Kristina Keneally claims the federal government is “turning a blind eye” to the threat of white supremacists, in a dispute over a hotly contested Senate motion where the Coalition deleted and amended mentions of right-wing extremism.
The Labor senator also took aim at Immigration Minister Alex Hawke, who said the government “rejects” claims of rising extremism in Australia, despite law and intelligence agencies warning of that very threat on multiple occasions in recent years.
“For years, the Scott Morrison government has sought to downplay, dismiss and ignore the rise in white supremacy and far-right extremism in Australia,” Senator Keneally claimed on Thursday.
The controversy exploded on Thursday morning, when Mr Hawke – Minister for Immigration, Citizenship, Migrant Services and Multicultural Affairs – told Sky News he did not believe extremism was a growing problem in Australia.
Just when @ScottMorrisonMP thought he had the extreme views under control in his party, Multiculturalism Minister @AlexHawkeMP has rejected the advice of ASIO, AFP and Dept of Home Affairs that right wing extremism is on the rise .
A 🧵 👇 pic.twitter.com/1R40IAZQzl
— Kristina Keneally (@KKeneally) February 3, 2021
“It is extreme elements, fringe elements, in Australia that need tackling, they are being tackled. What we have here is increased social cohesion, not increasing extremism,” he said.
Mr Hawke was speaking on the release of the Scanlon Foundation’s 2020 Social Cohesion Report, which found overwhelming support for multiculturalism, but also that nearly half of Australians said they had ‘negative’ feelings toward people of Iraqi, Sudanese and Chinese backgrounds.
“I think they’re over-emphasising this … The government rejects Senator Keneally’s thesis that there is rising extremism in Australia,” he said.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation said recently that right-wing terror accounted for up to 40 per cent of its current workload, and that an attack was possible in Australia.
Home Affairs secretary Mike Pezzullo said his department was watching the threat closely, while Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner Ian McCartney told Senate estimates last October that right-wing extremism was “a real and ongoing threat” representing “an increasing workload” for officers.
Senator Keneally later proposed a motion in the Senate, asking the Parliament’s upper house to recognise “a significant increase in far-right extremism”.
The motion also called on the Senate to condemn Coalition MPs George Christensen and Craig Kelly for “promoting a range of conspiracy theories and misinformation campaigns”.
But the Coalition moved to amend the motion, striking out several mentions of “far-right” from the text, inserting “far left” in other sections, and asking the Senate to also condemn communism and anarchism.
the Senate is currently debating a Labor motion to condemn far-right extremism (first pic)
and here's the proposed government amendment (second pic), seeking to get the Senate to condemn "far-left" extremism and "communism" too pic.twitter.com/15M08KN0OR
— Josh Butler (@JoshButler) February 4, 2021
The first part of Senator Keneally’s motion, noting an increase in far-right activity, was deleted altogether. A section condemning an extreme-right neo-Nazi group – which gained attention last week for burning crosses in rural Victoria – was maintained.
The amended motion passed against Labor objections, 34-27, with One Nation and Centre Alliance joining the government.
The government’s Senate leader, Finance Minister Simon Birmingham, said it was “an important amendment that makes it clear the Senate condemns all forms of extremism”.
“In this place, we often see motions, bowled up for ‘wedge’ purposes, that conflate different issues,” he said.
Senator Keneally was left outraged at the amended motion.
“Today in the Senate, we saw the government literally white-out a motion about right-wing extremism,” she said.
“They took out the references to white supremacy and white right-wing extremism. They sought to do a whataboutism an equivalence with groups like Antifa.”
Greens senator Mehreen Faruqi, the party’s anti-racism spokesperson, called it “nonsensical downplaying of far-right terror”.
More nonsensical false equivalences from the Gov. More nonsensical downplaying of far-right terror.
This is running interference on the side of fascism and hate. This is the Australian equivalent of Donald Trump commenting on the Charlottesville violence, blaming both sides. https://t.co/hD186VyA2Z
— Mehreen Faruqi (@MehreenFaruqi) February 4, 2021
Senator Keneally touched on Canada’s classification of far-right organisation the Proud Boys as a terror group, again criticising the Australian government for failing to make similar proscriptions against any right-wing groups. She said Australia had classified 27 groups as terror organisations, including 26 Islamic extremist groups, including some that had no presence or following domestically.
“We proscribed them because we send a message about the hatred we reject; we proscribe them because our allies have done it,” she said.
“But when we have groups that have been proscribed in the United Kingdom, that have been proscribed in Canada, that have local chapters here or direct links to two groups here, and we’re not proscribing those rates here, what we’re sending is exactly what the right-wing extremists want – a message that we’re turning a blind eye and letting them grow and fester.”
— James Paterson (@SenPaterson) February 4, 2021
Senator Keneally is a member of the powerful Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which is currently running an inquiry into ‘extremist movements and radicalism in Australia’. That inquiry, which will largely focus on far-right threats, is due to report in April 2021 and is currently accepting submissions.
The committee will be supercharged after the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol by right-wing groups. Labor MP Anne Aly, a counter-terror expert, said she wanted the committee to focus specifically on how far-right groups organise and recruit on social media.
Liberal Senator James Paterson was elected as the new chair of the PJCIS on Thursday. In a statement, he said the parliament must “ensure that violent extremism does not take hold in Australia”.