GOVERNMENTS keep underestimating communities' ability to sideline far-right extremists and should look to Bendigo for inspiration, a witness has told a parliamentary inquiry.
A witness has told the Victorian inquiry into the rise of right-wing extremism that decision-makers should empower local communities to stand up for democracy and diversity.
Parliamentary MPs have been searching for answers to the continued rise of the far-right in Victoria before and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
They have been told governments continue to underestimate the power of communities like Bendigo, which was galvinised against the far-right's toxic rallies against a mosque in the mid-2010s.
"The police intervention, local council ... state intervention, nothing worked," a witness from the Centre for Inclusive and Resilient Societies has told the inquiry, according to newly published hearing transcripts.
"It only changed the public climate and it changed the dynamics in the far-right protests when Believe in Bendigo was created from the ground up."
"Witness Two" - whose identity was suppressed by the inquiry - was talking about the grassroots Bendigo movement founded in the aftermath of the first ugly protests in 2015.
The same witness went on to describe other examples of communities taking action.
"When, in Eltham, refugees were supposed to be settled and the far-right wanted to mobilise, go there and protest, the grandmothers and the little kids and everyone came out in the street and started to knit for Eltham and express the support of the community for them," Witness Two said.
"And that basically destroyed all of the far-right dynamics that could have evolved there-because the community took it in their hands."
Witness Two's comments came during a broader discussion of governments' narrow response to extremism over the last two decades.
Multiple witnesses have told the inquiry Australia's heavy focus on law and order responses were no longer enough to effectively fight right-wing extremists intent on twisting democratic processes.
Australian spy chief Mike Burgess has previously warned that ideologically-motivated extremism, including right-wing terrorism, is on the rise, mirroring a global trend.
It represented around half of the agency's onshore counter-terrorism caseload, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation's director-general has said.
Witness Two said Australia gives very little attention to empowering local communities when right-wing extremists hijack debates.
A new goal should include helping people stand up for democracy and diversity, they said.
The inquiry has previously heard from Believe in Bendigo co-founder Margot Spalding.
She has now responded to extra questions from the inquiry about ways governments can increase social cohesion.
Her ideas include engaging with disenfranchised youth, who she described as "the right-wingers of the future" along with other segments of the population like tradies, hairdressers, teachers and nurses.
Ms Spalding also said new incentives and education was needed for volunteer community groups.
They often already had pro-diversity values and visions but sometimes are more conservative.
"Believe in Bendigo did all of these things," Ms Spalding said.
"Education sessions were undertaken, and still are, in collaboration with Bendigo Community Health Services.
"Even the most staunch opponents are positively swayed once they have experienced a BCHS Understanding The Refugee Journey session."
Ms Spalding said governments would need to find appropriate groups to run such programs.
The goal would be to build local understandings of multicultural Australia, with a focus that includes its economic value to specific regions.
Another group has warned that extremists of all types will keep finding scapegoats until fundamental societal problems are solved.
"Extremism is a symptom that something in society is not right. It is not the illness itself," Liberty Victoria has previously told the inquiry.
"Finding ways to silence right-wing extremism, or indeed any other form of extremism, will not cure the problem, it will mask it until a new form of extremism arises."
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