A Political History of National Action: Its Fears, Ideas, Tactics and Conflicts

By Whitford, Troy | Rural Society, April 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

A Political History of National Action: Its Fears, Ideas, Tactics and Conflicts


Whitford, Troy, Rural Society


INTRODUCTION

In 1982 the radical nationalist group, National Action, emerged on university campuses in Sydney, mimicking the organisational structures of extreme leftist student organisations. Its tactics were reminiscent of those adopted by a variety of Maoist and Trotskyist groups active across universities during the 1970s. National Action primarily targeted Asian immigration. It adopted a radical stance with labourist rhetoric and policies akin to those of the first half of the 20th century. National Action also invoked elements of Australia's radical nationalist history, drawing on the ideas of William Lane and P.R. Stephensen, couched in the political rhetoric of Jack Lang. Its emblem was the Eureka flag.

The appropriation of these ideas and their marriage to increasingly extreme political action put the group out of step with mainstream Labor Party policies and alienated potential conservative supporters. Moreover, internal debates about the nature and direction of the group fractured the organisation internally, attracting a membership of disaffected people espousing neo-Nazi and white supremacist beliefs. Some members were ready to undertake criminal activities in support of their interpretation of the group's objectives. This brought National Action into conflict with media, politicians and law enforcement agencies.

An ill-defined set of objectives, a tendency to extremism, and an ostensibly authoritarian leadership unable to discipline its membership were factors which led to the collapse of National Action. In many respects the history of National Action (albeit short) tells the story of a nationalist student group declining into a rabble without a cause.

METHODOLOGY

National Action has been virtually ignored by historians and political scholars. Perhaps this is because of its relatively contemporaneous nature and the ephemeral character of sources generated by the organisation. But there also is a deeply ingrained orthodoxy surrounding the treatment of right wing extremist groups like National Action. A leading scholar in the field, Andrew Moore, unwittingly sums up the orthodoxy when he writes that 'the purpose of studying the history of the Australian Right is to know the enemy' (2005). There is a strong sense in the literature surrounding extreme right wing groups that any analysis of these groups should be accompanied by unequivocal condemnation. Impartial, analytical treatment of extreme right wing groups is consequently viewed as supporting, sympathising, or descending into apologetics. Writing objectively without adhering to the orthodoxy established in the literature incites anger among some readers and complicates publication in the field. Work pertaining specifically to National Action is cursory. Moore in his history of right wing groups, The Right Road? (1995), devotes little specific attention to National Action. The most substantial work on the group is by its co-founder, Jim Saleam, in his PhD thesis entitled The Other Radicalism: An inquiry into contemporary Australian extreme right ideology, politics and organisation 1975-1995. An historical fiction entitled I was a teenage fascist (1994), written by David Greason, is the only other account of the group. Greason in his book claims to have been a member of National Action. He is now keen to distance himself from the group, and National Action's co-founder disputes key aspects of his account.

This historical analysis is by a non participant who has been given access to a large body of source material and interviews with National Action's co-founder. Using oral history and standard empirical analysis of primary sources this work provides a more reliable reconstruction of the group's development and subsequent demise than in previous writing.

THE FORMATION AND IDEAS OF NATIONAL ACTION

National Action was founded by university students Jim Saleam and Frank Salter in the inner Sydney suburb of Glebe. It was a typical campus oriented student organisation, first known as the Australian Students Association. …

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