The rise in the number of people attending right-wing “freedom” protests since the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions is a concern. Tens of thousands joined the largest protest on November 13 and another will take place on November 20.
The self-described “Melbourne Freedom Rally” organisers are opposed to all public health restrictions and vaccine mandates. They are aggrieved by the state government’s pandemic bill which, after several amendments, now looks like it will be redrafted.
The protest organisers make many false claims about the bill, including that it will allow the premier to declare infinite lockdowns and make pandemic declarations without parliamentary oversight or a serious health justification.
However, while the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), the Victorian Ombudsman, the Bar Association and the Law Institute of Victoria have also expressed criticisms, they say it is an improvement on the government’s current emergency powers.
Amendments won by progressive crossbenchers in the Legislative Council have partially addressed concerns, including: lower fines for breaching public health orders; a stronger threshold for declaring a pandemic; strengthened human rights protections; the right to protest enshrined in regulations; and faster publication and tabling of public health advice and orders.
The HRLC’s Daniel Webb said on November 10 the amendments are “a significant improvement on the current law” because they include “many of the human rights and democracy safeguards we have been calling for”.
However, he said more needs to be done “to ensure a best-practice approach” and to “fully incorporate all the lessons of the last 20 months”.
Despite broad support for public health measures, and close to 93% first dose vaccination, the freedom protests are growing with organisers piggybacking on these concerns to push their right-wing, anti-lockdown, anti-vaccination and anti-government agenda.
Moreland socialist councillor Sue Bolton told Green Left, the protest organisers claim to be about freedoms but are silent on the need to bolster the public health system in a pandemic, and ensure people affected by the virus and those working on the frontline receive the economic support they need.
“We are living in dangerous times,” Bolton said. “The growth of this movement, led by the right, reflects people’s increasing frustration with politics. But anti-vaxxers, libertarians, right-wingers and conspiracy theorists opposed to vaccine mandates and public health restrictions are not going to ever provide solutions.”
The freedom protests follow from the anti-lockdown protests organised in September. The anti-vaxxers, libertarians, right-wingers and conspiracy theorist organisers are a part of the same group that attacked the office of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union.
Since the lockdown restrictions ended, the weekly protests have grown. The Melbourne Freedom Rally Telegram channel has more than 14,000 followers.
The organisers include members of the far right, including the Proud Boys. One organiser had been a member of Reignite Democracy Australia, which recently joined forces with the reactionary United Australia Party (UAP). Another is 24-year-old Harrison McLean, a self-described “civil libertarian”.
A joint investigation in March by The Guardian and the anti-fascist White Rose Society exposed McLean’s anti-Semitism and conspiratorial approach. At recent protests, pro-Donald Trump flags and other right-wing paraphernalia have been flown, echoing the reactionary QAnon movement in the United States.
Worse, state and federal MPs have attended these protests, their presence aiming to legitimise this reactionary movement. UAP leader Craig Kelly was a special guest at the November 13 rally. The White Rose Society reported that his bodyguard was Stuart Von Moger, a neo-Nazi.
Liberal Party MPs, including shadow ministers, among them anti-abortion MLA Bernie Finn, MLC David Davis, MLC Craig Ondarchie, MLA Nick Wakeling and MLA Roma Britnell, have also lent their support. Liberal Democrat MLCs and right-wing Independent Catherine Cummings also attended.
Death threats have been made to Labor Premier Daniel Andrews and Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick and his family. Gallows with three nooses have been prominent at the rallies. On November 15, organisers erected a gallows, with a mock hanging of an Andrews blow-up doll. A video showing a hanging inflatable Andrews on a makeshift gallows is circulating on social media.
“The gallows, with nooses, hint at the sorts of lynchings used in the United States against African-Americans,” said Bolton. “It is wrong and shows the extremes to which the Liberal and other MPs will go to prey on people’s fears and insecurities.”
Bolton, who is the Socialist Alliance’s candidate for the federal seat of Wills, said the “freedom” protest organisers “have never been interested in real freedoms”.
“They have never supported workers right to take strike action in defence of their work conditions. They have never protested against racism or other forms of discrimination. They are not interested in eradicating COVID-19 or pushing for a public health system for everyone.
“However, they do support businesses’ right to make profits.”
[The Campaign against Racism and Fascism has called a protest for November 20 at 12pm starting at the corner of Russell and Victoria Streets, Melbourne.]