How can we combat far-right pandemic populism?

January 17, 2022
Craig Kelly, a former Liberal MP now a leader of the United Australia Party, speaks to a Melbourne anti-vaccination protest on November 13.

If we needed another demonstration that the world is run by irrational corporate profiteers, the COVID-19 pandemic is it. A shit show the world over, the crisis continues to expose neoliberalism for its glaring inadequacies and cruelty.

Despite the two years of bungling by Australian governments, working people vigorously supported measures to contain the virus and keep society safe. Collectively, we bought valuable time by isolating as much as possible while vaccines were developed and distributed.

But after so much sacrifice, the ruling class’s has unleashed a new “let it rip” strategy to cover for its failures to put adequate health and employment protections in place as new variants of the virus appear.

Of course, the public health system has been in trouble for a lot longer than the pandemic.

Since the 1980s, the health system has been stripped down via privatisations under the guise of “cost-cutting”. It is not a surprise that one of the worst death tolls from the virus in Melbourne’s second wave stemmed from the chronically-underfunded, profit-driven aged-care system. No quick-fixes could make up for the damage already done.

Governments could have  built up the public health system, banked resources and reconfigured workplaces to help cope for when, and if, the virus got out of control. That didn’t happen. Given our efforts to keep society safe (including through lockdowns) over the past two years, their decision to open up before Christmas, with no plan to deal with the Omicron infection spike, was reckless.

Both PCR testing and the availability of the Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) were overwhelmed within a few weeks. Not only does the under-preparedness and under resourcing impact healthcare workers, it reaches well beyond. So many people now cannot work because they have to isolate without access to paid pandemic leave or income support.

Who’s responsible?

“You can’t just make everything free,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison declared recently. It’s not his money to decide. His shift in rhetoric is to thrust the onus to stay safe back on to the individual. Rather than provide free PCR tests, we are told to buy our own RAT (the cost of which will quickly mount up).

JobKeeper, the higher JobSeeker rate and lockdown payments have been removed — one by one — over the past year. Now, we have “private” lockdowns, where individuals have to isolate, but without a financial safety net.

This shows how useless capitalism is. Ultimately, it’s down to us to figure out how to keep food on the shelves, teach our kids and look after the sick.

Mirroring the disaster of climate change, the virus surge had been predicted. Given the inept government response, it’s no wonder the far right is trying to capitalise on the discontent.

The so-called “Freedom protests” in Melbourne last September attracted tens of thousands of people into the streets for several weeks. They began after the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union refused to campaign against vaccine mandates and were given a boost by the perceived overreach of the Victorian government’s pandemic law.

The Freedom group tapped into a current with ties to groups connected to the former United States’ President Donald Trump. Primed with conspiracy theories about the virus, it tried to gain sympathy with the organised labour movement.

While the protests involved some neo-Nazis, they were primarily tapping the anger of disillusioned people from all walks of life.

While some anti-vax protesters use democratic slogans (such as “My body my right”) to try and get their point across, others, such as those who tried to infiltrate the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra, have declared they are a part of the Trumpian “Sovereign Citizen Movement”.

Some on the left have written the anti-vax crowd off as far-right and organised counter-protests to shame them. There is a tactical question of how effective it is to call for them to be shut down. It also has to factor in how to calibrate workplace health and safety with individual rights.

A lot of this movement’s funding has come from the deep-pocketed Craig Kelly and the United Australia Party (UAP). The involvement of the evangelical Christian right helps explain some of its migrant working-class composition.

We all know people who have been, or are, suckered in to believing that by not taking a life-saving vaccine they are fighting an oppressive system. This is misguided, but it is also true that they are not all fascists.

The organised far right, including its UAP parliamentary wing, wants to expand its influence by tapping into legitimate grievances for which the left needs to be offering solutions.

Working people and their unions need to mobilise to reject the populist anti-vaccine movement’s non-solutions and demand the necessary public health funding and financial safety nets.

We also need to demand the federal government helps poorer countries with vaccinations. Apart from global solidarity reasons, we know that new variants of the virus will develop in those parts of the globe that are not fully vaccinated.

The pandemic is a global problem, but the neoliberals in charge are prepared to ignore this. Meanwhile, Cuba’s record on public health stands out. It has achieved an astonishing 90% vaccination rate — without mandates — and in the face of the punishing decades-long US blockade.

Mounting campaigns to undercut the right’s simplistic and populist “solutions” would re-engage a lot of people. Our demands need to include: free, locally manufactured RAT; sick leave for all positive cases no matter people’s work status or industry; restore the full Coronavirus supplement to JobSeeker and provide income support to all who have to isolate; and manufacture vaccines here and provide them free to the region.

[Felix Dance is standing for the Victorian Senate. This article is based on a presentation he gave to the 16th National Conference of the Socialist Alliance.]

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