ANDRE OBOLER: The Australian government must not only ban far-right groups, but also criminalise speech that incites violence in the name of ideological or religious extremism.

THE EXPOSÉ OF right-wing extremism in Australia this week by The AgeThe Sydney Morning Herald and 60 Minutes was a brilliant example of investigative journalism. It identified 24 members of the National Socialist Alliance, including members with gun and security licenses. Some even working for the government. The reporting was largely based on the work of a source who infiltrated the neo-Nazi group. The Jewish community owes a debt to that anonymous source.

I know handful of former right-wing extremists from different parts of the world. One of them left extremism behind, then went back in as an undercover source for an anti-fascist media investigation. It was the UK, the early 1980s, and this source became a founding member of the British National Party.

After foiling a bomb plot, and other acts of extremist violence, he got out in much the same way as we are seeing now. The story aired as a documentary, The Other Face of Terror, on Channel 4 in 1984. The activist’s name is Ray Hill.

Hill was elected an Honorary Vice-President of the UK’s National Union of Students and an Honorary life member of the Union of Jewish Students (UJS), the UK’s version of AUJS. I served for a time as National Secretary of UJS while I was in the UK doing my PhD.

That’s where I met Hill and heard his story for the first time. He liked to share the story of panicked phone calls as the doco aired, far-right activists who were convinced it was a media conspiracy to frame him as a mole and discredit him.

He was far less amused when he relayed the story of a Molotov cocktail being thrown into his child’s bedroom, and the subsequent decades of living in hiding.

Ray Hill’s story reflects the life of someone who put himself in harm’s way to take a stand against far-right extremism. It’s the story of someone who knew the risks. The story of someone who saw the risk right in front of him, day after day, and still returning to finish the job.

An anonymous Australian has taken a similar risk. They’ve willingly accepted a similar redirection of their life, moving interstate or overseas for their own protection. Before saying any more, I repeat, we as Australians and especially as Jewish Australians, owe that person our thanks.

While some of the names caught in the net from this investigation are new, others are not. Jacob Hersant, David Hiscox, Tom Sewell, and Damien Pearce have all featured in ECAJ’s annual antisemitism reports over recent years. The National Socialist Network was discussed in last year’s report, right after it formed, and its precursors were discussed in earlier reports.

My organisation, the Online Hate Prevention Institute, tracked one of its precursors, Antipodean Resistance, from the very first message announcing its formation on an international neo-Nazi forum.

The other far-right groups mentioned in the reporting are also known. Combat 18 and its activity have been noted in four of the last five ECAJ reports. The 2018 report mentioned the “Proud Boys Australia”. Many of the other named groups, whether Australian or established overseas, were only formed in the last few years, while older groups have faded away.

Broadly speaking, the organisation names constantly change, but the people and their activities largely remain the same, and have been documented in the various ECAJ reports. Even more are documented by the Melbourne based anti-fascist activist with the pseudonym Andy Fleming, who traces the ins and outs, the splits and mergers, the feuds, the plans, and the history of Australia’s far-right.

For those who have been paying attention over the past few years, not much is new. But still, I stress, the threat is real.

The focus from police and intelligence agencies is needed. They weren’t doing it right before, and with the increased focus on right-wing extremism, they are slowly getting better. They don’t need to break encryption, they need to ramp up serious investigation of these groups.

Nothing else will work when those posing the real risk go offline, into the physical world, to plan their next move. The growing number of young people being radicalised online is a different problem which needs different solutions. It isn’t groups like the National Socialist Alliance causing that problem, though they will certainly seek to recruit those who become radical enough for their liking.

I trust our police and intelligence services are monitoring those who pose a threat. The problem is that without the legal tools to act, they continue to go around in circles. In a statement on Monday, three senior ALP figures called on the government to proscribe the groups named in journalists’ report as terrorist organisations and to ensure Australia’s laws are fit for purpose.

In my view the government should not only proscribe overseas and domestic far-right extremist groups, but also criminalise the promotion of violence or harm to others in the name of a radical ideology or extremist view of religion.

By shying away from action on extremist speech, we allow hate to fester, radicalisation to grow, and the pressure inside these extremist movements to build closer and closer to bursting point.

Dr Andre Oboler is CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute and an expert member of the Australian Government’s delegation to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

Originally published as: Andre Oboler, ‘The Jewish community owes a debt to the mole who infiltrated the neo-Nazi network’, Plus 61J, 20 August 2021.