Right-wing extremism in Australia

Caitlin Grant, Foreign Affairs, Defence and Security  

Key issue

Right-wing extremism has existed in Australia for many decades, with groups coming and going over time. Recently, there has been a notable rise in the public awareness of these groups and the risk they pose to the Australian community and security. The rise of the internet and the COVID-19 pandemic have changed the security landscape in Australia when it comes to these groups and their potential to do harm. 


Right-wing or ‘far right’ extremism is not a new phenomenon, in Australia or internationally, but in recent years has re-emerged to become more visible and a growing threat to national security.

Right-wing extremism is an overarching term defined by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) as ‘the support for violence to achieve political outcomes relating to ideologies, including but not limited to, white supremacism and Neo-Nazism’. The Institute for Economics and Peace describes a number of components that make up a right-wing ideology: ‘strident nationalism (usually racial or exclusivist in some fashion), fascism, racism, anti-Semitism, anti-immigration, chauvinism, nativism, and xenophobia’ (p. 45). These groups are also known for conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment that can often be linked back to these racist and xenophobic roots.

It is important to note that right-wing extremism does not always involve violent extremist movements. Groups exist in small pockets and echo chambers that internalise hateful messaging and may promote violence. The New Zealand Royal Commission into the Christchurch attack noted that there are often ‘fluid boundaries’ between hate crimes and right-wing terrorism.

While it is important to note that in a balanced democracy all opinions are represented, this article deals with those right-wing opinions and ideology that focus on harming others and support violence in order to achieve political and ideological goals.

Security landscape

The overall terrorist threat in Australia is currently ‘probable’, which means that ‘credible intelligence, assessed by [Australian] security agencies, indicates that individuals or groups have the intent and capability to conduct a terrorist attack in Australia’. The ASIO Director-General, Mike Burgess, notes in the annual threat assessment for 2022 that during the past 12 months this threat emanates more from a potential lone actor than groups. In a previous threat assessment the Director-General observed that right-wing extremists are generally motivated by some perceived notion of social or economic hardship, are much harder to identify and tend to be middle class and educated rather than the stereotype of poor and uneducated.

Since becoming Director-General in 2019, Mr Burgess has stated in every annual threat assessment that ASIO has seen an increase in the threat from right-wing extremists. A particular trend identified by ASIO, starting with the 2020 assessment, is the young age at which people are being radicalised in extremism. In 2021 minors accounted for 15% of ASIO’s counter-terrorism investigations, a marked increase compared with only a few years before. In 2022 the Director-General identified that the Australians being radicalised are younger than ever, with the number of minors increasing and the age at which they are becoming radicalised decreasing.

The year 2020 saw a number of firsts for countering right-wing extremism, including a person being charged under Commonwealth terrorism legislation and a passport cancellation preventing a person travelling to fight with right-wing groups internationally. Additionally, a second terrorism threat linked to extreme right-wing groups was disrupted.

Text in an image that reads What is ideologically motivated violent extremism? Ideologically motivated violent extremism (IMVE) is an umbrella term coined by ASIO in 2021 to describe the use of violence by individuals or groups in order to achieve political goals or express social grievances.

In early 2021 ASIO decided to change how terrorism threats are categorised and understood. While previously, terms such as ‘far-right extremism’ or ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic terrorism’ had been used, more overarching terminology was introduced to refocus intelligence efforts. The new terms are ‘ideologically motivated violent extremism’ and ‘religiously motivated violent extremism’. In announcing the change in terminology ASIO explained that this enables ASIO to be more flexible by focusing on the threat of violence rather than the specific political or religious motivation. Of course, there are times when specific labels may be necessary to understand the nature of a group or individual.

Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security Inquiry

The PJCIS began its inquiry into ‘Extremist Movements and Radicalism in Australia’ in December 2020 on referral from the Minister for Home Affairs. The terms of reference tasked the committee with examining the threat and nature of extremist groups in Australia, where they are located and any changes that may need to be made at the Commonwealth level to address any issues found. The committee received submissions from state and federal agencies, as well as the private sector and state governments. Two public hearings were held and all invited witnesses made submissions.

