Large so-called “freedom” rallies were organised against lockdowns in Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane among other regional centres on August 21. While right-wing in character, its vague messaging meant that people attended for a variety of reasons.
Anti-semitic stickers were found around the Melbourne protest site, where Nazi symbols and signs supporting conspiracy theories were on display. People held signs supporting conspiracy theories and clearly had a general disdain for any measures — including masks — to combat the pandemic. A Proud Boys contingent marched in Perth.
While a number of aspects of the current lockdowns should be criticised, the rallies were not about improving the health response: they were about rejecting measures that a coordinated and effective health response would require.
In Sydney, police issued more than 260 fines and made dozens of arrests, after setting up road blocks around the city and cancelling ride share apps. Despite only a few hundred gathering, helicopters buzzed the city skies for hours while hundreds of police were deployed in parks on the city fringes.
In Melbourne, The Guardian reported police used weapons against thousands of people, including rounds of pepper spray projectiles and canisters. Victorian Police Chief Commissioner Shane Patton claimed it “was probably one of the most violent protests” in 20 years.
The thousands who attended these and previous actions do not necessarily subscribe to far-right ideologies and are not all members of far-right groups. But some current and former Liberal MPs attended, and made their support known.
This is why a political response is needed to win people away from those peddling conspiracies, or worse.
An effective response to combating the pandemic would include: adequate income support and job security measures; an end to over policing and the disproportionate targeting of vulnerable communities; and adopting a health and safety approach to the pandemic away from blaming individuals.
In other words, lock down smarter, not harder.
The fact that, 18 months into the pandemic, we still have to demand a social approach is a product of governments prioritising corporate interests over community health and well-being.
When the pandemic hit least year, the federal government’s first response was to offer business a support package. The inadequate JobKeeper and short-lived Coronavirus Supplement to JobSeeker were only given once it became clear that support for the Coalition would collapse. Despite their problems, both programs were ended prematurely.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison is now threatening to withdraw funding from state governments that refuse to “open up” once 70% of the adult population have been vaccinated. He justifies this business-friendly stance with a misreading of the Doherty Institute’s modelling.
Similarly, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is claiming that the Delta variant of COVID-19 means that we have no choice but to “live with” the virus. This is an arguable proposition. In Queensland, a recent Delta outbreak which spread rapidly has, so far, been brought under control.
Taiwan had an outbreak of the Alpha variant, peaking at 723 cases on May 22. This was being brought under control when Delta appeared in late June. Public health measures — which include lockdowns — in a context of low vaccination rates brought new case numbers down to 10 by August 16. China has also had success in dealing with a small Delta outbreak.
The federal and NSW governments are making excuses to avoid taking the steps necessary to effectively deal with the virus. As senior economist with the Centre for Future Work Alison Pennington put it, Morrison is “choosing to starve the public health effort”.
They are hoping that vaccination will be enough, and carried through on time.
However, this will not be enough to protect against COVID-19 and it will not undercut the attraction of “freedom” rallies which, without a counterpoint, allow the far-right to build its influence.
[Alex Bainbridge is a national co-convenor of the Socialist Alliance.]