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The facets of Australian fascism: the Abbott Government experiment (Part 1)

Was the Abbott Government fascist? Many people have asked this question, and since September 2013 many articles in both mainstream and independent media have attempted to answer it. Some of the answers have been hysterical to say the least, some have been well-argued, but until now no forensic analyses have ever been undertaken. Dr George Venturini*, in this 50 part series which begins today, explores the depths of this question and provides the reader with many surprising answers.

Enjoy the journey over the next 50 days.

The word ‘Fascist’ has become a term of abuse, rarely employed in Australia, quite often by people who are short of arguments, and in many cases by people who do not know precisely what the word means. A clarification is essential before proceeding.

Fascism, historically speaking, was a bloody political movement which was linked with Syndicalist-Corporativism. It was born in Italy, existed just 21 years, between 1922 and 1943. There was a criminal ’coda’ on the service of the German occupiers between 1943 and 1945. Any better definition has proved contentious. Historians, political scientists, and other scholars have engaged in long debates concerning the exact nature of Fascism and its core tenets.

Most scholars agree that a ‘Fascist regime’ is foremost an authoritarian form of government, although not all authoritarian regimes are Fascist.

In the words attributed to Benito Mussolini, but most probably provided by the Fascist philosopher Giovanni Gentile, “Fascism should more appropriately be called corporatism, because it is the merger of state and corporate power.”

Literature on the subject is monumental, and with a restricted view to Australia there have been several attempts, all of them following the attributes of a Fascist movement listed in a seminal work by L.W. Britt, ‘Fascism anyone?’, Free Inquiry Magazine, Vol 23, no. 2 (July 2004). Among those which specifically referred to Australia, and by now of certain vintage, are: A. Broinowski, ‘A fascist Australia?’, (2006), G. Hassan, ‘The Rise and Rise of Super Fascism’ (2011), G. Venturini, ‘Is Australia Fascist?’, (2011), P. Cannon, ‘The characteristics of Fascism and how we might note its presence today’, (2014), accessible at Parallax (blog). These authors followed Dr. Britt’s categorisations; they agreed on fourteen of them. And they had all been preceded by the eminent philosopher U. Eco in ‘Eternal Fascism: Fourteen ways of looking at a blackshirt’, The New York Review of Books (June 1995). There are of course many other examinations, in more comprehensive works, such as Michael Cathcart, Defending the National Tuckshop: Australia’s Secret Army intrigue of 1931 (Melbourne 1988), Andrew Moore, The Secret Army and the Premier (Sydney 1989), David S. Bird, Nazi dreamtime: Australian enthusiasts for Hitler’s Germany (Melbourne 2012). And there is, of course, the famous Kangaroo by D.H. Lawrence (London 1923).

With respect, many of those efforts are not completely satisfactory for reasons too long to explain here. Naturally, most of the basic elements on which they concentrate are present in Australia. None of those writers, however, provided a definition. One will be attempted by way of conclusion. Of course, there are many elements of comparison, and they are shared between Australia and Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany and National-Catholic Spain. Comparisons could be drawn from time to time in the following presentation which respects the order of points common to the above scholars, particularly to Dr. Broinowski. But the presentation is more by way of a hypothesis than of a thesis.

It can’t happen here?

Australia in 1919-1920 seethed with continual unrest.

In the 1920s sections of the Australian ruling class quickly became sympathetic to Fascism and its aim of completely destroying trade unions, the Left and working class organisations. There was particular admiration for what Benito Mussolini, the Fascist dictator of Italy, had achieved after he was called to power by the Savoy king in 1922. This was preceded by the assassination of many anti-fascists, and later followed by the imprisonment of all opposition leaders and the banning of all opposition political parties and newspapers.

When he returned from Italy in 1923 the Nationalist Premier of Victoria, Harry S. W. Lawson, proclaimed Mussolini as the one, “whom Providence wanted to lead Italy.”

The manager of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Bank of Commerce, today’s Westpac, was pleased to hail Mussolini as, “certainly one of the most wonderful men I have ever seen.”

After the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti in June 1924 and the farce of ‘elections’ in Italy, a returning Premier of New South Wales, Sir George W. Fuller, expressed his admiration “of the man who saved Italy … from Bolshevism.”

