Above: the city of Melbourne, in the State of Victoria, Australia.
Dr. Mario Peucker
Senior Research Fellow, Victoria University in Melbourne (Australia)
Mario Peucker is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities at Victoria University in Melbourne (Australia) and a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Mario is also an executive member of the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (CRIS), a consortium of eight Australian and international academic, community and industry partners. He has undertaken qualitative and quantitative research and has published widely on radical political movements, Muslim community activism and inclusion-exclusion dynamics since 2003, both in Europe and Australia.
Mario is also an executive member of the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies (CRIS), a consortium of eight Australian and international academic, community and industry partners. He has undertaken qualitative and quantitative research and has published widely on radical political movements, Muslim community activism and inclusion-exclusion dynamics since 2003, both in Europe and Australia.
The following opinion piece has been written by a guest author. The views expressed in it do not necessarily reflect those of the Strong Cities Network. Dr Mario Peucker is a Senior Research Fellow at Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia, and one of the co-authors of a recent study on far-right dynamics in the Australian state of Victoria, along with Associate Professor Debra Smith, Professor Ramón Spaaij, and Scott Patton. You can read the report, ‘Dissenting citizenship? Understanding vulnerabilities to right-wing extremism on the local level’ here.
While a growing corpus of research has sought to understand far-right mobilisation online, only limited attention has been placed on how far-right dynamics play out in specific local contexts, with some notable exceptions, such as the work of Busher, Harris and Macklin. To address this gap and provide insights for local policymakers and practitioners, a research team at Victoria University in Melbourne recently analysed far-right actions in three municipalities in the Australian state of Victoria, paying particular attention to how local stakeholders – from councils and police to civil society – have responded to related community tensions and forms of political polarisation.
For each of these three local case studies, we interviewed local practitioners, analysed a range of documents, media reporting and social media posts, and reviewed demographic statistics as well as electoral outcomes. Based on these insights, we drew a holistic picture not only of the far-right actions that had previously occurred in these municipalities, but more importantly of the locally specific vulnerabilities and resilience factors.
” Far-right activities do not necessarily indicate that the neighbourhood is a right-wing ‘hotspot’ or has particular local problems – our study showed that sometimes the opposite was the case: municipalities and neighbourhoods may be targeted because of their progressive attitudes and proactive commitment to social justice. “
Our first conclusion was simple and straightforward: any neighbourhood can become the site of far-right protests and other actions. This observation may not have been particularly surprising, but it was important to note as it helped to defuse some of the sensitivities and potential defensiveness of local policymakers when confronted with far-right dynamics in their ‘backyard’. Far-right activities do not necessarily indicate that the neighbourhood is a far-right ‘hotspot’ or has particular local problems – our study showed that sometimes the opposite was the case: municipalities and neighbourhoods may be targeted because of their progressive attitudes and proactive commitment to social justice.
The crucial question is: how does a local municipality respond to such mobilisation attempts and what can various local stakeholders do to build local resilience to far-right mobilisation and reduce the risk of social harm when it does occur?
Based on a cross-comparative analysis of our three case studies, we developed a four-fold Prevention and Intervention Cycle to capture some key elements of what can be a promising and effective approach to far-right actions and other forms of political polarisation in a specific local context (Figure 1). This proposed multi-faceted approach seeks to build on existing local programmes and measures, adding new perspectives and combining both proactive long-term and reactive measures.
This is an area where many local governments, together with various community groups, have been very active for years. It encompasses a range of council policies (including symbolic messaging of the political leadership) and programmes as well as community activities aimed at promoting inclusion and celebrating diversity. These measures are most commonly social harmony oriented. Local stakeholders increasingly recognise, however, that this is not enough to significantly reduce intergroup tensions or prejudice. In response, some of the local councils in our study have increased their efforts to create more intercultural spaces and empower marginalised communities to gain agency. There are myriad ways to enhance local opportunity structures for intercultural engagement. A particularly promising lever relates to various facets of urban planning – from the micro-design of local spaces and houses to addressing socioeconomic or ethnic segregation, which can have an impact on intercultural relations and ultimately on the vulnerability to far-right recruitment.
- Early Intervention
In modern urban spaces, conflicts are the norm and not the exception. Various studies in Australia and elsewhere have again and again proven that racism, homophobia and other forms of exclusion and discrimination persist, and not only at the societal fringes. A key recommendation of our study is to complement social harmony perspectives of social cohesion with practical conflict management and transformation approaches. This is often challenging: how do we deal with individuals in the community who express prejudiced views of, for example, certain ethno-religious or queer communities and dissent from progressive values and social justice? It requires experience and expertise to find a way to allow spaces for ‘difficult conversations’ where such negative attitudes can be voiced and managed without endorsing or amplifying them. But silencing them and turning a blind eye is no long-term solution as it may increase individuals’ sense of voicelessness and disenfranchisement, which is widely considered a risk factor in individual radicalisation pathways.
- Preparedness and response
Although local stakeholders often feel overwhelmed and surprised when far-right mobilisation occurs in their neighbourhood, we identified a range of measures local policymakers can take to be better prepared to respond effectively and minimise harm when their local community is being targeted by such politically divisive actions. There is a range of local policy areas to consider, depending on the type of far-right action. These include, but are not limited to, local graffiti removal policies and practices, event management and venue hiring policies, social media monitoring and management and communications strategies, training for public-facing staff and frontline workers (especially youth and social work). The first crucial step is to start a conversation within local government to raise awareness of the potentially powerful tools local policymakers have and may utilise to respond to and prevent harmful far-right dynamics in their neighbourhoods.
The fourth part of this four-fold cycle relates to an honest and evidence-based assessment of far-right dynamics after they happened. In our study we identified four interrelated key questions that can assist in guiding this assessment:
- What role have locally specific issues and community grievances played in far-right mobilisation?
- To what extent were the far-right actions ‘imported’ or organised locally?
- How have far-right messaging and tactics resonated within the local community?
- What role has the broader media discourse and public climate played in the far-right actions locally?
Such an assessment is not only crucial to better understand the far-right dynamics that happened in the past. By identifying local grievances and community vulnerabilities and resilience factors, it also offers a basis to re-evaluate and further adjust existing prevention and early intervention measures. And here the cycle continues – local policies and programmes become increasingly effective and adapt to the constantly changing demographic, socioeconomic, political and cultural environment in the municipalities.
Although this four-stage Prevention and Intervention cycle was developed within a research study that focussed on far-right dynamics, the applicability is by no means limited to this specific context. In a series of subsequent workshops with local governments, this model has proven helpful in initiating new ways of approaching questions of local community cohesion, where conflicts and tensions are not pathologized but addressed holistically and used as an opportunity to learn and respond to constantly evolving local circumstances.
The full report, ‘Dissenting citizenship? Understanding vulnerabilities to right-wing extremism on the local level’, published by Victoria University, can be found here.
This guest article is a slightly revised version of an article originally published by the Centre of Analysis for the Radical Right (CARR) on 8 December 2020.