A ‘critical junction’: What Melbourne’s anti-lockdown protests mean for the federal election
In this week's fake news, peaceful protesters brought peaceful full-sized gallows "for gallows and goodbyes". Photo: Twitter
Politicians trying to capitalise on the anger of the Melbourne protests will struggle to organise the diverse groups into a unified voting bloc, an expert on the far-right has warned.
Amid widespread condemnation of death threats made by some of the protesters, the United Australia Party, One Nation and the Liberal Democrats are all targeting the vocal minority who took to Melbourne’s streets with platforms opposing lockdowns and vaccine mandates.
But Dr Kaz Ross, an independent researcher on far-right and conspiracy theory communities, said it was unlikely the thousands of people who protested on Saturday and Monday would rally behind one candidate.
“If a politician jumps on a wave like this at the right time, they have been able to get something out of it,” Dr Ross told The New Daily.
“But jumping on a populist movement, particularly when there’s extremists around, is a tricky thing to do.”
Melbourne protests condemned
Labor, Greens and crossbench politicians have condemned the Melbourne rallies, which included chants of “hang Dan Andrews”.
It marked an ugly escalation of protests that have continued for weeks over Labor’s controversial pandemic bill, which would give the state government sweeping powers to set public health orders.
Thousands marched through Melbourne, including several who carried makeshift nooses, waved Donald Trump flags, and wore merchandise related to the baseless Qanon conspiracy theory.
The protests were promoted by an assortment of large anti-lockdown, vaccine sceptic and far-right groups online, including Reignite Democracy – an activist group formally linked with Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.
Craig Kelly addresses the Melbourne protest. Photo: YouTube
Former Liberal MP Craig Kelly, now leader of the UAP, gave a 10-minute speech to large crowds on Saturday. State Liberal MP Bernie Finn also reportedly made a speech, referring to the Premier as “Despot Dan” and the proposed legislation as “evil”.
The New Daily contacted Mr Kelly for a response and also approached Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office for comment.
Victorian Liberal leader Matthew Guy labelled protesters as “ridiculous” and “stupid”, but declined to rebuke Liberal MPs who spoke at recent rallies.
He said it would be “a dangerous place in democracy to say we’re going to pick and choose who can’t be addressed at a rally”.
The anti-lockdown crowd is a vocal minority – more than 83 per cent of Australia’s 16+ population is double vaccinated. But it could shape as a key voting bloc, judging from the attention minor parties are paying it.
Minor parties court protest votes
Mr Palmer’s UAP now has formal links with Reignite Democracy, with members of that group likely to support and volunteer for Mr Kelly’s campaign. Mr Kelly told The New Daily last week the UAP’s campaign would focus on western Sydney and Melbourne areas which experienced long lockdowns.
UAP advertising has focused on criticising border closures, lockdowns and vaccine rules. Mr Kelly spoke at the rally, leading the crowd to chant his name after his speech.
Pauline Hanson’s One Nation is also running strongly against vaccine mandates and travel rules, while the Liberal Democrats – now featuring former Queensland Premier Campbell Newman – are pushing similar issues.
All three parties are clearly hoping to tap into anti-lockdown sentiment, a factor not present in their disappointing 2019 campaigns.
Clive Palmer. Photo: AAP
Last election, the UAP won 3.43 per cent of the national House of Representatives vote, with One Nation scoring 3.08 per cent.
But both parties have had stronger performances in the Senate, with One Nation winning 10.27 per cent of the votes, and the UAP 3.52 per cent, in Queensland’s upper house race.
The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, scored just 0.83 per cent.
Dr Ross, an expert in political science and far-right movements, said the growing anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movement could be an attractive cohort for politicians to tap into.
She said Melbourne’s protests showed such groups were activated and energised.
“They’re showing they’ve got the numbers and an issue they can mobilise a broad spectrum of political support for,” Dr Ross told TND.
“This is a crossover moment for them. They might be able to take people with a naive political position and convert that into a broader concern, which is about how much power should the government have.”
However, Dr Ross said Australian political history showed it was “exceedingly difficult” to translate such populist support into electoral victory.
She pointed to former One Nation senator Fraser Anning’s dismal showing at the 2019 poll, but said Senator Hanson’s 2016 harnessing of anti-Islamic sentiment and the burgeoning Reclaim Australia nationalist movement showed it was possible.
Dr Ross said it was unlikely the crowd, made up of disparate groups rather than one unified central organisation, would rally behind one candidate.
“Everyone wants to appeal to the masses and be a populist, but doing the hard yards with volunteers and material – lots of them can’t do it,” she said.
“The movement in Melbourne is at a split. Some want to go down the electoral politics side, and some want to storm into Parliament, like January 6 at the Capitol.
“That puts them at a critical junction.”
Coalition MPs flirt with fringe
But it’s not just fringe parties courting the support of anti-lockdown and vaccine-sceptic groups. Prominent Coalition MPs are also fanning the flames of such issues.
Coalition MP George Christensen shared a video posted from the Melbourne protest on Saturday, commenting “awesome”.
The MP for Dawson, retiring at the next election, is also promoting a “rally for freedom” in his Mackay township, telling followers to “stand up against segregation in Queensland and the “No Jab, No Job” mandates”.
On Monday, he told Facebook followers “the time is coming for civil disobedience when it comes to these ridiculous pandemic restrictions”.
Similar opposition is brewing with fellow Coalition senator Matt Canavan, and Senator Hanson. The pair both appeared on Monday at a town hall meeting in Yeppoon, near Rockhampton, which opposed vaccine mandates.
Senator Hanson, plus other Liberal senators in Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic, have threatened to withhold their votes from government legislation unless the Coalition does more to oppose vaccine mandates by state premiers.
As The New Daily reported, Facebook posts from these anti-mandate senators are now regularly among the most popular posts of all Australian politicians.
Mainstream Liberal MPs have so far not given similar nods to such groups. But comments from Prime Minister Scott Morrison last week that Australians “had just about enough” of “governments telling them what to do” were interpreted by some political observers as a nod to those concerned about government overreach during the pandemic.
“Labor loves interfering in your life – they love telling you what to do,” he said in Melbourne on a mini-campaign swing.
The anti-lockdown crowd may be a vocal minority, but it has clearly pricked the ears of several politicians ahead of the 2022 election.