ASIO’s submission noted that extreme right-wing groups have been ‘in ASIO’s sights for many decades’ (p. 3), but that these groups are more security conscious and organised than before. During the hearings for the inquiry, the Director-General confirmed that investigations into ideologically motivated violent extremism now make up roughly 40% of all ASIO cases, in part because ASIO recognises the seriousness of the threat and has decided to dedicate more resources to countering it.

The evidence provided to the committee showed that the threat of violent extremism in Australia is very real and has increased in recent years. Many submissions mentioned the use of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) measures that aim to identify and intervene with those who might be vulnerable to radicalisation.

The PJCIS tabled an interim report on 1 April 2022, with the inquiry lapsing at the end of the 46th Parliament on 11 April 2022. In the interim report the committee recommended that new terms of reference and a new inquiry be referred to the PJCIS in the 47th Parliament. The interim report also noted the ASIO Director-General’s threat assessments of 2021 and 2022, particularly the comments relating to the young age of Australians being radicalised, the use of online technologies, and the rise that ASIO has seen in extremist movements in Australia.

Right-wing extremism and COVID-19

During the COVID-19 pandemic there has been an increase in public protests against governments and policies such as lockdowns and vaccination mandates. In the 2021 ASIO threat assessment, the Director-General noted the way in which right-wing groups were able to use COVID-19 restrictions as propaganda to further embed anti-government sentiment by portraying the government as overreaching and ‘globalisation, multiculturalism and democracy as flawed and failing’. By 2022 he observed:

The behaviours we are seeing in response to COVID lockdowns and vaccinations are not specifically left or right wing. They are a cocktail of views, fears, frustrations and conspiracies. Individuals who hold these views, and are willing to support violence to further them, are best and most accurately described as ideologically motivated violent extremists.

In a May 2020 position paper, not-for-profit charity and self-described ‘racial equity organisation’, All Together Now, noted that as a way of managing the pandemic, many young people were seeking belonging and community during periods of isolation and that right-wing groups were increasingly targeting these young people using online forums and websites where they can express their views.

In Victoria during the lockdowns of 2021, peaceful protests by construction workers against government restrictions were hijacked by members of the far-right in an attempt to draw attention to and further their cause while painting the Victorian Government as oppressive and unreasonable. Some protests turned violent, eliciting a strong response from the Victorian Government and Victoria Police. In an article in the Atlantic, Australian National University academic Simon Copland notes that the extreme right was able to infiltrate these protests with ease, in part because of the nature of the Victorian Government’s response, and continue to play on negative feelings about the Government in the broader community. By capitalising on a particular fear these groups let those who feel alienated know they have somewhere to go and over time opened a space for dialogue and the sharing of other parts of their ideology.

Following the official declaration of the pandemic in March 2020, there were a number of academic studies in Australia examining the exploitation of the pandemic to bolster and further extremist ideology. Campion, Ferrill and Milligan found that extremist groups were integrating the pandemic into their existing ideology to reinforce their beliefs and engage with new audiences, particularly in online forums. They also found that groups were expanding the base of their ideology, including, in some cases, with ideas that conflicted with their previous stances- effectively taking on the ideas of others as they interacted. There was also evidence of groups bringing in specific conspiratorial narratives, particularly those around 5G networks, which seemingly had no relation to the ideologies these groups had previously espoused. Campion et al. concluded that these changes, particularly the adoption of new ideas and leadership, has complicated the national security environment because it has the potential to make it harder for the security and law enforcement agencies to identify distinct groups, due to the overlapping nature of their beliefs.

The right-wing online

As with many things in the 21st century the online environment has become not only somewhere for right-wing extremists to meet and share ideas, but also to recruit. The online operations of these groups have become quite sophisticated.

