State and federal authorities are being urged to take further action against a right-wing extremist group that burnt a cross and chanted racist slogans at a popular Victorian tourist destination over the Australia Day weekend.

Thirty-eight members of the far right National Socialist Network burnt a cross next to Lake Bellfield at the foot of the Grampians, a ritual usually associated with the Ku Klux Clan, in central Victoria on Sunday evening. Tourists and locals heard the group chanting “white power” and Nazi slogans.

National Socialist Network members set fire to a cross during a visit to the Grampians National Park at the weekend.

On Thursday morning, The Age and Sydney Morning Herald revealed local police and intelligence officers from Victoria Police’s Counter Terrorism Command were collecting information about the group, which hiked through the Grampians National Park on the weekend.

The group’s members also visited the tourist town at the foot of the Grampians, Halls Gap, where they engaged in anti-Semitic and other racist behaviour. At least half a dozen tourists and residents said they had reported the men to police.

Six uniformed officers from the nearby town of Stawell spoke to the group, including its leader, ex-Australian army soldier turned neo-Nazi Tom Sewell. Mr Sewell later posted online pictures of the police officers’ name badges as well as images of the neo-Nazi group posing in front of a burning cross and displaying Nazi salutes at various locations in the Grampians.

Dr Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, a civil rights organisation, said the group’s weekend activity should prompt state and federal governments and agencies to push for extreme right-wing groups to be proscribed as terrorist entities.

“We do not need to wait for a Christchurch [terror attack] in Melbourne to act,” Mr Abravomich said. “Who would have thought in 2021 Australia, in a week in which we commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the modern face of Hitler would reveal itself in our state without consequence?”

“This group and others, are creating an echo chamber and incubator on the net, taking full advantage of their virtual audience to feed and amplify their vitriolic fantasies about an Aryan Australia, without Jews, Muslims, Aboriginals, the disabled immigrants, members of the LGBTQI community and anyone else they deem ‘inferior’.

“I call on our state and federal governments to lead the fight against the growing problem of racially based extremism by candidly characterising it and advocating that these groups be added to the terror list. ”

However, extremist expert Lydia Khalil of the Lowy Institute cautioned that while the proscription debate is important, it faces several legal and political hurdles and should not be viewed as a catch-all solution.

Alleged members of a far-right extremist group seen at Halls Gap and the Grampians.

She said early prevention is critical and that government agencies — having “belatedly” expanded their focus from programs targeting would-be jihadists to right-wing extremists — must concentrate on tailoring interventions to far-right groups.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said on Thursday that there was no place for that sort of bigotry and hatred in the state.

“I won’t comment on individual circumstances because they may well be the subject of Victoria Police work. But I will just say there is no place for that kind of anti-Semitism in our state, there is no place for that sort of bigotry and hatred. There is no place for violence. I would make the point as well, that many would argue, and the international evidence is very clear, and indeed the local evidence, that anti-Semitism is on the rise.

“It’s an evil thing, it’s a wicked thing, and I just take this opportunity to send a message to the Jewish community across Melbourne and Victoria, you have and continue to make a profound contribution to our state. It’s hard to imagine so many things we cherish and value, they just wouldn’t be in the position they are in, they would not have emerged, they wouldn’t be as strong as they are without the contribution the Jewish community has made and no community should be treated that way.

Tom Sewell of the Lads Society.Credit:YouTube

The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald have identified some of the key organisers and participants of the Grampians gathering. Some show the faces of young men who would prefer to stay in the shadows — posing in their own online posts with faces covered.

The organisers were the Lads leader, Mr Sewell, raised in the middle-class suburb of Balwyn in Melbourne, and Stuart Von Moger, a security guard who has appeared at several far-right events and meetings with political figures who were unaware of his ideology. The Lads have also been accused of a failed attempt to branch-stack the NSW Young Nationals in 2018.

Mr Sewell has claimed in a social media post that the Grampians event was aimed at providing “content” for a new neo-Nazi group, the European Australian Movement.

Alleged members of the group were seen visiting a general store, meeting and camping at Halls Gap.

He has the hallmarks of some far-right activists in the US, including those who stormed the Capitol three weeks ago, a move which Mr Sewell said in one online message had lessons for Australian extremists.

His posts indicate that he is a racist conspiracy theorist appealing to marginalised, underemployed young Australians on the fringes of society.

The 2019 terror attack by an Australian on a mosque in New Zealand that left 51 dead served as an ideological rallying point for some far-right groups, and a reminder of the potential consequences of underplaying the potential threat.

ASIO recently revealed that up to 40 per cent of its resources are being directed towards right-wing extremist groups.

ASIO’s deputy director-general, Heather Cook, told a parliamentary committee last year the COVID-19 pandemic was fuelling a surge in radicalisation because “of the amount of time individuals are spending in isolation, working from home or not in school”.

The Canadian Parliament is now debating a move to declare the far-right group the Proud Boys a terrorism entity. In Melbourne last November, a lone-wolf extremist on the fringe of local far-right groups, Philip Galea, was jailed for 12 years for planning a terrorist attack on Trades Hall, the Socialist Alliance’s Melbourne headquarters, and the Melbourne Anarchist Club.

Know more about the Grampians trip participants, the Nationalist Socialist Network or any other far-right groups? Contact (anonymously if preferred) [email protected]

With Simone Fox Koob

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