Former prime minister Tony Abbott’s ignorance of history and of the Europe European Union, and his tragic adulation of all things British, is simply embarrassing. His licensing of a permissive setting for white supremacists and white replacement conspiracy theorists is dangerous, irresponsible, and inexcusable.
In a blaze of appearances in recent weeks the former Prime Minster popped up at the Budapest Demographic Summit alongside Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, gave a speech to the UK Policy Exchange, and wrote an article for the Spectator. His rants on these occasions have covered immigration, Brexit, Parliamentary democracy, the EU, and British history.
Abbott’s fondness for everything British has never been a secret and he has always worn his monarchist views openly and openly displayed his nostalgic longing for the glories of England’s imperial past. Flying into London for him, ‘felt like more than a homecoming’ because it ‘belonged to me as much as to any Briton’. So some of his recent remarks could be taken as hyperbole, except for their capacity to offhandedly foster extremists.
I have argued elsewhere that ‘[W]hite supremacists find their intellectual, psychological, emotional and social bearings in a complex and sustaining ideological, cultural and political ecosystem’ and that ‘[T]he authorising environment for violent supremacists is not in the dark recesses of the web but in the visible sinews of democratic society’. High profile individuals should exercise prudence in their language as their words bring with them long trains of cultural associations that can feed into the white supremacist narrative.
In Budapest Abbott echoed the great replacement theory that sustains white supremacists across the globe including the murderer of 51 Muslims in Christchurch. This theory posits that ‘white European populations are being deliberately replaced at an ethnic and cultural level through migration and the growth of minority communities’. Extremists, envision a crisis and disappearance of ‘the meaningful civilisation which has been created by white Europeans’. Immigration and high birth rates among ethnic minorities are seen as the mechanisms that will bring about this racial and cultural calamity.
Abbot told his Hungarian audience that increased migration from non-Western nations combined with decreasing birth rates would result in a ‘new world order’. It was ‘our failure to produce children that is the extinction reality against which we really need to work against’, Abbott said. Such inflammatory remarks only further fuel the convictions of the supremacist fringe.
Abbott cannot have been unaware that his host Victor Orban is regularly associated with the great replacement theory. Alongside Abbott on the podium, Orban declared ‘If Europe is not going to be populated by Europeans in the future and we take this as given, then we are speaking about an exchange of populations, to replace the population of Europeans with others.”
The key role that the veneration of Western Christian Civilisation plays in the white supremacist narrative cannot be overstated. Western civilisation works as a surrogate for white supremacy. This is a particularly slippery aspect of the white supremacist narrative. It is possible to demur that praising Western civilisation is simply being objective and not racist per se. But in extreme-right milieus and supremacist circles the concept invokes a sense of loss of the previous European world dominance and excites xenophobia and nativism.
Abbott’s association with Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation is well known. While he acknowledges in the Spectator that ‘[G]iven the glories of Christendom, it’s easy to grasp nostalgia for a Europe with a common faith and a common culture’, in itself a vague and contestable notion, he adds with an even greater disregard for historical accuracy, that Britain is:
the country that has seen off the Spanish Armada, the French Emperor, and the German Kaiser. Against Louis the fourteenth, against Napoleon, against Wilhelm the second, and then against Hitler, this country didn’t need Europe. It saved Europe.
An irrelevant and simplistic view of inherent national superiority that not only obscures the complexity of European history and the pivotal role of Russians, the Austrians and others in those events, but which also plays into the distorted view of British-European relations promulgated by Brexiteers.
Britain’s failure to deliver Brexit would leave ‘Britain a permanent colony of an EU that despises it’. He warns that the actions of ‘a gloating EU should not be underestimated’ and about ‘‘Brussels’ politically correct preening’. He excoriates the ’faceless Brussels bureaucrats’ who worship ‘at the altar of climate change and uncontrolled borders’. These are old tropes for Abbott. Not leaving ‘would be defeat on an epic scale, hardly matched since the Norman invasion’ and ‘a national humiliation to echo down the ages’. That this man was once prime minister and responsible for Australia’s foreign and strategic policy now seems inconceivable. He is more Farage than Farage.
More than for his ignorance and Anglophone toadyism, Abbott deserves to be condemned for his cavalier encouragement of white supremacists. Whether intended or not, his language is incendiary. He affirms the prejudices and obsessions of the xenophobes and supremacists. He speaks of ‘a million angry military-age males swarming into a single country in a year’, and praised Orban for calling a stop to ‘the peaceful invasion of 2015’.
The struggle against violent extremists of the white supremacist variety will be testing and endless. The white supremacists exist on, and are nourished by, a spectrum that includes non-violent people with genuine concerns about immigration and European birthrates, and who are legitimately proud of their European, or British, heritage. The balancing act for political, security, and academic institutions is to recognise this and to distinguish reasonable views from the toxic and violent distortions.
Tony Abbott is entitled to his opinions and almost certainly not a white supremacist. However, his language gives them succour.
Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.