During the 1925 seafarers’ strike, the Sydney Morning Herald reminded its readers that, “Italy … was only saved from Red Dominance by the heroic remedy of Fascism – a dreadful medicine for sure, and yet less bitter than the plague it stopped.”

Australia earned its own history of mass Fascist movements. The most serious was the emergence of the Fascist New Guard in New South Wales in the late 1920s. It came as a product of a period of intense class struggle and working class radicalisation which led to the election of a reformist state Labor government amidst what was then the worst economic crisis in the history of capitalism.

Secret and not-so-secret right-wing militias emerged as Australia headed into Depression in late 1929 and Labor Party governments took office.

Anti-democratic ideas became respectable. The press argued openly that such militias might be proved necessary if Labor was re-elected or things got “out of hand”.

There were numerous calls for a dictatorship or a government run by “a committee of experts.” Many conservatives hoped that General Sir John Monash, a first world war commander, could be installed as dictator. The Bulletin argued in 1930 that: “There is only one man who can save Australia … John Monash. Let the remnants of the Old Brigade rally around him and give him a council of financial experts.” To his credit, Monash rejected the invitation, saying that he did not intend to betray the ‘present constitutional system’. He rejected a subsequent written request put to him by a powerful group of Sydney businessmen.

Fascism as a mass phenomenon is a product of a capitalist system which is in deep social and political crisis. That was the case with the onset of the Great Depression in the 1930s.

The crisis of the Depression years led to a political and social polarisation along class lines. More than 30 per cent unemployment, wage cuts, widespread evictions and mass poverty led masses of workers to question the whole basis of capitalist society.

On 18 February 1931 the New Guard was formed by retired Colonel Eric Campbell, a solicitor, and seven other ex-officers turned businessmen, at the Imperial Service Club in Sydney. It was formed as a breakaway from the much larger and more powerful Old Guard, which had prominent capitalist supporters and operated secretly.

In New South Wales the radical populist Labor Premier Jack Lang won an enormous following. To the left of Lang, the Socialisation Units – which were committed to the immediate introduction of socialism – enrolled tens of thousands. The Communist Party also grew.

The New Guard, with 36,000 members, was an open Fascist organisation which physically attacked union, the Australian Labor Party, unemployed and communist meetings. Its leader, Eric Campbell, visited Italy and Germany and established close relations with the Fascists there.

The New was more middle class in character than the Old Guard. At its peak in November 1931 it claimed 36,000 paid-up and active members, and probably twice that in supporters – about 80,000 members in total. This is a vast membership considering Sydney then had only 1.5 million people and a police force of 1850.

Its dramatic rise had come in response to the election of Labor’s Jack Lang as New South Wales Premier in October 1930. Ruling class opinion was hysterical about Lang. Lang was no revolutionary, but he was seen as opening the way for all the disloyal elements in society – the Reds, the unemployed and the Irish Catholics. Irish Catholics were the Muslims of the day – they had betrayed the Empire during its hour of need during the first world war by revolting against Protestant rule.

Every state had its own Fascist or far right organisations. In March 1931 the League of National Security staged a trial run at a coup. Its armed militias seized dozens of towns across rural Victoria.

In 1931-32 there were 130,000 Australians under arms, out of a population of just over 6 million. They trained and drilled with an assortment of Fascist or far right paramilitary organisations. These were ‘respectable’ citizens: solicitors, doctors, dentists, graziers and business owners.

The conservative governments which came to power federally and at the state level shared many of the values of the New and Old Guard. Indeed, at one time at least 20 New South Wales members of parliament were members of the New Guard. There were others from the Old Guard.

The parliamentary arm of the Right achieved a lot of what the paramilitary wing desired: democratic rights sharply undermined, major attacks on free speech, a harsh censorship regime, and a crackdown on the Left, the unions and the unemployed.

At one point the New Guard made plans to kidnap Jack Lang and to stage a coup d’état to place the state under martial law.

The New Guard is best-known for the actions of Captain Francis De Groot, who upstaged proceedings at the official opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in March 1932 to cut the ceremonial ribbon with his sword.