The rise of social media, both mainstream and alternative, as well as encrypted messaging services, has allowed groups and individuals to share ideas and build community with like-minded people. Groups have been able to connect with individuals, particularly young people who felt physically and socially isolated, perhaps bonding over one shared grievance before drawing in further beliefs. The joint submission to the PJCIS inquiry by the departments of Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Attorney-General’s echoes others’ observations about extremist groups using social media to recruit young people and expand their reach to new audiences.

In the same submission, the departments outline how the dark web and ‘anonymising technology’ is increasingly being used by extremist movements. These technologies, including bespoke encrypted devices, enable extremists to share information and operate across jurisdictions with ease. The use of this kind of encrypted technology is problematic for law enforcement as groups are more easily able to hide their activities. Victoria Police noted in its submission to the PJCIS inquiry that social media sites that are based overseas also make it difficult for law enforcement to access material that may be used as evidence.

As extremists turn to the online environment to connect and share their message, there has been some talk of ‘deplatforming’. In practice, this means to remove the accounts of people and groups who promote or share extremist messaging. In her parliamentary submission, academic and researcher, Lydia Khalil, discussed the recent efforts of some platforms to remove accounts and pages that share extremist content. As yet, there is no telling if this is a long-term solution, with debate online as to whether taking down these pages and community spaces actually disrupts extremist activities or encourages movement to alt-tech platforms that are more challenging to monitor. Academic Maura Conway has pondered the difficulties in deplatforming right-wing extremists compared to Islamic State, noting that right-wing extremism is an ideology with any number of groups and no clear structure, unlike Islamic State, which is a single group with a clear leadership structure.

While deplatforming and similar efforts may well assist in disrupting the online activities of right-wing extremists and associated groups, any move to alternative sites by these groups and individuals risks fuelling ‘othering’ (the perception and stigmatisation of difference) and enhancing their efforts to build right-wing communities.

Recent policy initiatives and announcements

Countering Violent Extremism is central to Australia’s approach to the prevention of terrorism and violent extremist actions. CVE is a joint initiative of all Australian governments, state and federal, overseen by the Department of Home Affairs. The CVE initiative centres on working with communities to ‘build resistance’ to extremist ideologies, and works by engaging with communities to support diversion, build resistance against radicalisation, and rehabilitate and reintegrate those who have left violent extremist groups. The Department of Home Affairs estimates that $120 million has been spent on CVE programs since 2013 (as at February 2022).

Part of the CVE effort is the ‘Living Safe Togetherinitiative, a website that provides information for communities and individuals in order to build resilient communities. The website has information about what extremism is, how to recognise the signs a person is being radicalised and what individuals and communities can do if they think someone is being radicalised. There is also information on government programs and a facility to report potential cases of radicalisation. The initiative has produced a number of fact sheets including, ‘What is Violent Extremism?’ and ‘What is Radicalisation?’.

The proscription of terrorist organisations is a process that was enabled when terrorism offences were inserted into the Criminal Code in the wake of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Terrorist organisations can be proscribed under Division 102 of the Criminal Code Act 1995. In March 2021, following campaigning by the Labor Opposition – in particular, the Shadow Minister for Home Affairs Kristina Keneally – a right-wing group, Sonnenkrieg Division, was listed as a terrorist organisation under the Criminal Code for the first time. In November 2021 a second right-wing group, The Base, was listed. The listing of these organisations enables all terrorist offences and associated penalties to be applied to them.

Further reading

Kristy Campion, Chasing Shadows: The Untold and Deadly Story of Terrorism in Australia, (Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2022).

Mario Peuker and Debra Smith, The Far-Right in Contemporary Australia,(Germany: Springer Singapore, 2019).


Back to Parliamentary Library Briefing Book

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to members of Parliament.

© Commonwealth of Australia

Creative Commons

With the exception of the Commonwealth Coat of Arms, and to the extent that copyright subsists in a third party, this publication, its logo and front page design are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia licence.