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. By Mike Seccombe.

Neo-Nazi Nats and party infiltrations

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 ‘Ethno-nationalism (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 time-intensive 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, full-time,” 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.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 10, 2018 as "Rank and defile".

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Mike Seccombe is The Saturday Paper’s national correspondent.

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