Ugly isn't the half of it

July 5, 1995

The Right Road: A History of Right-wing Politics in Australia
By Andrew Moore
Oxford University Press, 1995. 166 pp., $22.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

Right-wing politics in Australia has its well-populated rogue's gallery. It ranges from the fascist fringe of Ross "The Skull" May, Lyenko Urbanchich of the NSW Liberal Party "Uglies", Jim Saleam of National Action, Eric Campbell of the '30s New Guard and Eric Butler of the Australian League of Rights, through the likes of Michael Darby, B.A. Santamaria and John Singleton to the "respectable" cluster around the luminaries of the '80s New Right such as Peter Costello, Ian McLachlan, Hugh Morgan and Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

The collective writings, ravings and activities of this motley crew of crazies and greed-merchants, outlined in Andrew Moore's book, confirm, for those with any doubts, that the right are enemies, often vicious, of democracy, civil rights, living standards and everything that makes for human and planetary well-being and happiness.

The right has been fighting the threat of democracy from the days of the "bunyip aristocracy" of the colonial period, whose members reacted fearfully to "convict uprisings, gold-mining revolutionaries, Irish rebels, the 'yellow peril', 1890s strikers and socialist militants". The violent skinheads of National Action and the economic rationalists with their "labour market reform" program (union-bashing) have helped carry the torch of reaction.

The far right share certain attributes, argues Moore, including nationalism and its partner in bigotry, racism; a contempt for democracy and "the mob", especially the unionised working class; and a liking for conspiracy theory (involving some or all of the Jews, Communists, United Nations, governments generally and assorted other scapegoats).

Fascism is the extreme expression of all these tendencies, but Moore is right to stress that fascist movements draw sustenance from a broader right-wing stream of authoritarianism and elitism. The street Nazis of National Action "learnt basic lessons in bigotry" from the Australian League of Rights, an organisation which attempts to hide its fascist light under the bushel of mainstream conservatism. The League is not the only "nursery for violent racism" — the "respectable racism" of academics like Geoffrey Blainey plays this role, too.

Mainstream conservatism has always nourished the far right. If Prime Minister Bruce adulated Mussolini, the Sydney Catholic Archbishop venerated General Franco, Attorney-General Menzies admired Hitler and some of the biggest names in the Australian capitalist class (such as BHP and CSR) respected Hitler for crushing a powerful labour movement (and donated to various extra-parliamentary right wing groups), is it any surprise that the extreme (and often loopy) right grows in confidence and recruits? When madness is at the fringe, disease is at the core.

There are organic links between the far right and the establishment centre. In the 1890s, government "legal" repression of the trade unions was supplemented by the approved unleashing of "special constables" (strike-breakers) and a militia of station-owners trusting in the persuasive power of Nordenfelt and Gatling guns. The government-approved RSL organised a 2000-strong army to fight Bolshevism in 1919 and set up semi-secret private armies in the inter-war years. There were more than 100,000 other anti-communist vigilantes in other secret armies, who were basically civilian auxiliaries linked to the state security services and police.

A proposed inquiry into the fascist New Guard in 1932 was quashed because at least 20 members of the federal and NSW state governments would have been implicated. In the '30s and '50s, governments did part of fascism's job in severely restricting free speech and civil liberties. Menzies deserved his sobriquet of "Ming the Merciless" from the workers.

In the '70s, some hard right ideologues with fascist leanings (known as the "Uglies") made deep inroads into the NSW Liberal Party. They were linked to the League of Rights; their driving force was Lyenko Urbanchich, who was alleged to have pumped out Nazi propaganda in occupied Slovenia during World War II. When Whitlam put the wind up many conservatives, some of them formed People Against Communism (PAC) — which was supported by both Henry Bolte (the former Victorian Premier) and the Australian Nazi Party, one of whose members became PAC's treasurer.

The politics and personnel of the New Right of the '80s, whose signature tune was union-busting at Mudginberri, Robe River and Dollar Sweets, are now to be found on the Liberal Party front bench, whilst, Moore could have added, Labor did a thorough New Right job on the pilots' union and the BLF. Moore is right to say that the Liberals "gradually succumbed to the New Right and its catchcries of 'privatisation', 'economic rationalism', 'user pays' and 'deregulation'", but these same mantras are also part of ALP orthodoxy.

The right have often mistaken the ALP for the "socialist tiger" about to pounce on their class interests. From a different perspective, Moore, too, gets the ALP wrong. He treats the ALP with kid gloves. The right-wing practice of the ALP in government, which is required if a party is to manage capitalism and not overthrow it, makes it home for some extreme right manifestations. Graeme Campbell, a federal Labor MP, is a frequent speaker at League of Rights events. ALP governments continually adopt the Liberals' right-wing policies and, rhetoric notwithstanding, have a poor record on racism and immigration.

Indeed, the look-a-like contestants in parliament, in moving so far to the right, have colonised most of the right-wing turf, leaving the rabid extra-parliamentary right on the shrinking outskirts of the political arena, nursing Nazi memorabilia in private and Eureka flags in public, and frothing with reactionary nationalism and anti-Asian racism.

The League of Rights' influence is largely restricted to depressed rural areas where the banks are a ready target for small farmers, although like-minded groups such as Australians Against Further Immigration have some urban electoral presence based on "pro-worker" nationalism, racism and the despair of many battlers with the ALP.

Moore concludes, accurately, that the far right "is a mumble rather than a roar" in Australia at present, though this is partly because the ALP has made much of traditional right-wing politics into the norm. Moore's softness for an Australian exceptionalism — class war has always been muted in Australia and the excesses of left or right are out of place — is much too blase.

The seeds for a fascist revival are present in all capitalist societies, including Australia, which is no stranger to racial tension, unemployment, an increasing de-unionisation of the working class, economic recession and depression.

In recent commemorations of World War II, Keating was right to say of Alexander Downer that it was Downer's class which supported fascism 60 years ago. The capitalist class, however, is Keating's, too.

They all get it wrong — the fruitcake loony right, the fascist right, the Liberals, the boss-in-workers'-clothing ALP. Each in its own tactically separate ways has a political theory and practice that is wrong for the world's working people. The old bit of socialist graffiti had the correct answer — "To be right, be left!".

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