Within one hundred days of Lang’s election, no less than 18 separate right-wing action groups were formed. This included four movements in regions like New England and the Riverina demanding separation from the state. In 1931, 10,000 people rallied in Wagga Wagga to demand a separate state.

All these groups received financial support from big business. Prominent New Guard supporters included Sir Frederick Stewart, a bus company owner and director of the Sydney Sun newspaper, and the aviators Charles Kingsford Smith and Charles Ulm.

The New Guard’s Finance head was Captain James R. Patrick, of Patrick stevedore and shipping company. He was assisted by F. W. Radford, the managing director of Patrick’s shipping line, Charles MacDonald, head of the Northern (N.S.W.) Collieries Association and Sidney Bennett of the Retailers’ Association.

Its membership was drawn mainly from the wealthy professional middle classes in banking, law and insurance, the Stock Exchange, and the wealthy North Shore and Eastern suburbs of Sydney. Campbell referred to them as “the right-thinking young men of the business and professional classes.”

The New Guard aimed at the “Suppression of any disloyal and immoral elements in government, industrial and social circles.” This meant attacking working class demonstrations and strikes in particular. Campbell had attempted this in August 1925 during the seafarers’ strike.

Stanley Bruce, the conservative Prime Minister, said he wanted a force of scabs to break the strike if the police could not do it.

Campbell and another former military officer handpicked 500 ex-soldiers. But in the end they were not needed. (The same tactic would be used by the Howard Government against the Maritime Union of Australia in the Australian waterfront dispute of 1998. It  was a watershed event in Australian industrial relations history, in which the same Patrick Corporation undertook an illegal restructuring of their operations for the purpose of increasing the productivity of their workforce. Scabs especially trained in Dubai were brought on to the waterfront in balaclava and assisted by assault-dogs). Nihil sub sole novum.

What distinguished the New Guard from other right-wing groups was that it aimed to build a para-military organisation capable of physically crushing left-wing demonstrations, political parties and unions. This focussed on building a mass movement of street thugs marked it out as a Fascist group distinct from conventional right-wing parties.

In April 1932 the New Guard organised a riot outside Sydney’s Central Police Station as a trial run for a coup. It went badly. But just over a month later Lang was gone. The Guard, which had close connections with the police, the armed forces and the security apparatus, and the leadership of which read like a who-is-who of the Sydney establishment, had mobilised to bring his government down. As well as a secret military wing, the Guard had an open front organisation of 130,000 members called the All Australia League.

On the evening of 13 May 1932 Governor Sir Philip Game dismissed  Premier Jack Lang – an action which was regarded as unprecedented in Australia politics. (But it was repeated, with the complicity of the monarch in 1975, when Sir John Kerr dismissed the Whitlam Government).

In 1932 a brigade of several hundred New Guardsmen was stationed in the basement of a department store building, several hundred metres from the State Parliament House. They had threatened to march upon Parliament House and stage a coup attempt if Premier Lang would refuse to resign. (An enfeebled trade union leadership could not find the strength quickly and decisively to respond to the coup d’état of 1975).

At Anzac Day parades between 1930 and 1937, Italian Fascists were welcomed to march as a distinct group. Their Fascist salutes provoked no adverse comment in the major newspapers.

Support for Hitler and Mussolini was widespread in establishment circles.

In 1933 the Melbourne Herald ran a series of articles titled “Why I have become a Fascist” by Wilfrid Kent Hughes, a Victorian MP. Kent Hughes came from a well connected Melbourne family. He had been school captain at Melbourne Grammar and  Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. He went on to become deputy premier of Victoria. In the 1950s he was a minister in Menzies’ federal Liberal government.

Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister, was glowing in his praise of Nazi Germany. In 1938, when federal attorney general, he visited the Nazified country and enthused about the “really spiritual quality in the willingness of Germans to devote themselves to the service and well being of the state.”

Hitler and Mussolini were viewed as heroes by conservatives because they had crushed the socialist movement and smashed the unions. They had ensured that profits kept rolling in.

Tomorrow: It can’t happen here? (continued)

GeorgeVenturini* In memory of my friends, Professor Bertram Gross and Justice Lionel Murphy.

