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  Issue No 43 Official Organ of LaborNet 24 February 2000  





Right Hand Drive

By John Passant

The rise of the extreme Right in Austria carries some important lessons for our own society.

And so the extreme right has entered Government in Austria. With six of the ten main ministries how is it that the racists in the misnamed Freedom Party have come to the gates of ultimate power? And in Austria, one of the centres of European civilisation?

Was it because of major problems with the economy? No.

Certainly the Austrian economy is sluggish. It grew only 1.1 per cent last year.

Unemployment is comparatively low - 6.5 per cent in August 1999 compared with 7.3 per cent a year before. Industrial output was down 8.7 per cent over the past year and wages up 3.1 per cent.

Although worrying, these figures are hardly the stuff of major economic crisis. The rise to power of xenophobes and racists in the past has been in times of economic catastrophe. Hitler came to power in 1933 during a crisis of profitability for German capital and with mass unemployment.

With Austria plodding along economically, how is it that Jorg Haider's anti-immigrant Freedom Party could win 27 per cent of the vote in the elections last year and now form a coalition with the Conservative People's Party?

The answer lies not in the economic situation but the political one. The SPO - the equivalent of our Labor Party - has governed Austria for the last 30 years. For much of that time the social democrats have been in coalition with the conservative People's Party.

The SPÖ - led coalition has followed traditional right-wing policies. In Government it acted much like the Hawke and Keating Governments in Australia - squeezing students, cutting welfare and pushing privatisation.

The SPO also caved in to Haider's anti-immigrant policies by scapegoating asylum seekers. This only gave his racist rantings some "respectability."

The Freedom Party claimed during last autumn's general election campaign that Austria suffered from "Überfremdung" (foreign infiltration). Hitler's Nazis put this word at the centre of their propaganda in the early 1930s. In fact Austria has one of the lowest levels of immigration in Europe.

Anti-immigrant policies were at the heart of Haider's election propaganda. Despite this polls show two thirds of Freedom Party voters put disillusionment with the two main parties, not immigration, as the key reason for backing him.

The Freedom Party won its highest number of votes in traditionally conservative rural areas. It is also true that many blue collar workers could not bring themselves to vote for the SPO because of its betrayal of workers.

However Haider won fewer votes from blue collar workers than the more than one in four he got across the population as a whole. Perhaps that explains why the Greens won a modest increase in their vote.

Some commentators have dismissed the alarm on the Left about Haider's success. These are people who have learnt nothing from history. Thus the People's Party claimed during coalition talks (just as conservative parties had done during Hitler's rise) that they had tamed the Freedom Party.

There's nothing to worry about, they tell us. After all the Freedom Party is only a junior coalition partner. The constitution will prevent attacks on foreigners.

These complacent arguments mirror those put when Hitler became chancellor on a minority of the vote in January 1933. The Constitution did not stop the Nazis or protect Jews. Neither will it contain the Freedom Party and the Nazi forces its victory boosts.

Haider's public utterances show his real intentions. He has praised the "sound employment policies" of the Third Reich. He has described the SS as "courageous" and men of "decent character".

This is guarded praise. With a nudge and a wink he sends his real message to his supporters. However he cannot openly admit his pro-Hitler feelings. Yet.

What his comments show is that he could adopt Hitler's methods if he felt his path to power through the ballot box was being blocked.

Unlike Hitler, Haider has not built a street fighting force. He has played the democratic card.

However his racism and the fact that his party is now in Government will open the way for the growth of the Nazis both in Austria and the rest of Europe. European fascism is emboldened by his success.

Elements within the Freedom Party and Nazi groups in Austria want to build a movement to do what Hitler did - smash working class organisation and all forms of democracy. They are biding their time, thinking that the tide of history is with them.

We should heed the lessons of the 1930s. United working class action - political and industrial and ultimately threatening civil war - is the only way to stop fascism before it establishes its dictatorship.

John Passant is a Canberra-based writer


*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 43 contents

In this issue
*  Interview: Parting Gestures
Outgoing ACTU president Jennie George looks back on her time at the helm and charts some challenges for young women in the union movement.
*  Unions: While We Were Sleeping
It’s been a long hot summer for Australian workers - from the showdown in the Pilbara to the victorious National Textile workers. We look at the stories Workers Online missed while we were in the banana chair.
*  Media: Freudian Slips
The coverage of Jennie George’s final days as ACTU President were a case study in the art of psycho-tabloid.
*  Legal: Cookies’ Fortune
The breakaway union led by a man personally backed by the Prime Minister has been refused registration in a ruling that raises questions over the whole enterprise.
*  Politics: True Deceivers
In his controversial new book, Andrew Scott argues that Labor's rhetoric has outstripped its achievements.
*  Review: Rebel With a Cause
A new Michael Moore has emerged at the frontline of subversive television. His technique? Combining organising with silly suits.
*  Satire: Victorian ALP shock: "Apparently We're in Power!"
A recent survey conducted by the Victorian State ALP has revealed that the party is in government.
*  International: Right Hand Drive
The rise of the extreme Right in Austria carries some important lessons for our own society.

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