Fringe parties that spread racist or anti-Muslim propaganda are subtly shifting public discourse to the political right in the lead up to the federal election, say two Victoria University researchers.
Dr Mario Peucker and Dr Debra Smith say the process of ‘mainstreaming’ the far-right agenda is reaching new dimensions as a growing number of local and national politicians, directly or indirectly endorse the messages of groups such as Reclaim Australia, the Australian Liberty Alliance or even the United Patriot Front.
“Most people disregard these groups as extremists who represent only a small and electorally marginal minority of Australians, but their radical messages are not as disconnected from some mainstream politicians and opinion leaders as we’d like to think,” says Dr Peucker.
He says the process of shifting discourse and moving social norms to the political right is most palpable in the public discourse around the place of Islam and Muslims in Australia.
Dr Peucker points to a recent Senate inquiry set up to investigate links between halal food certification as a conduit for funding terrorism.
Although the link was completely unfounded by the inquiry, Dr Peucker says it remains part of the “Islamaphobia tool kit” used not only by unelected extremist groups but also by elected politicians such as Cory Bernardi and Jacqui Lambi.
Recent conflicts about mosque-building in Bendigo and Narre Warren that involved local councillors taking up the cause of anti-Islam movements reflect a logic, according to the researchers, that Islam has an inherent problem that needs fixing to fit into Australia’s liberal society.
A very similar message was sent by former Prime Minister Tony Abbott when he called for “a Reformation, an Enlightenment” within Islam.
Fringe groups can gain a certain degree of legitimacy through these public statements of leading politicians, and by protesting in support of government policies such as off-shore detention centres, as evidenced by recent protests in Coburg, Dr Peucker points out.
“A dangerously self-reinforcing circle allows electorally marginal movements into a space from where their agenda around equality, multiculturalism and religious freedom doesn’t look so extreme anymore.”
Dr Mario Peucker and Dr Debra Smith are postdoctoral research fellows at the Centre for Cultural Diversity and Wellbeing at Victoria University.
An opinion piece on this topic was published in The Age on 12 June 2016.