Dr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975 he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra. He may be reached at George.Venturini@bigpond.com.au.

➡️ Part 2

 

28 comments

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  1. Salstarat

    It should be pointed out that one of the leading members of the Fascist New Guard was, in fact, the war criminal John Howard’s father! John Howard continued the fascist ideology of his father by ramming through draconian rules increasing the powers of the police and turning the police force into his own private army. Mike Baird is doing EXACTLY the same thing right NOW in NSW – using the police force to run rough shod over peaceful protesters and actually introducing laws that BAN protest marches against the insidiously destructive Coal Seam Gas industries. Fascism runs right through the LNP at every level of State and Federal government and that is why it is imperative that they are removed at the next election!

    https://cecaust.com.au/pubs/pdfs/nce05-04.pdf

  2. Keith

    Rod

    Thanks for the reference.

    Something that concerned me is that pretty well from when Howard was Prime Minister University students had been so docile.
    Happily that now appears to be changing.

    Not a lot has changed since Turnbull has become threader of the big end of town.

  3. Florence nee Fedup

    When we were young, we had the example of Germany and Italy, We knew how fragile democracy is. The lesson seems to be forgotten today. Every day we are losing freedoms under law. We see the rule of law being abused. Rights being undermined with no objection from the public whatever.

  4. Möbius Ecko

    Thanks for the article George.

    Like many things there are other forms or iterations, just as Conservatism has neo-Cons, fascism has neo-fascism; http://www.britannica.com/topic/neofascism

    Also I’ve seen the term quasi-fascist bandied around and has a base in the early 20th century.

    Maybe these iterations would be closer to the far right Liberals and their support organisations like the IPA.

    Haven’t completely read it yet: https://notevenpast.org/the-anatomy-of-fascism-by-robert-paxton-2004/

  5. Florence nee Fedup

    Didn’t Howard’s father have dubious interests in PNG?

  6. Carol Taylor

    George and, “The crisis of the Depression years led to a political and social polarisation along class lines” which can be noted as proceeding today. We also see with it the rise of Fascist elements anti-the other, the same as German Fascists concentrated on Jews, gypsies and homosexuals under the guise of nationalism, so we see this in many elements of the anti-Muslim rallies. The same as Nazi Germany, the elite used their powers of persuasion to have ‘the rabble’ focus on one particular group instead of looking to see the real causes of their inequality.

  7. Möbius Ecko

    Let’s not forget the black shirted Border Force.

    From being innocuous customs officers using the AFP and Defence for legal and military enforcement, to being an enforcement body in its own right with more powers in some areas. Along with that is the military regalia that goes along with them, like the issuing of medals by the bucket loads.

    So many parallels with fascism to be found in that entity setup by the Abbott Liberals and that won’t be curtailed in any way by Labor if they get into power.

  8. Phil

    Great reading thanks George. It reveals a consistent thread in Australian conservative politics – an almost pathological hatred of trade unions. Looking forward to a daily dose of your writing George.

  9. John Lord

    Looking forward to the balance of what looks to be a wonderful series.

  10. Arthur Plottier

    Thank you for the informative article, as I was reading it I remember what happens with all the countries in South America.
    involved in Operation Condor.

  11. Keith

    Leaning on UNESCO to maintain secrecy about the Great Barrier Reef and Tasmanian forests shows an element of fascism…secrecy and trying to mislead.
    Baird surprised me when a number of Sydney Councils were sacked because they did not support his policy; another element of fascism.
    Sacking democratically elected councillors on the scale enacted in NSW was beyond the pale.
    Much further along the continuum towards fascism was the obnoxious Newman “Government”. Probably at about the same level as the Federal LNP which provided the 2014 budget.

    Many people will rue the day should the LNP gain control of both Houses at the next election.

  12. gee

    i suppose that if you look at the ideology of a person considered to be politically of the right, Fascism would be an inevitability in a political system based on those values, given the definition that Fascism is actually “Corporatism”.

