The Guardian • Issue #1989

Adverse reaction: 

The sinister side of the anti-vaxxer “freedom rallies”

  • The Guardian
  • Issue #1989

Across the country, anti-government anti-vax “freedom rallies” have erupted over vaccine mandates, pandemic restrictions, and at the broadest level, the government itself. Looking from afar, one could be forgiven for being confused over exactly what the protestors want.

In Victoria, the protests were in response to a proposed bill designed to respond to an ongoing pandemic. Victoria has been under a state of emergency for almost two years now, so permanent legislation is needed in the future. The Bill would shift the power to declare a pandemic from the Chief Health Officer to the Premier, allow a pandemic declaration to be renewed for up to three months, and implement transparency measures around public health orders.

Some people see the bill as a dangerous extension of government power without adequate oversight. This isn’t an entirely unreasonable claim. In an open letter last week, the Members of the Victorian Bar called on the to include more accountability. Since then, the Bill has been amended significantly, to reduce fines, increase the threshold for declaring a pandemic, improve oversight, and strengthen human rights protections.

But the protestors are not satisfied: the majority of them identify Daniel Andrews with everything wrong with the government and want him gone no matter what. Beyond this, it is difficult to identify what their demands actually are. In Melbourne, throughout the week, the protests were marked by a hodgepodge of anti-vax sentiment and vague calls for “freedom,” alongside threats against Andrews.

Across the country, politicians have been threatened over vaccine mandates. In Melbourne, counter-terrorism police arrested one man for encouraging people to bring firearms to anti-lockdown protests outside the Victorian statement parliament and for threatening to kill Andrews.

The Saturday 20th protest in Melbourne looked like a flag convention with flags from various nations flown alongside Trump flags, upside down Australian flags, and the red ensign (a flag flown in support of the “sovereign citizen movement”). The protests are a mish-mash of various anti-government, anti-vaccine right-wing groups. They’re disorganised, undisciplined, and reactionary in the worst way. But they are not harmless. Lurking beneath the surface is right-wing extremism.

Government offices in Western Australia have been closed after threats were made against staffers in Mark McGowan’s office, and politicians in Queensland and New South Wales have reported threats. In Western Australia, there are calls for safe zones to be implemented around schools where vaccines are being administered after high schoolers were accosted by protestors.

On Saturday, one “activist” called on protestors gathered in Melbourne’s Flagstaff Gardens to “unite against communists”, apparently identifying the state Labor government with the Communist movement. If only. This ridiculous claim lends credence to the slogan that the number one cause of anti-communist sentiment is not knowing what communism is.

Neo-Nazi adjacent newspaper, the Unshackled claims in a November 22 article that the “Worldwide Freedom Rally” protests in Melbourne were attended by 250,000-500,000 people. Of course, this claim is highly suspect, but what it shows is how right-wing extremists are being encouraged and emboldened by the protests and are using them as propaganda to build their movement.

What is more disturbing is the right-wing political establishment’s eagerness to get on board with the protestors. United Australia Party MP Craig Kelly addressed the Sydney protest on the 20th of November, stating

“When we have governments that adopt vaccine passports we’re no longer free. We don’t live in a free society, we live in a prison camp. On my watch, I am not going to stand by and let this happen and neither are you guys. We have got to protect our kids, that’s our first priority.”

As Kelly’s statement indicates, the right-wing reaction to the pandemic feeds on fear and conspiracy, with the Liberal Party helping it along through dog-whistling for extremist votes. Last week, Scott Morrison made headlines by taking a “both sides” approach to condemning the protest, in a move eerily reminiscent of Trump’s Charlottesville speech.

The Prime Minister urged Australians to “take their lives back,” while also calling for less government intervention in people’s lives. He has been roundly criticised by various public figures, including Daniel Andrews, for pandering to extremists by failing to outright condemn the reactionary violence. Make no mistake, the threats and extremist rhetoric are a form of violence towards all Australians.

The Liberals’ laissez-faire approach to the pandemic has cost hundreds of lives. The push to get vaccinated has been entirely without national leadership from the Liberal government. The Liberals’ failure to acquire a sufficient quantity of vaccines and their favouritism towards the Liberal NSW state government in vaccine distribution has, far from encouraged a pro-active response to vaccination, put up barriers to Australians outside of NSW getting vaccinated in the first place.

At the time of writing, five coalition MPs have backed a Bill introduced by Senator Pauline Hanson to outlaw “vaccine discrimination”, further undermining a national effort by the Australian people to get vaccinated and end the pandemic. Overall, the ‘wait and see’ response of the Liberal government in NSW and the Commonwealth government led to a massive surge in cases earlier this year, throwing the rest of the country under the bus due to their utter disregard for public health and failure to proactively tackle the pandemic. All in the name of some abstract individualist notion of ‘freedom’. Freedom means nothing to someone dying of COVID in an ICU ward.

In fact, the Liberals’ approach to government has been nothing short of a disaster for Australians nationwide. The Morrison government has been racked with scandals, from his handling of the bushfire crisis to Robodebt to the Porter scandal to the failure to provide adequate pandemic resources to vulnerable remote Indigenous communities. It isn’t just the scandals: their policies leave much to be desired as well.

During his term, Morrison has introduced tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, utterly failed to respond to climate change, introduced union-busting legislation, and wages have stagnated to the point that we are seeing a US-style labour crisis. Meanwhile, inflation is rising faster than wages. It’s gotten so bad that the Reserve Bank of Australia has recommended an immediate 3 per cent wage rise for Australian workers. What is Scott Morrison doing? Instead of investing in workers, he’s investing in submarines (see Guardian #1981 “No Nuclear Australia: Time For Action!”).

If you’re wondering who really benefits from a Liberal government, look no further than the anti-government, anti-vax protests that have plagued our major cities. Morrison’s refusal to condemn violent extremism outright speaks volumes about where he really stands on this issue. He stands on the side of sacrificing workers for the sake of ‘business as usual’ and he does not mind pandering to extremists to further his agenda.

Well, business as usual costs lives. Government intervention to control the pandemic has saved thousands of Australians from contracting the virus and potentially dying from it. Vaccination is safe and effective against the spread of disease. Individual freedoms do not stack up against the safety and protection of the vast majority of society. Do not let the rhetoric and misinformation fool you.

We need a united workers front against the misinformation and dangerous rhetoric of the anti-lockdown protests. They are putting workers at risk by undermining vaccination efforts and contributing to the spread of the virus. Protests are an effective tool against reactionary forces, but protests must be organised. The value of a mass movement is to be judged by its goals and the solidarity of its participants.

Vague, kneejerk, anti-government rhetoric is simply dangerous and does not serve the working class. Only a precise and considered analysis of the situation can arm the working class with the tools we need to ensure our own safety, not only against government ineptitude but also from right-wing movements that seek to exploit the crisis towards their own ends.

The Guardian can also be viewed/downloaded in PDF format. View More