The Morrison government is facing fresh calls to tackle the rising threat of right-wing extremism in Australia, after revelations such individuals now comprise a third of all domestic Asio investigations and that radicals are exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to promote extreme messages.
Labor’s home affairs spokesperson, Kristina Keneally, told Guardian Australia people were being radicalised online at an increasing rate and “we do not want to be left asking if there was more we could have done during this pandemic to stop the spread of extremism fermenting in houses across Australia”.
“Asio has confirmed that right-wing extremists are exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to further radicalise people and whilst we still don’t know the number of investigations taking place, we know they now make up a close to a third of all domestic Asio investigations,” she said.
Keneally called on the government to ensure it was adequately funding programs to counter violent extremism “across the extremist spectrum”.
“We can’t pretend extremism just ‘happens’ – people, often outcasts, are preyed on, they are enticed and they are radicalised and it’s happening in suburbs across Australia and online at an increasing rate,” she said.
The request came after the ABC reported right-wing extremists now represent about a third of all domestic investigations by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, second only to Sunni extremists. According to the report, Victoria and Queensland were the states with the highest number of investigations.
The reporting by the ABC’s Background Briefing program is partly based on an Asio threat assessment issued to security professionals in May.
The document warned that Covid-19-related restrictions were “being exploited by extreme right-wing narratives that paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing”, the ABC reported.
“We assess the Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced an extreme right-wing belief in the inevitability of societal collapse and a ‘race war’,” it said.
An Asio spokesperson told Guardian Australia: “While the threat of violence inspired by Islamic extremism remains Asio’s greatest concern, extreme right-wing groups and individuals represent a serious, increasing and evolving threat to security.”
When asked about the details outlined in the threat assessment, the spokesperson said one of the ways Asio worked to protect Australia and Australians from threats to their security was “providing advice to Australian governments, agencies and industries”.
“Asio regularly engages with these sectors on national security issues; the details of this advice are sensitive and it would be inappropriate to comment further.”
The advice builds on Asio’s recent warnings about the extreme right-wing threat.
Mike Burgess, the director general of security, said in a speech in February that “violent Islamic extremism” remained the agency’s principal concern – but it was also focused on small extreme right-wing cells who met regularly in suburbs around Australia to salute Nazi flags, inspect weapons, train in combat and share their hateful ideology.
Guardian Australia understands that Asio has observed it has been a “busy” time for the spreading of extremist material. It is understood elements of the pandemic have fuelled some extreme views, including anti-Chinese and anti-migration narratives, and conspiracy theories.
Burgess alluded to this issue in general terms in an interview with the Institute of Public Administration Australia’s Work with Purpose podcast this week. He confirmed the agency had seen “increased chatter in the online world when it comes to the spread of extremist ideology attempting to radicalise people”.
Labor has previously questioned why no right-wing extremist groups have been listed as terrorist organisations in Australia. In March it called for a review of the criteria used to judge terrorist organisations to ensure the procedures were fit for purpose.
Currently, the 26 listed terrorist organisations in Australia include Al-Qa’ida and its offshoots, Islamic State and its offshoots, Jemaah Islamiyah, Boko Haram and Hizballah’s External Security Organisation.
In March, at a parliamentary committee hearing, Burgess said Australia constantly reviewed the situation, but listings depended on “the intelligence that we have, the legal threshold for which we can do so, and the purpose that that would allow us to achieve by listing such organisations”.
The government currently has a bill before parliament to expand the reach of Asio’s compulsory questioning powers. It is understood Asio argues the questioning power could be useful in addressing the growing threat posted by right-wing extremists.
In a submission to the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security late last month, Asio said the terrorist threat remained unacceptably high in Australia, with three counter-terrorism disruptions in the past year: two cases motivated by Islamist extremism and one by extreme right-wing ideology.
Asio said it remained “concerned about the possibility of individuals being radicalised to an extreme right-wing ideology and committing acts of terrorism”.
Guardian Australia reported last year on how the far-right was mobilising ahead of the federal election, with experts saying there were two camps of right-wing extremists: those who believed in violence and those who wanted to gain political legitimacy to pursue their agenda.