MELBOURNE • Several hundred Australian nationalists and anti- racism activists clashed with police in Melbourne yesterday, in a rare display of violence in a country where immigration has become an increasingly emotive political issue.
Police used pepper spray to try to keep the two sides apart after the anti-racism activists attempted to keep the nationalists from holding their "Reclaim Australia" rally.
Blocking migrants trying to reach Australia by boat was a key plank of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's victorious election campaign in 2013.
Meanwhile, fear of young Australian Muslims being inspired by militant groups such as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has underpinned support for right-wing groups like Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front.
"The message is very clear: You come here, embrace our way of life," Mr Daniel Nalliah, national president of the Rise Up Australia Party and Reclaim Australia rally organiser, told the crowd. "If you think where you come from is better than where you are coming to, shut up, pack up and get out."
About 450 police officers were on hand following violent clashes at a similar rally earlier this year, and pepper spray was used as they struggled to keep the two sides apart.
Four people were arrested in Melbourne, said Victoria state police. At a similar rally in Adelaide, police made one arrest, local media said. There were no reports of injuries.
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane said the use of pepper spray was justified.
"The police were at significant threat of having their lines overrun and it was a tool we had to use at the time," he was quoted by ABC News as saying yesterday. He said the violence on both sides was disappointing and invalidated the messages they wished to convey.
More than a dozen Reclaim Australia rallies are scheduled to take place around the country today.
A member of Mr Abbott's government will speak at one such event in Queensland state. National Party MP George Christensen wrote on his Facebook page that he wanted "to support people who seek to defend our Australian way of life, our culture and our freedoms from the threat of radical Islam".
However, opposition immigration spokesman Richard Marles said it was clear from yesterday's demonstrations that the Reclaim Australia events were "synonymous with racist behaviour". "It is extraordinary that a government MP will address one of these rallies and that the Prime Minister is allowing it," he said in a statement.
"Tony Abbott should show some leadership and stop a member of his government from addressing and promoting Reclaim Australia events."