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ANALYSIS: History repeating in Austria? Not so fast

Heinz-Christian Strache of the FPÖ waits for the start of his first parliament session as Vice-Chanc..



Heinz-Christian Strache of the FPÖ waits for the start of his first parliament session as Vice-Chancellor in Vienna on December 20th. Photo: AFP

The new coalition in Austria is not simply a re-enactment of the 2000 coalition between conservatives and the far-right, and that makes it far more dangerous, argues Itay Lotem, a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Westminster.

As clichés go, one of the most resistant claims of all is that “history repeats itself”. As teenagers, many of us used it to show wisdom beyond our years, or at least to make sure our A-Level history essays got the conclusion they deserved. And yet it is just a cliché. While events follow certain patterns and structures, history does not repeat itself. The same applies to the latest blast from the past in Austria, the European harbinger of far-right politics. A new coalition government between the conservative ÖVP and the far-right FPÖ triggers comparisons with the past, both as a “return of fascism” and a “repeat” of the last such coalition in 2000.

Particularly right now, as 2017 seems to have been all about the rise of the far-right in Europe, the comparison with 2000 seems encouraging. Back then, the EU took steps to boycott the new government, which it perceived as the first far-right coalition in post-war Western Europe. At the same time, the government’s dysfunctionality led to its collapse within two years, the ensuing elections resulted in a big win for the ÖVP and a split of the far-right party.

This time, however, there is every reason to believe the coalition will survive a full term. As another cliché goes, 2017 is not 2000. The last two decades have witnessed changes in the ways far-right parties operate, and Austria is a case in point. Internal party changes, national developments and the transformation of European politics all point out that this coalition will be far more stable than its predecessor.

Internally, the FPÖ has learnt from its own mistakes. Back in the 1999 elections, it was propelled to electoral victory by the new adoption of populism that blurred its Nazi continuities and by the flamboyant personality of Jörg Haider, the then head of party. Haider was a gifted campaigner who harnessed protest votes to support the FPÖ as a pure opposition party. In government, however, the party lacked the most basic parliamentary experience. The FPÖ not only cracked under the strain of internal egos and competitions, it also got easily outmanoeuvred by its more experienced partners.

Ever since, however, the FPÖ has gained experience on state level and learned from its mistakes. This time around, it campaigned as a party of government. Furthermore, the coalition will provide less opportunities for inner-party strife. In 2000, Haider, the face of the party, was left outside the government and became increasingly marginalised and embittered. Today, the party’s two leading men, Heinz Christian Strache and Norbert Hofer, will both participate in the government, thus creating a more “parliamentary” movement and minimising the effect of Strache’s personality cult.

On a national level, the FPÖ performance is no longer a shock victory, but a long expected result. The big winner of these elections was the ÖVP, which gained from Sebastian Kurz’s personal campaigning over the party’s head. The young Chancellor was responsible for an ÖVP victory and an underperformance of the FPÖ. He gained support through a nativist platform, which always included a coalition with the far-right. While the aftermath of the 1999 elections saw a proliferation of anti-FPÖ demonstrations, Austrian civil society greeted this coalition with a shrug. After all, this was what people voted for.

Internationally, there is no reason to expect the EU to initiate any pressure comparable to the 2000 boycott. Despite impassioned calls to do so on some Western European Left-leaning journals, the new coalition with the far-right will not be the exception it was in 2000. Despite the specificities of Austrian continuities to Nazism, the EU will have a hard time singling out an Austrian government in the current climate.

For once, the Austrian coalition is predicted to be far more moderate than the current majorities of the Polish and Hungarian parliaments. Moreover, while the Austrian participation of a far-right party in power is indeed exceptional for the Western-European context, it is doubtful whether its character will be any different to the Danish government’s reliance on the far-right, the Dutch government’s appropriation of the far-right’s nativism or the British government’s Brexiteering touch.

