The garb of the Ku Klux Klan is a change of style rather than substance for a notorious Australian racist, writes Greg Ansley.

CANBERRA - For Peter Coleman, the new face of hate in Australia is merely a change in uniforms.

The militaria dealer, whose brick-veneer home in the western suburbs of Sydney is incongruously decorated with an embossed "welcome" plaque, was a neo-Nazi until the Nationalist Movement imploded in murderous internal rivalry.

Like many others from the shadowy extreme fringes of Australian society, he attached himself to Pauline Hanson and the One Nation party, attracted by its lurid nationalism and xenophobic views on Aborigines and immigration.

But Coleman's latest incarnation was too much even for One Nation, which is trying to shed itself of the lunatic right.


When he appeared in a hooded white robe as the "Exalted Cyclops" of the Australian branch of the Imperial Klans of America, Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, the party dumped him like a hot coal.

An unrepentant Coleman told Sydney radio: "Sure, I'm a racist - and proud of it."

After years of speculation and copycat claims, the Klan has arrived in Australia.

How significant it will become and how long it will last remain to be seen.

"You never know," said Mark Potat, of the Montgomery, Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Centre, which monitors the Klan and other hate organisations in the United States.

"If you have some real badasses in your part of the world getting into the Klan, maybe it will turn into something scary.

"But there's a kind of mystique that's attractive to some people - you know, 'the invisible empire, we only ride at night' - and it's such an American phenomenon that maybe you shouldn't worry too much."

With enough hate organisations of its own, however, the prospect for Australia of the Klan spreading through a fringe population paranoid in its belief of a global Satanic conspiracy to destroy truth and freedom is deeply disturbing.


Defence Minister John Moore has ordered an investigation into claims by Coleman that former and serving members of the Army and Navy have joined the Klan's new branches in New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria, and a report on the group is being prepared for NSW Police Minister Paul Whelan.

There is little either federal or state governments can do to ban the Klan, apart from the use of criminal and racial vilification laws against its members.

But Canberra is likely to prevent senior Klan officials from visiting Australia.

Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said the Government was concerned at suggestions that leaders might visit Australia to "espouse views that are unacceptable in a society like ours."

In a clear warning that Klan visa applications would face a hostile hearing, Mr Ruddock said beefed-up character and conduct provisions in immigration rules, previously used to exclude members of the Hells Angel motorcycle gang, had given the Government added legal clout.

Immediate targets include a senior US Klansman, Barry Black, who said he intended to visit Australia, and the Imperial Wizard of the Imperial Klans, Ron Edwards, who told Australian Associated Press that any attempt to keep him out of the country would violate civil rights and suppress freedom of speech.

Edwards was last month subpoenaed to appear before a US federal grand jury investigation into an alleged far-right plot to blow up Government buildings.

Assessing the real risk to Australia is more difficult.

The Klan, for all its aura of terror and its history of brutality and murder, is largely a spent force in the United States, despite a recent surge in membership on the back of a broader fear of globalisation and a new world order, and of the swamping of the white race.

While the Klan expanded from 127 branches in 1997 to 163 last year, mainly through the growth of its largest faction, the American Knights, the total number of Klansmen is only about 5000.

That compares with the 100,000 to 200,000 Americans who belong to other hate and white supremacist groups.

Potat said many of the Klans and their impressive Internet sites were now little more than profit-making marketing operations, selling Klan robes, literature and paraphernalia.

"There's a lot of opportunism in the Klan world."

The two Klans organising in Australia are Coleman's Kentucky-based Imperial Knights and the New Order Knights, a Missouri-based organisation with visions of a global white nation.

Both are among the smallest of the Klans.

Coleman claims about 70 members, which, as in the United States, puts him among the small fry of Australia's far right.

This is an active, often overlapping and at times violent world that embraces such groups as the League of Rights, various militias - mainly in Queensland and New South Wales - fundamentalist religious groups such as Christian Identity and roving bands of neo-Nazis and skinheads.

The Klan's presence has long been claimed, with attacks on Aborigines and Jews dating back a decade or more, including beatings, shootings, abuse and racist graffiti carried out by thugs claiming to be Klansmen. Until Coleman, reports of organised Klans were scoffed at, with police and other agencies believing most of these to be wannabees and copycats.

But the wider threat of the far Right is real: several years ago a large cache of military weapons was seized from a secret religious extremist militia in Canberra calling itself the Loyal Regiment of Australian Guardians, with members in the Defence Department.

The Australian Secret Intelligence Organisation remains deeply concerned by the list of extremist groups and a threat of violence powerful enough to force Prime Minister John Howard to wear a bulletproof vest during his rural campaigns for tough new gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur massacre.

And even if the Australian Klan does not match the appalling history of its US parent, similar experience with the small Klans established in Scotland, the British Midlands and London since the 1960s demonstrate the potential.

After languishing for much of the 1990s and battered by the arrest of former leader Allan Beshella on paedophilia charges, the Invisible Empire, United Klans of Europe is again recruiting actively.

Under new leader Alan Winder, a 35-year-old salesman claiming to be a former intelligence operative, the Klan is believed to have set up secret paramilitary training camps and to have hacked into social security computers to check up on would-be members.