    If you look at the flow of political donations and consider decisions made, also the revolving doors that exist between government and big business (e.g. Malcolm Turnbull, Arthur Sinodinas) where your connections give you access to power and privelage (e.g. Tim Wilson, James Paterson) and the influence of media and money (e.g. Rupert Murdoch, the banks) it comes as no surprise.

    What remains is the question of how much they can get away with before the population revolts.

    It takes time to subvert the institutions designed to protect us in to something designed to control us (Border Force, the Melbourne raids).

    The thing that Fascism fears the most is the truth and us.

  13. mars08

    “…you see that everything, everything, has changed and changed completely under your nose. The world you live in—your nation, your people—is not the world you were born in at all. The forms are all there, all untouched, all reassuring, the houses, the shops, the jobs, the mealtimes, the visits, the concerts, the cinema, the holidays. But the spirit, which you never noticed because you made the lifelong mistake of identifying it with the forms, is changed. Now you live in a world of hate and fear, and the people who hate and fear do not even know it themselves; when everyone is transformed, no one is transformed. Now you live in a system which rules without responsibility even to God. The system itself could not have intended this in the beginning, but in order to sustain itself it was compelled to go all the way…”

    http://www.press.uchicago.edu/Misc/Chicago/511928.html

    Slowly but surely, our lazy, self-serving, shameless, corrupt politicians and the worthless corporate media at taking this country “all the way”. I see few, if any, signs of objection amongst the general public…

  14. Keith

    Just a short time ago I received an email in relation to the Supertrawler. The message was that to gain footage of wildlife (apart from the targeted fish) being killed, there was a $30,000 fee expected to be paid. Clearly, trying to stifle information. Another example of secrecy expected from a pariah “government”.

    Clearly, the LNP have no concern for recreational fishing people who are worried about the viability of fish stocks.

  15. kristapet

    As usual, I hope your articles go viral.

  16. Florence nee Fedup

    Thanks Matters Not. There is more to that story if I recall correctly.

    Today we have the PM declaring war on workers, their unions and Labor, with much gusto at a mattress factory.

    Claiming the export figures yesterday was due to his actions, not mostly ore, residue from the mining boom.

    Many seem to believe instead of declaring war, he should have been out at Richmond.

    Anyone have any idea of what Neville’s wage is. PM pointed him out as a wonderful bloke. Suspect no better than minimum wage.

  17. Florence nee Fedup

    Bowen ABC 24. Serving it back to PM #auspol

  18. Tim

    This is a chilling article. I pray that on election day that people make the right decision. It would be great if this could be shown on a history channel or the ABC Ken Burns style. Sadly I don’t think that will ever happen. We need to know the truth of Australia’s political history in order to make informed decisions before we vote. It seems the whole world is now turning to fascist ideology in the wake of influxes of refugees and economic uncertainty. Heaven help us all. Fascism is dangerous thinking and will ultimately lead to an unfair society, poverty, unemployment and destruction of the natural world and its animals.

  19. diannaart

    Thank you, thank you, thank you – I am looking forward to this series as such a history helps to tune in perspective of today’s political machinations.

    As kristapet says – may your writing go viral…

  20. Arthur Plottier

    Just wonder if Neville is not a member of the Liberal party and was pre-selected for this waffle.

  21. diannaart

    Tim

    Fascism is dangerous thinking and dangerous to thinking outside the dogma.

  22. Florence nee Fedup

    Those scabs that Reith trained in Dubai where from a national farmers group. In the long run, the unions treated them better than the government, We can thank Combet that didn’t turn out worse.

    Today we see the PM again picking up the cudgel, going after unions, That means workers.

    No Mr Turnbull, under your government or is it team, it isn’t a exciting place to be.

  23. Florence nee Fedup

    Listening to Sky news. PM declaration of war not going down well there. Haven’t heard ABC raise any concerns.

  24. Tom Kingston

    An excellent article on a history I knew little of – and I majored in History at Uni.

  25. paul walter

    Good reminder, Florence nee Fedup.

    More recent events involving the proliferation of pentecostal forms of religion and the persistence of the Gun Lobby points to a manual of sorts as a sort of blue print to turn turn Australia into some sort of US hick state with control tightened through the visible manifestation of redneck militias, while de-unionisation and educational and media dumbing down continue apace.

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