As the United Kingdom approaches its historic referendum on whether or not to remain a member of the European Union, all across the European continent there has been a significant rise in the level of public protest, primarily, but not exclusively, by right-wing organizations. A significant focus of this protest has been anti-Islamism and this, in turn, has given rise to counter-protests with demonstrations by, amongst others, human rights’ groups, anti-racism activists, trade unionists and political activist groups.
The above phenomenon is not exclusive to Europe. Such activity can also be seen down-under, in Australia, where a movement known as Reclaim Australia has increasingly been making itself known and heard. Described by a significant section of the media as a far-right movement, Reclaim Australia is “a loosely structured group which, in 2015, began holding street rallies in cities across Australia in protest against Islam.” One of the speakers at these rallies has been the well-travelled Australian politician Pauline Hansen.
According to the movement’s website, the organization’s objectives include “the reclaiming of freedom, the belief in the equality of gender and law, and the opposition to ‘Halal’ certification”. Reclaim Australia has said that its rallies are “a public response to Islamic extremism and a protest against minority groups who want to change the Australian cultural identity”. Nothing new there then, in the land of the Australian Aborigine! But the latter, as well as the whole question of Australia’s “cultural identity” is another story.
According to Troy Whitford, a lecturer in political history, Reclaim Australia is “unlike previous short-lived radical nationalist groups. The movement has avoided becoming a structured organization, draws a broader support base, and lacks high-profile leaders who become a focus for opponents.” One of the group’s founders, Catherine Brennan, said that she had “never been politically active, but that the 2014 siege at the Lindt Café (Sydney) was a turning point for her.”
Already, Reclaim Australia has spawned splinter groups, notably the far-right United Patriots Front. Apart from supporting Reclaim Australia rallies, organisers of a Brisbane rally told the crowd that they had split from Reclaim Australia in order to join a group that was more explicitly anti-Islamic. Members of this movement have been known to carry firearms. Needless to say, movements such as Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front have witnessed counter movements such as those seen in Europe (see above).
I came across the above information on Reclaim Australia following further research after reading an article in the Australian Daily Review on Australian singer Jimmy Barnes. Though, like the writer, a Scot by birth – Jimmy Barnes was born and lived in Glasgow for the first five years of his life before moving to Adelaide – Barnes is an elder statesman of the Australian rock scene, having occupied the spotlight for around four decades. Now sixty, Barnes joined the Cold Chisel pop group as a 17 year-old. Cold chisel is known as the “quintessential Aussie pub rock band, with a true rock sound led by Barnes’s balls-to-the-wall screaming vocals, but it has musical roots outside of Australia.”
In 1985, three years before he became an Australian citizen, Jimmy Barnes recorded what is generally considered to be his signature song as a solo artist, Working Class Man (written by the American Jonathan Cain). Certainly, it would seem to be his best known and most played song (interestingly, in view of what follows, the B side of the recording was called Boys Cry Out For War). Barnes performed Working Class Man at the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games.
Barnes has said that the song meant a lot to him. “Most people thought that it was written about me, but it was actually about my audience – staunch, honest people, who work and care.” So too, he didn’t realise “how much of an impact it would have as an image centre” in the years following its release. The song was also released as a music video – filmed at Port Kembla’s steelmaking plant in keeping with the song’s theme.
So – “staunch, honest people, who work and care.” Are these the kind of people to whom Reclaim Australia wished to appeal when, along with songs by such other well-known Aussie singers as John Farnham, John Williamson and Midnight Oil (who collectively agreed that their songs be played only if they were respectful to the memory of fallen servicemen and women), they used Jimmy Barnes’s song Working Class Man at their rallies?
So too, would this right-leaning nationalist movement find any encouragement from the fact that the tune of Working Class Man was combined with the words of the Australian National Anthem, Advance Australia Fair, to become a popular song, Working Class Anthem, sung by the comedian Adam Hills, at the 2003 Melbourne Comedy Festival. It was later released as a pop single.
Reclaim Australia might find comfort in the song, but not support from Barnes himself. It is reported that, whilst recording some tracks for a new album, appropriately named Soul Searchin’, Barnes became aware of, indeed, was shocked by, the discovery that “some of his own classic songs had been taken on by the protest groups Reclaim Australia to lobby against immigration and Islam.”
“I just kept seeing all this behaviour I didn’t believe in – this lack of tolerance, this lack of empathy for people, this hatred, this anger – and I was watching it on TV, and every time they showed it there’d be Working Class Man or Khe Sanh (another of Barnes big hits) playing. I just thought that I didn’t want people to associate that music with what they’re doing.”
Of course, Jimmy Barnes is no knight in shining armour and, as he says of his own memoir, “you’ve got to be ready to bare your soul. There’s a lot of stuff in my life that I’m not particularly proud of, and that’s not even just my own actions. How I grew up as a child, it was very rough – we were starving, it was promiscuous, it was violent, we were abused – there’s all sorts of stuff there that I didn’t really want to talk to people about.” Later this year Barnes is releasing another album, called Working Class Boy, which will fill-in some of the gaps of his boyhood and teenage years as he looks back, cathartically, on what he calls “the good, the bad and the ugly.”
Notwithstanding, with words like those above it is easy to understand the empathy that Jimmy Barnes has for oppressed people and groups, as well as his dislike for organizations that wish to discriminate against such people and groups. He may acknowledge the right of the Reclaim Australia movement to hold its views, but he has no wish to collude with them in doing so.
In a widely publicized Facebook post, Barnes said that he did not support the Reclaim Australia protests: “I wouldn’t like people to be thinking that, full-stop. But everybody’s entitled to their own thoughts, and this is a free county and part of the reason we’re free is that everybody gets to have their say. But they are not going to say it with my songs, and that’s all I said.”
Not unexpectedly, Barnes copped plenty of back-lash from the supporters of Reclaim Australia, and says that he received hate mail and death threats towards his family. This will not come as too much of a surprise to those in the UK who closely followed the events of last year’s Scottish referendum and British national elections and, of course, those observing the current contest between the opposing sides in the British In/Out referendum on membership of the European Union.
Somehow it seems that competition between opposing ideologies, political and social processes, religions, philosophies, even football teams (witness this year’s Scottish Cup Final) seems to bring out, individually and collectively, the worst in people. This too will come to many, working class man or otherwise, as no surprise.