This time around the FPÖ is far better prepared for government than in 2000 and is unlikely to implode under pressure. For outside observers, the FPÖ’s performance matters to see what happens to a far-right party that sets realistic expectations and participates in government as a junior coalition partner. For once, how much influence will the party exert over policy making (beyond its ability to toxify the public discourse)? When the FPÖ caves in to compromise on economic issues, how much understanding will its electorate show? And lastly, will an anti-establishment party be able to sustain its position after a term as junior member of the, well, establishment?

Indeed, while history never repeats itself, Austria can be counted on to provide insights into the working of the far-right. To find adequate means to counter its latest successes, following developments in this small Alpine country might be just the place to start. As the far-right re-invents itself into parties of government rather than pure protest, it becomes ever more pressing to devise better strategies to fight the roots that help it grow in so many places.

Dr Itay Lotem is a Postdoctoral Fellow in Modern Languages and Culture at the University of Westminster in the UK.

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Sydney seaplane crash: Exhaust fumes affected pilot, report confirms




The pilot of a seaplane that crashed into an Australian river, killing all on board, had been left confused and disorientated by leaking exhaust fumes, investigators have confirmed.

The Canadian pilot and five members of a British family died in the crash north of Sydney in December 2017.

All were found to have higher than normal levels of carbon monoxide in their blood, a final report has found.

It recommended the mandatory fitting of gas detectors in all such planes.

British businessman Richard Cousins, 58, died alongside his 48-year-old fiancée, magazine editor Emma Bowden, her 11-year-old daughter Heather and his sons, Edward, 23, and William, 25, and pilot Gareth Morgan, 44. Mr Cousins was the chief executive of catering giant Compass.

The family had been on a sightseeing flight in the de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver plane when it nose-dived into the Hawkesbury River at Jerusalem Bay, about 50km (30 miles) from the city centre.

The final report by the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) confirmed the findings of an interim report published in 2020.

It said pre-existing cracks in the exhaust collector ring were believed to have released exhaust gas into the engine bay. Holes left by missing bolts in a firewall then allowed the fumes to enter the cabin.

“As a result, the pilot would have almost certainly experienced effects such as confusion, visual disturbance and disorientation,” the report said.

“Consequently, it was likely that this significantly degraded the pilot’s ability to safely operate the aircraft.”

The ATSB recommended the Civil Aviation Safety Authority consider mandating the fitting of carbon monoxide detectors in piston-engine aircraft that carry passengers.

It previously issued safety advisory notices to owners and operators of such aircraft that they install detectors “with an active warning” to pilots”. Operators and maintainers of planes were also advised to carry out detailed inspections of exhaust systems and firewalls.

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Australia unlikely to fully reopen border in 2021, says top official




Australia is unlikely to fully open its borders in 2021 even if most of its population gets vaccinated this year as planned, says a senior health official.

The comments dampen hopes raised by airlines that travel to and from the country could resume as early as July.

Department of Health Secretary Brendan Murphy made the prediction after being asked about the coronavirus’ escalation in other nations.

Dr Murphy spearheaded Australia’s early action to close its borders last March.

“I think that we’ll go most of this year with still substantial border restrictions,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on Monday.

“Even if we have a lot of the population vaccinated, we don’t know whether that will prevent transmission of the virus,” he said, adding that he believed quarantine requirements for travellers would continue “for some time”.

Citizens, permanent residents and those with exemptions are allowed to enter Australia if they complete a 14-day hotel quarantine at their own expense.

Qantas – Australia’s national carrier – reopened bookings earlier this month, after saying it expected international travel to “begin to restart from July 2021.”

However, it added this depended on the Australian government’s deciding to reopen borders.

Australia’s tight restrictions

The country opened a travel bubble with neighbouring New Zealand late last year, but currently it only operates one-way with inbound flights to Australia.

Australia has also discussed the option of travel bubbles with other low-risk places such as Taiwan, Japan and Singapore.

A vaccination scheme is due to begin in Australia in late February. Local authorities have resisted calls to speed up the process, giving more time for regulatory approvals.

