On October 15, 2015, far-right kingpin Shermon Burgess posted his final video on the popular nationalist Facebook page, The Great Aussie Patriot. In the two-minute clip, which was filmed on a phone and edited with awkward jump cuts, he looked distressed.
“G’day patriots,” he started. “Now just letting you know what’s going on. I’m going to be handing full leadership of the United Patriots Front over to Blair Cottrell. I won’t be doing it anymore.”
Reclaim Australia – the series of rallies in 2015 that turned out thousands of anti-immigrant, anti-Islam “patriots” – saw Cottrell as the next golden child. And so did Cottrell. One researcher says he views himself as the “sexy Fuhrer”: a muscular, blond, articulate leader who has said Jews are “a much deadlier enemy than the violent Islamic pillagers”, and that to keep women in line you should “crack them around the ear every once in a while”.
Right-wing figure Blair Cottrell addresses a rally in St Kilda. Credit:Darrian Traynor
But in his three-year tenure as de facto leader of Australia’s far-right, the “sexy Fuhrer” has failed. The movement has dramatically weakened since its Reclaim Australia days – something that could have been predicted from watching Burgess’ resignation video three years ago.
“I won’t be making videos and I’m taking down my page,” he said, before adding: “Now it’s not because of media, it’s not because of death threats from Islam – even though I’ve received many of those.
“It’s because of the dumb f—ing patriots out there.”
Australia’s far-right has cycled through enemies over the years – Islam, the media, Jews, the elites, African gangs – but with their constant infighting, division, ego and lack of leadership, they continue to ensure their biggest enemy is themselves.
After becoming the UPF leader in 2015, Cottrell planned to go mainstream. He announced a political party, Fortitude, which folded after failing to muster enough support to register. He attended other rallies, such as one in Melbourne in mid-2016 about low milk prices, but was booed off the stage soon after taking the megaphone. And while his appearance on triple j’s Hack Live a couple of months later launched him as a truly national figurehead, he failed to translate that notoriety into boots on the ground.
Despite his best efforts, the wildly different strands of far-right Australia refused to cooperate. Since Reclaim Australia, the single biggest ideological clash in far-right circles has been whether to be pro or anti-Israel. Some nationalists celebrate Israel, believing it sets a precedent for the emergence of other single-ethnicity states, while others find more ammunition by blaming Jews for faults in the economy and media.
When it comes to Jews, Australia’s far-right hasn’t been able to keep it together. In the extensive field of far-right Facebook pages and groups, the big news at the end of last year was the clash between Neil Erikson and Avi Yemini. If Cottrell is Australia’s most well known nationalist, Erikson and Yemini are second and third. Erikson is a self-confessed “troll” who famously harassed former senator Sam Dastyari in a Melbourne pub in 2017, and Yemini is the most prominent member of the only far-right party to contest the recent Victoria state election, the Australian Liberty Alliance (which received 0.6 per cent of the upper house vote). He’s also Jewish.
In November, Yemini circulated a photo on Facebook of Erikson appearing to do the Nazi salute at a Coburg pub, and Erikson returned serve by publishing a video where he made different accusations against Yemini. As the conflict escalated, Erikson begged his supporters not to vote for Yemini in the upcoming Victoria state election.
For Erikson and Yemini, the clash was not just personal, but ideological: Yemini is a pro-Israel Jew, while Erikson was convicted for stalking a rabbi in 2014 and has confessed to once being a neo-Nazi.
One result of the constant infighting is that since Reclaim Australia, the far-right has rotated through a ferociously high number of groups. Erikson, for instance, has been part of at least 16 different nationalist projects in recent years, including: Cook’s Convicts, Patriot Blue, Nationalist Uprising, Australian Settlers Rebellion, Aussie Patriot Army, Ban Islam Party, European Australian Civil Rights League, Generation Identity Australia, Nationalist Republican Guard, Neil Erikson Media, NRG Media, OzConspiracy, Pauline Hanson’s Guardian Angels, Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front – Originals, and UPF itself.
Despite their multitude, they amass considerable online followings: Australian Liberty Alliance has 46,000 followers on Facebook, and Erikson, on his personal page, has 23,000. Remnant pages from the Reclaim Australia days have even more reach: the “Stand Up For Australia – Canberra” page, for instance, has 134,000 followers. There are dozens of other groups and pages: far-right media outlets, communities based on geography, pages that spawned from rallies and pages centred on individuals.
Fraser Anning, the independent senator who attended the St Kilda beach rally last Saturday, is a rising star on the far-right Facebook scene. His 75,000-follower strong page shares popular posts, including a recent one – “Too many pollies and those in the media are out of touch with the legitimate concerns of everyday Aussies” – that garnered 13,000 reactions and was shared 3000 times.
Julie Nathan, a researcher with the Executive Council of Australian Jewry who publishes an annual monograph on anti-Semitism in Australia (the far-right usually takes up around 100 pages each edition) says new groups emerge due to uncompromising egos and strict ideologies.
“If someone else comes along and disagrees with a particular set of ideas, that will often create a splinter within the group and another group will form from that. Often they’re quite ideologically tight – you follow the leader or you’re out.”
The far-right is also split on how anti-Semitic they should be in public – some far-right groups read Mein Kampf and celebrate white nationalism, but are unsure on whether that agenda should be broadcast. In a Facebook conversation between Cottrell and Erikson a few months after the former started as leader of the UPF, they debated how to approach “the Jewish problem”.
