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ASIO shouldn't be expected to fix our far-right extremism problems

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ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess (Screenshot via YouTube)

Instead of looking to our nation's security agencies for answers in eradicating far-right terrorism, we should start by acting more locally, writes Tom Tanuki.

DURING Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director-General Mike Burgess’ interview last week with The Guardian, he was asked if there are any direct lessons to be learned on the third anniversary of the Christchurch massacre. “No,” he said, “because it’s an event that happened in another country”.

His answer annoyed me at first, because of course there are many lessons to be learned from Christchurch. But it’s a perfectly reasonable response for the head of an intelligence agency to give. My issue isn’t with anything he or ASIO says, to be honest — it’s with every other Australian who’s so obsessed with what spies have to say about their problem.

Burgess is paid to manage national security issues in Australia, not to promote social cohesion or an anti-racist culture. Lucky that he isn’t, because I had the misfortune to listen to him questioned at a Senate Estimates hearing on Monday 22 March. No senator asks any good questions of him on the matter of White supremacist extremism and it’s by-and-large a very cringe-worthy exchange.

But one, in particular, is so bad it took my breath away. Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells asks Burgess to confirm that ASIO changed their umbrella categorisation terminology for extremism to “ideologically” or “religiously-motivated” because the Christchurch massacre demonstrates that Nazism is actually communism. Gosh!

This is a flat-out garbage lie invented by alt-right compulsive liars and Fierravanti-Wells is a brain-searingly stupid senator for believing it; an indictment on the halls of Parliament she slimed into. Shockingly, Burgess responds by quoting a former prime minister in observing that the further “extreme right” one goes, one becomes “extreme left”. Golly!  

Mike’s not making a nuanced observation on the environmentally and economically socialist doctrine of Third Positionist Nazis here. I think the head of ASIO is repeating “horseshoe theory”, which is the exclusive domain of all lazy left/right political commentary. I’m glad Mike’s not responsible for the sociopolitical commentary side of things. Because I fear that, on those matters, he might actually be a moron.

So why do we wait for this moron’s (hi, ASIO) security announcements to start talking about our sociopolitical problem?

I had a few conversations with journalists after the aforementioned ASIO terminology change. I was asked about the intentions of it and what I think about ASIO’s previous 2020 announcement that up to 40 per cent of their workload is far-right extremism. I glazed over. Anti-fascists and journalists regularly name names and point out this precise problem in detail, so why do I care about their 40 per cent number? Am I doing their timesheet for them?                           

Regarding the lingo change, I think I was expected to talk about how it comes from political pressure after years of Liberal squirming over right-wing extremism. But I didn’t care about that, so I felt more comfortable saying that we don’t need to wait on 007 to tell us about Nazi terrorists just to care about them.

That part doesn’t get published often. But I’ve got my own column space so let me say it here. Stop waiting for ASIO to fix your own bloody problems for you.

People love to ignore that anti-fascist researchers and journalists regularly do the heavy lifting on exposing far-right extremist elements. In 2018, a neo-Nazi plan to branch-stack the NSW Young Nationals was exposed by the ABC and anti-fascist research group White Rose Society. Subsequently, the Young Nationals were able to identify and ban the infiltrators.  That had a considerable effect in scattering ringleaders and causing many to leave the far-Right.

Watch closely, because similar exposure is occurring again right now. Several brilliant journalists are exposing Australian recruitment to the Nazi extremist group The Base. Their reporting may shape our nation’s response to White extremism for the coming year or more. No spies required.

A caveat: I know that a handful of researchers, journos and columnists aren’t action heroes. No, we won’t stop the next massacre in the final stages of planning. I am not Opinion Column Bruce Willis. I cannot disarm the bomb. I get that. If James Bond is out there literally doing that, of course, I am relieved and grateful. See how nice I am? There you go, that’s me off the watchlist.

But again, my issue is with everyone else hanging off every word of these ASIO threat assessments. I think it comes after decades of being conditioned, through the post-9/11 security response, to tacitly assume that terrorism is the act of someone else — and, in a country with a White Australian majority, that someone else invariably means groups such as the Muslim community. Not “us”, it could never be “us”. 

We are also conditioned to believe that terrorism is inevitable in a complex, internet-wired world and can only be resolved by the state — or by compliance with the state (recall the “be alert, not alarmed” campaign). Our tacit assumption is that only security agencies can fix this issue, once someone has a gun in hand. Before that happens? We don’t know what to say. Must be someone else’s job.

The centring of ASIO in our discourse about Nazi extremism is reflective of the old-fashioned White Australian unwillingness to tackle our in-home problem of racism. It’s taken on a note of urgency now that White supremacy is turning terroristic, but the response remains the same. The stubborn ignorance of my fellow White Australians may now help shield would-be terrorists.

White Australia has yet to collectively consider if we must now take the same communal responsibility for organised racism that we used to insist that Muslim communities should do for “terrorist cells”.

I think I counted on both hands the amount of mainstream media pieces remembering the Christchurch massacre anniversary last week. Shocking, given our obsession with ASIO’s workload and terminology. Mike Burgess says there are no lessons to be learned from it because it happened in New Zealand. Fine for a spy agency head to say, maybe, but socio-politically, that massacre is our national tragedy.

That murderer is our most devastating mass-murderer of all time. Maybe ASIO prevents similar outcomes here in Australia, but they don’t stop the cultural climate that eventually radicalises people like Tarrant.

That is our job.

It’s the same point I make all the time: good anti-fascist organising and community work is key. Anti-fascist figures like slackbastard make it patently clear, constantly, for years, what exactly the threat of far-right extremism is. They provide you with your real “threat assessment”. Start to pay attention to the people who work in this space and give the community the tools to respond to these threats.

I mentioned the Young Nationals infiltration exposé above. A few days after it happened, ASIO’s former Director-General of Security, Duncan Lewis, told a Senate Estimates hearing that he had become aware of political party infiltration by extremists only after the ABC report came out.

Were they aware of the depths of The Base’s recruitment before the current coverage? Who knows. But don’t let it worry you. Take it as a reminder that other people apart from ASIO devote their lives to this problem and they’re not 007 super spies. They’re people just like you, who took up the mantle of community responsibility for weeding out this problem. Like you should.

Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.). You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.

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