Australia is made up of various far-right and neo-Nazi groups looking for a broader base to recruit from.
A collective response to block the public expression of racist hate-speech is not an attack on the right to freedom of speech. Rather, it holds the far-right accountable for what they say and the ramifications of their actions. To allow neo-Nazis and their far-right allies to march openly through the streets of a major Australian city would represent a clear step backwards in the struggle against racism and the fight against fascism.
An increase in racist and anti-Muslim hate crime is already being reported in around Australia. The targets of these attacks are not only Muslims, but also other ethnic and religious minorities. A far-right movement built around the ideas of Reclaim Australia would serve to further fuel and legitimise these attacks. Recent lessons from European countries demonstrate the necessity to challenge and counter these movements in their infancy, as they have the potential to become widespread in times of economic uncertainty.
The main culprits behind the momentum that has been gathering for Reclaim Australia are more mainstream that those involved in the rallies themselves. For over a decade, Australian politicians have used broadly anti-Muslim rhetoric to justify sending troops to fight wars in the Middle East, then to justify locking up refugees fleeing those wars.
More recently Prime Minister Tony Abbott attacked Australian Muslims, suggesting Islamic leaders in Australia have something to answer for in relation to right-wing Islamic political movements overseas. Far from searching for solutions to global problems, Abbott’s intention was distract Australians from the political crisis his government remains mired in.
The use of racist anti-Muslim propaganda as distraction has served consecutive governments well in quelling opposition to unpopular policies and continuing the neoliberal onslaught. On the same day as Reclaim Australia’s nationwide rallies, the Australian Tax Office confirmed that an estimated $60 billion had been sent to offshore accounts by major corporations in a huge tax avoidance scheme. Some of Australia’s largest companies continue to pay little or no tax. The corporate tax rate in Australia remains one of the lowest amongst OECD countries.
Cuts to services and infrastructure
Meanwhile, the last federal budget contained billions of dollars in cuts to services and infrastructure – the latest attempt to increase business profit at the expense of working people. No wonder the gap between rich and poor is increasing at an alarming rate.
Ordinary people are feeling the pressure of cost of living increases, and are keenly aware of their declining access to adequate employment, education, healthcare and affordable housing. A cursory glance at the global economic situation, including the dramatic drop in commodity prices, drives home how uncertain Australia’s economic future is looking. With many people’s retirement savings tied intimately to the property market, many have reason to be fearful of what the future holds.
It is this scenario that is fuelling the growing political, social and economic crises around the world, and Australia is not immune. For the political right, this situation offers an opportunity to push their anti-worker, socially and economically conservative agenda. This includes the scapegoating of ethnic and religious minorities as a cover for the undermining of social services like publicly funded healthcare, education, and housing and unemployment services. Blaming those of us at the bottom that are in need of social support means alleviating the responsibility of those at the top – those whose interests both major parties represent.
The manifesto of Reclaim Australia is deeply confused and focused on conspiracy theories about Muslims and Islam, yet has found support from a section of society conditioned by more mainstream racist and Islamophobic ideas. Those who attended the rallies on 4 April were more representative of the far-right core than the broader passive support expressed in online forums. Attendance was largely made up of lower middle-class white Australians, many from regional areas. However, there were also small groups of people from other ethnic backgrounds, some attracted through evangelical Christian churches, pointing towards the potential for the far-right to broaden its base of appeal in this climate.
In Melbourne, anti-racist protesters arrived an hour before the start of the Reclaim Australia event and attempted to occupy the space. The police then cordoned off an area and ushered the organisers of the Reclaim Australia rally inside.
In response anti-racist protesters linked arms in picket lines across the police cordon and blocked entry of Reclaim Australia supporters into the area. With the help of police on horseback, and the riot squad, some Reclaim Australia supporters were able get through the blockade but hundreds more were forced to leave without attending the rally.
Pauline Hanson, perhaps Australia’s most well-known racist, spoke at the Brisbane rally, while members of the far-right Australia First Party attended in Sydney. In Melbourne, Danny Nalliah, the leader of the ultra-conservative, evangelical Christian Rise Up Australia Party was the highest profile attendee. Nalliah is known for proclaiming that the Black Saturday bush fires were a consequence of Victoria’s decriminalisation of abortion.
Need challenge system of dispossession and exploitation
The one thing that socialists agree with Reclaim Australia on is that there are real problems in Australia, and we should be worried about what the future holds. However, these problems have not been created by Muslims or any other ethnic and religious minority.
It is not Muslims that are responsible for high levels of unemployment and work casualisation in Australia - it is the big employers who are ‘cost-cutting’ at our expense. It is not Muslims who have made housing so unaffordable, it is greedy landlords, the big banks and government policies that benefit housing developers at the expense of buyers and renters. It is not Muslims who are introducing budget cuts and austerity measures - it is Tony Abbot and his Liberal government.
The only minority to blame for these problems is the ultra-rich 1% accumulating the vast bulk of the wealth in society at our expense. They are the ones getting rich off our backs, and we have a collecting interest in uniting together to fight back. Reclaim Australia is taking advantage of the fact that both the major parties rule for the rich and there is no major force that speaks out for the interests of the 99%.
The first step we need to take is to win people away from groups like Reclaim Australia and their racist, anti-Muslim right-wing scapegoating. This includes countering their flawed ideology, as well as stopping them from organising in the streets and spreading their hate-speech. Tactics like the mass counter protest organised in Melbourne on 4 April need to be replicated every time they attempt to mobilise. These actions could be made even stronger if the trade unions seriously get behind it, standing up to these attempts to divide working class people.
Ultimately, to shut down the racists we need to undermine the very basis of racism in society. We need challenge this system built upon the dispossession and exploitation of the many for the benefit of the few. The only way to do this is to build a movement that unites people from different backgrounds and communities. It is only through working class unity that we can beat back Reclaim Australia, and it is only through a mass movement led by working class people that we can reshape society to provide jobs, homes and services to all.