“My personal opinion is stick to the Muslim shit and Cultural Marxism for max support do Jews later you don’t need to show your full hand,” Erikson said in messages between the two. Cottrell agreed: “Yeah good advice and that’s my current attitude as well. It will take years to prepare for the Jewish problem. If any of us came out with it now we would be slaughtered by public opinion.”
John Safran, a comedian and author who did shots of tequila with United Patriots Front leaders as part of the research for his book Depends What You Mean By Extremist, says any hints of anti-Semitism seriously dampens the far-right’s tilt at the mainstream.
“When they had this fluke of connecting up with people in Reclaim Australia, they managed to present themselves as normal,” says Safran. “It worked because they sounded like Aussie larrikins.”
A protester issues a Nazi salute at rally in St Kilda.Credit:Darrian Traynor
The far-right tried hard to preserve their family feel in 2015. Once, while a Sydney group was travelling to Melbourne for a rally, they realised there were neo-Nazis on the bus with them, so dumped them outside Canberra and continued on their way.
But that priority has since faded. Pictures circulated widely this week of a St Kilda rally participant performing the Nazi salute. And much of 2018’s far-right media coverage has focused on the more sinister, openly anti-Semitic Antipodean Resistance, a group which splits its time between doing the Nazi salute on camping trips in the Blue Mountains, and taping swastika stickers to universities and synagogues.
Erikson blames Pauline Hanson, not the far-far-right, for the movement’s decline since Reclaim Australia. “There was a vacuum that wasn’t being filled during the Reclaim Australia rallies. After that, politicians and the media starting talking about Islam. Pauline Hanson got in, she took a lot of support,” he says.
Erikson says the “mums and dads” who turned out in 2015 don’t want to come to rallies any more because they feel their concerns are being heard by Canberra. He views the arrival of Hanson and Anning in Parliament as a success, but it doesn’t explain the movement’s uninspiring couple of years: in the United States, and swathes of Europe and South America, once far-right politicians gain power, their parallel grassroots movements thrive.
People fly into the air as a vehicle drives into a group of protesters demonstrating against a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.Credit:AP
The clearest example of this was Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 – the “Unite the Right” rally drew approximately 500 white nationalists, emboldened by a president who held a weak line on the far-right. European nations with right-wing governments have seen an uptick in white nationalist activity too. Last year’s 200,000-strong Polish independence day rally, organised by the country’s far-right and sponsored by the government, featured Poland’s president marching a hundred metres in front of nationalists shouting “White Poland!”.
2015 was a turning point for Australia’s far-right. If they had transformed those supporters into an organisation with mainstream credentials, many more than 100 would have turned out to St Kilda beach last week. Instead, far-right leaders attacked one another, started splinter groups, and failed to suppress their neo-Nazi element.
Burgess, the former UPF leader, is still around making videos – on YouTube, instead of Facebook. In one uploaded last week, Burgess encouraged patriots to attend the St Kilda rally.
“There should be three to five thousand people down there on Saturday,” he says. “We don’t want to see a piss poor turn out of 70 to 100 people.”
The key players
United Patriots Front leader since 2015, Cottrell is viewed by many in the far-right as their best hope of unifying and going mainstream. In recent months he has moved away from the United Patriots Front, and is focussing on his Lads Society: a club for “like-minded” men, filled with patriot mementos and gym equipment.
A self-described troll, Erikson’s schtick is to pull provocative stunts in an effort to give the far-right movement more mainstream attention. He harassed former senator Sam Dastyari in a Melbourne pub in 2017, has disrupted council meetings, and has cycled through more than a dozen different far-right groups in recent years.
From an ultra-orthodox Jewish family with 17 children, Yemini has served in the Israeli military, is fiercely pro-Israel and anti-Palestine.
One of the biggest far-right players in 2015, Burgess helped Reclaim Australia become a prominent nationalist movement but fell out of favour with other key figures and now spends time making far-right videos on YouTube.
Nalliah is a Sri Lankan-Australian pastor, creationist, and leader of the far-right Rise Up Australia Party. He has claimed Victoria’s Black Saturday fires were the result of the state decriminalising abortion. He has also taught Pauline Hanson about the Koran.
The main groups
United Patriots Front
Spawned from the 2015 Reclaim Australia rallies, United Patriots Front was the largest far-right group – and the one with the most momentum – of the last few years. But due to leadership splits and a lack of cohesion, the movement failed to grow from its peak in 2015. It is currently an organisation in name only – described as an “umbrella group” by Erikson – and has been superseded by the dozens of newer groups.
True Blue Crew
A newer anti-Islam outfit which has organised street rallies since 2016. They have protested mosque developments and so-called African gangs. Last year, they were featured in a controversial Channel 7 news segment in which it was reported that True Blue Crew was planning to set up neighbourhood watch-style patrols to prevent South Sudanese crime.
Cottrell’s latest project is club houses in Melbourne and Sydney which feature gym equipment and a library. The Lads Society has offered bodyguard services to visiting far-right celebrities, including Canadian Lauren Southern.
Rise Up Australia Party
An anti-Islam, nationalist, Christian party, Rise Up was launched in 2011 by Danny Nalliah and has contested both the 2013 and 2016 federal election (it received 0.3 per cent of the nation-wide Senate votes in the last poll). The party has ties to Pauline Hanson, and its Facebook page was temporarily banned for “hateful speech” content.
Australian Liberty Alliance
The group was controversially launched with infamous Dutch politician Geert Wilders in attendance, and has ties to far-right independent senator Fraser Anning. It contested both the 2016 federal election and the 2018 Victoria state election, where it received 0.6 per cent of the vote in the upper house.
Max is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
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