But “these people are not looking just for protection, these people are looking to migrate”, Downer said. “And they are looking to migrate to the country they want to go to. They get protection in all sorts of other countries on the way to your country, but no, no, no – we’re going to let them in and become migrants.”
Australia’s harsh policies on border protection have endeared it to the government led by ultra-conservative Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, commonly described by media outlets as a far-right demagogue.
Abbott met with Orban while in Hungary, where he also addressed the conservative Danube Institute and a demography conference hosted by the government. He was joined there by long-serving Liberal MP Kevin Andrews, who called for policy action to fix declining birth rates in the West.
But the connections between Australian conservatives, the Liberal Party and the thriving right-wing intelligentsia in Hungary go much deeper. Budapest has become a major stop on the speaking circuit, where conservatives will find a receptive audience – especially when it comes to immigration.
Abbott’s remarks about migrants “swarming” across the borders were made during a question-and-answer session at the Danube Institute. One of his interlocutors was Mark Higgie, who was in fact Abbott’s international affairs adviser for years, across his time as opposition leader and prime minister.
In the late 1990s, Higgie was Australia’s ambassador to Hungary. Later, after working for Abbott, he served as the ambassador to Brussels. Earlier this year he moved to Budapest, where he is a senior fellow at the Danube Institute and Europe correspondent for the vehemently conservative Spectator Australia magazine.
In their conversation, Higgie told Abbott he had been struck by Europe’s growing interest in Australia’s solutions for “stopping this great scourge” of unwanted immigration.
“If only the voters of Warringah had been Hungarian,” Higgie later wrote in the Spectator. “The land of goulash and paprika … greatly admires Tony Abbott for showing that, like their own prime minister Viktor Orban, a Western democracy can secure its borders despite determined illegal immigration and leftist fury.”
The Danube Institute has a number of other Australian connections. For one, the Liberal Party’s former federal director Brian Loughnane sits on its international advisory board. He directed Abbott’s two federal election campaigns and is married to Abbott’s former chief of staff Peta Credlin.
The institute is headed by John O’Sullivan, a commentator and journalist who was a special adviser to Margaret Thatcher and is also an editor-at-large of the US magazine The National Review. O’Sullivan is a long-time colleague of controversial Australian historian Keith Windschuttle, editor-in-chief of the wildly conservative Quadrant magazine. O’Sullivan has, in fact, edited the magazine previously – in 2015 and 2016 – and still serves as its international editor.
His Danube Institute has become a pit-stop for conservative intellectuals on tour from Australia. University of Queensland law professor James Allan, who writes for the Spectator Australia magazine, has spoken there several times, as has his colleague David Martin Jones.
The institute was founded in 2013 through the Batthyany Lajos Foundation, a government entity established “to promote Hungarian political mentality committed to the Hungarian people and nation, focusing on European unity and resting on common Christian values”.
The Danube Institute did not reply to emails. But Higgie confirmed it received funding from the Orban government, which he estimated at about $700,000 to $800,000 a year. He said neither he nor Loughnane were paid for their positions.
Europe has been alarmed by Orban’s conservative nationalist march. The New York Times described his regime as “an odd kind of soft autocracy, combining crony capitalism and far-right rhetoric with a single-party political culture”. Orban himself has embraced what he calls “illiberal democracy”.
This has been most pronounced when it comes to immigration. Indeed, as recently as last month’s demography summit alongside Abbott, Orban invoked the far-right “replacement theory” about a demographic takeover by non-whites, warning “political forces” wanted to replace the European population with “others”.
After the summit, Abbott praised Orban as a transformative leader who was the first to “cry ‘stop’ to the peaceful invasion of 2015”, referring to people seeking asylum in Europe.
Writing in the Spectator, Abbott noted the “small but influential English-speaking diaspora in Hungary” led by O’Sullivan, Higgie and British academic Frank Furedi. He said the attraction to Hungary was partly “the force-field of Hungary’s leader, Viktor Orban”.
Abbott had a separate meeting with Orban during his September visit to Hungary. Also in attendance at that meeting was Balazs Orban, parliamentary state secretary of the Prime Minister’s Office (no relation to PM Orban).
It was not the first time Abbott has met Balazs Orban in recent months. They met privately in June during the Hungarian’s visit to Australia. According to the Hungarian government’s website, Orban met with MPs and officials in Canberra and Sydney, and delivered a lecture on Hungary at the University of NSW. He also put in an appearance on Sky News’ Outsiders program, hosted by Spectator Australia editor Rowan Dean.
Dominic Kelly, honorary research fellow at La Trobe University and an expert on the hard right, says Orban’s regime is “certainly authoritarian, whether you call it fascism or not”.
Kelly says one of the biggest concerns was anti-Semitism in last year’s national elections, targeting the billionaire Hungarian-American philanthropist George Soros – the subject of worldwide conspiracy theories due to his financing of progressive causes. “The election campaign undoubtedly used anti-Semitism as a tool,” he says. “All the posters around Budapest show George Soros and say ‘we’re under threat from him and the refugees he’s bringing in’.”
Central European University, which Soros founded, is being forced out of Budapest by new Hungarian government regulations, and opened its new campus in Vienna last month. “It’s utterly brutal what he [Orban] has done to civil society in the last 10 years or so,” says Kelly.
That has not stopped several conservative Australian commentators travelling to Hungary on think tank money and returning with markedly rosy views of the state of the nation.
The Australian newspaper’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan flew to Budapest as a guest of the conservative Mathias Corvinus Collegium (MCC), and rejected depictions of Orban as a fascist. That was the conjecture of the “coercive liberal elite”, he opined afterwards.
In March the MCC hosted its own summit on migration. Australia was again represented on the speaking list in the form of Higgie, Allan (who then gushed in Quadrant about Budapest’s food, wine and government) and Downer, whose aforementioned speech earned him rapturous applause.
Michael Koziol is a political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.