The recent revelation that members of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) responsible for carrying out "Operation Sovereign Borders" are also members or supporters of the anti-Muslim Australian Defence League (ADL) has caused a great deal of embarrassment to the authorities. It has also generated no small amount of concern among the broader public. As well as highlighting the existence of racist and xenophobic sentiment in the RAN, the ADL’s emergence is evidence of a political reorientation by important segments of the far right, with Islamophobia replacing anti-Semitism as the chief attractor.
Tracing the history of the ADL is a confusing task. Its informal structure and bewildering array of social media platforms make it difficult to pin down. What can be said with some certainty is that it was inspired by the emergence in early 2009 of the English Defence League, and first appeared in NSW in early 2010. At this point it was an informal project of members of the Australian Protectionist Party (APP) who wished to emulate the EDL’s ability to mobilise thousands in support of its anti-Muslim agenda – and for which the nearest precursor in Australia was the Cronulla riot ("White Civil Uprising") of December 2005.
The APP was itself formed in late 2007 by departing members of the Australia First Party (AF), who were unhappy with then-leader Dr James Saleam. The new group was intent on reorienting the far right on the seeming success of Nick Griffin’s British National Party (BNP), which had just seen two members of the party elected to the European Parliament and scores more on local councils. Thus, while retaining a commitment to white nationalism, the APP jettisoned anti-Semitism in favour of a thorough-going rejection of Islam. This eventually led the group to join Zionist counter-protests against BDS campaigners in Sydney.
Since its initiation by the APP in 2010, the ADL has undergone several different incarnations. Various individuals claim to be its leadership and dozens of Facebook pages, blogs and websites its official platform. Struggle for control over the amorphous mass continues to this day, with the various rivals to the ADL throne resembling characters in a Monty Python sketch.
As well as attracting the support of thousands of Facebook users, the ADL has also organised a handful of public rallies in Melbourne and Sydney. These have been relatively tiny affairs. Thus a "Mass Rally Against Immigrants and Islam" scheduled for 9 April 2010 proved abortive after anti-racists occupied the steps of Flinders Street station (the planned site of the rally). A 15 May 2011 demonstration at Federation Square attracted several dozen supporters but many more opponents, who after a short period were able to force the ADL to leave the square: the ADL has not sought to organise any further such activity in Melbourne.
In Sydney, a rally at the Opera House scheduled for 9 October 2010, and organised under the slogan "Australia or Islamania? It’s Our Choice!", appears not to have happened at all (though one did take place on 30 July 2011 — Islamania was narrowly averted). Ironically, Englishman Martin Brennan, the ADL’s Melbourne-based leader, was arrested the same month for immigration offences, and deported.
In Brisbane, the ADL and the short-lived "Australian Patriots Defence Movement" organised a sparsely attended rally on 6 August 2011. More recently, on 24 May 2013, the ADL held a rally in Sydney which attracted just 12 concerned citizens. Another rally announced for Brisbane on the same day attracted zero participants. While ADL supporters have participated in a number of other protests (directed against the construction of mosques and Islamic schools), to this date it has failed to become a genuine movement.
Following an argument over the advisability of holding a rally to demand the Federal Government "Torpedo the Boats", the Sydney branch of the APP left to organise yet another party.
The "Party for Freedom" launched in early 2013, shortly after Dutch politician Geert Wilders’ brief tour of the country. Nick Folkes, the Party’s Chairman, previously stood as an APP candidate in several elections (with derisory results); its Vice Chairman, Martin Fletcher, was previously administrator of the Downunder Newslinks website ("News for White People, by White People"), which published a range of racist and specifically anti-Semitic (Nazi) propaganda. The party has organised a forum for 6 February at Redfern Town Hall to discuss "African crime". Folkes himself regards African peoples as a “failed species", and further claims peoples of the "Third World" require sterilisation.
Like the EDL, the ADL has attempted to portray itself as a human rights organisation, animated by a desire to counter "Muslim extremism". Its members often accordingly reject the "racist" tag, but even a cursory examination of the views expressed by ADL supporters reveals deep racial antagonisms. Blogs such as "theantibogan" and "Aussies Against the Australian Defence League" document such remarks in copious detail: a sample of ADF/ADL rhetoric is available here.
RAN sailor Jamie Patton’s statement about having to deal with asylum-seeking “f*ckers” – made shortly before a tour of duty presumably doing just that – appeared on the Facebook page of ADL member Shermon Burgess. Burgess has been actively promoting the ADL for years – he’s also an aspiring pop star. Among the many tunes penned by his band Eureka Brigade are "ADL Killing Machine" and "Border Patrol". The YouTube video for the latter ditty intersperses footage of Navy personnel shooting at boats with that of the Cronulla riot of December 2005: its chorus proclaims “Cronulla was Australia’s Muslim Holocaust”.
The overall crudity of the ADL’s message, while obviously appealing to some, has equally obvious limitations, and has yet to pay any real political dividends. Unable to rely upon a social base among racist football hooligans like the EDL, it seems possible it never will.
But the anger, fear and resentment of immigrants, asylum seekers, refugees and Muslims that the ADL seeks to harness has a more respectable face, both within major media and mainstream politics. One of the organisations fuelling this paranoia and providing ideological ballast to the ADL is The Q Society, which arranged a successful tour by Geert Wilders last year. The Q Society has now organised the "First International Symposium on Liberty and Islam in Australia" (Melbourne, 7-10 March), featuring Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Bill Muehlenberg, among others.
It presumably hopes the gathering will re-energise local efforts to "Stop Islamization of Nations", and provide the ADL with the ideological ammunition found in real abundance among its members on the high seas.
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