The $61.7 million funding boost comes amid concerns the COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged the number of conspiracy-minded groups and individuals.
The federal government will spend more than $60 million to combat violent extremism, targeting the rapid rise in conspiracy theories during the COVID-19 pandemic and fears for MPs safety.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews announced the funding boost on Wednesday against the backdrop of an upcoming federal election, amid concerns this could act as a flashpoint for misinformation and hate.
The response also follows warnings from the nation’s security agencies about the threat posed by “single-issue” violent extremism, such as recent anti-lockdown protests.
Ms Andrews said the government had “zero tolerance” for anyone threatening “the peace and cohesion of our society by trying to use violence to achieve a political, religious or ideological goal”.
“Australia is a peaceful, tolerant and harmonious country, but we cannot be blind to the fact that there are those among us who seek to sow hate, fear and discord,” she said.
“Violent extremists may have a range of ideologies and motivations, but none of them are welcome in this country.”
The federal government is pledging an additional $61.7 million towards programs countering violent extremism, which has seen funding double since 2013.
This will include $24.5 million to expand intervention programs into rural and regional areas and $13.8 million towards a national program to rehabilitate and reintegrate violent extremists in custody.
Security agencies are concerned the COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged the number of conspiracy-minded groups and individuals.
While Australia has so far avoided violence from this threat, a heavily armed man was arrested by police in the United States after they discovered a “hit list”, including President Joe Biden and Dr Anthony Fauci.
The murders of British MPs Jo Cox and Sir David Amess have also heightened concerns about the threat of people using violence to attack democratic processes and institutions.
Terror analyst professor Greg Barton from Deakin University welcomed the funding commitment, describing the focus on rehabilitation and prevention as “exactly what we want”.
“It’s important that we are seeing increasing recognition from the government that far-right extremism in its various forms, including these conspiracy theories, is a rising problem,” he told SBS News.
“This is not about which party you vote for – this is about being way out on the extreme in a way that is unhealthy.”
Professor Barton pointed to activity from protesters outside Parliament House and the National Press Club in recent days – which included “genuine far-right extremists” – as an example of the potential threat.
“We’re seeing that at the moment, in the midst of that there are some really hardcore elements,” he said.
“The threat always is that some individual will decide perhaps – with no one else knowing anything about it – to make a hero of themselves.”
ASIO director-general Mike Burgess said last October many violent extremists were focusing on individual issues rather than broad ideologies such as right-wing extremism.
“The most likely attack in Australia will be that of a lone actor, one who mobilises to violence with little or no warning,” Mr Burgess said at the time.
The funding boost will see $8 million go towards countering violent extremism research, risk assessment and training.
It will also see $10.7 million invested into a community grants program and $4.7 million into communication programs that rebut extremism narratives.
Professor Barton said intervention programs were not the sole answer, but could play a role in helping people who have gone off to an “extreme” find there is an “off-ramp and pathway out”.
“We can’t manufacture that out of thin air and a government grant program can’t manufacture, that but we can certainly help them to be more effective and [people become] more aware,” he said.
“So that can be a catalyst that can make all the difference.”
But Labor’s Home Affairs spokesperson Kristina Keneally described the response as “too little, too late” by the Morrison government.
“Funding to counter the threat of violent extremism is welcome, but to truly address this threat Mr Morrison must listen to our intelligence and security agencies’ warnings and address what is driving this,” she said.
“Instead, [he] has stood back as MPs like Craig Kelly, George Christensen, Matt Canavan and Gerard Rennick have endorsed the conspiracy of the far-right, and the platforms shared by extremists.”