Australia has so far reported 909 deaths and about 22,000 cases, far fewer than many nations. It reported zero locally transmitted infections on Monday.

Experts have attributed much of Australia’s success to its swift border lockdown – which affected travellers from China as early as February – and a hotel quarantine system for people entering the country.

Local outbreaks have been caused by hotel quarantine breaches, including a second wave in Melbourne. The city’s residents endured a stringent four-month lockdown last year to successfully suppress the virus.

Other outbreaks – including one in Sydney which has infected about 200 people – prompted internal border closures between states, and other restrictions around Christmas time.

The state of Victoria said on Monday it would again allow entry to Sydney residents outside of designated “hotspots”, following a decline in cases.

While the measures have been praised, many have also criticised them for separating families across state borders and damaging businesses.

Dr Murphy said overall Australia’s virus response had been “pretty good” but he believed the nation could have introduced face masks earlier and improved its protections in aged care homes.

In recent days, Australia has granted entry to about 1,200 tennis players, staff and officials for the Australian Open. The contingent – which has recorded at least nine infections – is under quarantine.

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Covid: Brisbane to enter three-day lockdown over single infection




The Australian city of Brisbane has begun a snap three-day lockdown after a cleaner in its hotel quarantine system became infected with coronavirus.

Health officials said the cleaner had the highly transmissible UK variant and they were afraid it could spread.

Brisbane has seen very few cases of the virus beyond quarantined travellers since Australia’s first wave last year.

It is the first known instance of this variant entering the Australian community outside of hotel quarantine.

The lockdown is for five populous council areas in Queensland’s state capital.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk announced the measure on Friday morning local time, about 16 hours after the woman tested positive.

Ms Palaszczuk said the lockdown aimed to halt the virus as rapidly as possible, adding: “Doing three days now could avoid doing 30 days in the future.”

“I think everybody in Queensland… knows what we are seeing in the UK and other places around the world is high rates of infection from this particular strain,” she said.

“And we do not want to see that happening here in our great state.”

Australia has reported 28,500 coronavirus infections and 909 deaths since the pandemic began. By contrast, the US, which is the hardest-hit country, has recorded more than 21 million infections while nearly 362,000 people have died of the disease.The lockdown will begin at 18:00 on Friday (08:00 GMT) in the Brisbane city, Logan and the Ipswich, Moreton and Redlands local government areas.

Residents will only be allowed to leave home for certain reasons, such as buying essential items and seeking medical care.

For the first time, residents in those areas will also be required to wear masks outside of their homes.

Australia has faced sporadic outbreaks over the past year, with the most severe one in Melbourne triggering a lockdown for almost four months.

A pre-Christmas outbreak in Sydney caused fresh alarm, but aggressive testing and contact-tracing has kept infection numbers low. The city recorded four local cases on Friday.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government has pledged to start mass vaccinations in February instead of March as was planned.

Lockdown interrupts ‘near normal’ life in Brisbane

Simon Atkinson, BBC News in Brisbane

At 8:00 today I popped to the local supermarket for some bread, milk – and because it’s summer here – a mango. I was pretty much the only customer.

When I went past the same shop a couple of hours later it was a different story – 50 people standing in the drizzle – queuing to get inside as others emerged with bulging shopping bags. “Heaps busier than Christmas,” a cheery trolley attendant told me. “It’s off the scale”.

Despite the “don’t panic” messages from authorities, pictures on social media show it’s a pattern being repeated across the city.

While shutdowns are common around the world, the tough and sudden stay-at-home order for Brisbane has caught people on the hop here after months of near normality.

But while such a rapid, hard lockdown off the back of just a single case of Covid-19 will seem crazy in some parts of the world, I’ve not come across too many people complaining.

And I don’t think that’s just because Aussies love to follow a rule. This is the first time the UK variant of the virus has been detected in the community in Australia.

And nobody here wants Brisbane to go through what Melbourne suffered last year. Even if it means going without mangoes.

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