Earlier this week a parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security launched an inquiry to unravel extremism in Australia. Andrew Hastie, Liberal Member of Parliament and the committee chair, stated the inquiry would assess the nature, magnitude, and threat posed by extremism including the motivation, purpose, and capability extremist groups have for violence. The committee will also examine how extremism has evolved during COVID-19 as it is reported the pandemic has been used by extremist groups to push their ideologies and convert new members. Finally, the committee will evaluate the role of social media, the dark web, and encrypted communication platforms. Coincidentally, this week an 18 year old man was arrested on charges related to advocating terrorism and inciting violence. He used social media to communicate about extremist issues and access information on bomb building. Also, this week the report from the royal commission into the Christchurch terrorist attack was released and stated that New Zealand security and intelligence agencies had ignored the capacity of far-right groups had to commit anti-Islamic terrorist attacks.
The committee was commenced due to the vocal demands of Kristina Keneally, Labour’s Home Affairs spokesperson, who questioned ‘when we are faced with a growing and real threat – we should ask ourselves, are the laws that we have and the tools available fit for purpose.’ There is a particular focus on right wing extremism as Senator Keneally stated ‘right-wing extremism is different, their ideologies are different – their methods are different, the way that they organize themselves is different.’ Reece Kershaw, the Australian Federal Police Commissioner, also recognized that there was a ‘steady increase’ in operations focusing on right wing extremism.
This committee is a very important step towards understanding extremism as the federal and state governments can use this information to enact better policies. This includes policies to prevent extremist groups from recruiting and radicalizing more members, how to de-radicalize people with extremist views, and how to prevent any future attacks.
While far-right extremism is not new in Australia, how the federal and state governments have handled COVID-19 has been exploited to increase recruitment. Far-right groups have done so by propagating conspiracy theories about COVID-19 and parroting anti-vaccine rhetoric to entice anti-vaccine activists to their cause. The Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation stated their cases related to right-wing extremism have increased by 40%, which is a third of the agency’s cases and an increase of 10 to 15% since 2016. This has been due to new groups emerging and existing groups becoming more radicalized as well as recruiting more members.
This committee will force Australia to examine its issues with extremism, particularly right-wing extremism. In the past Australia has been quite reluctant in examining domestic right-wing extremism as it is the only country part of the five eyes intelligence network that has not listed any right-wing extremist groups as a banned terrorist organization. This reluctance is startling as there are multiple right-wing extremist groups present in Australia as tracked by the Southern Law Centre based in America. The committee needs to also consider how to address lone actors like the Christchurch attacker who are far more dangerous as they are undetectable to authorities unlike extremist groups who are easier to identify.