Not everyone who has attended the so-called “Freedom” protests is right wing, but the protests themselves are right wing and so are the organisers.
This movement is seeking to use conspiratorial ideas to forge a motley coalition of libertarians, neo-Nazis, Trump supporters, anti-vaxxers, religious conservatives and other right-wingers in opposition to public health measures and COVID-19 vaccines.
For the previously marginalised far right, this movement has been a breakthrough moment.
There is no doubt that the far right is directly involved in organising this movement. The protests have been dominated by far-right messaging, including pro-Trump banners and paraphernalia linked to the conspiracist QAnon movement. White supremacist and antisemitic stickers have been littered throughout these protests.
Rising distrust in political institutions has helped create the conditions for this movement to grow and reach out beyond the ranks of the far right.
Mainstream right-wing politicians from the Liberals, Nationals, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP) have joined forces with the far-right, seeking to capitalise on the movement. Protest organisers Reignite Democracy have now openly united with UAP.
The federal Coalition government has also pandered to the movement. While Prime Minister Scott Morrison eventually criticised the threats of violence by protesters, he lay blame on state governments for “telling Australians what to do” during the COVID-19 pandemic.
With the support (explicit and implicit) of politicians and the Murdoch media, these protests have gained in legitimacy and numbers, with thousands attending rallies in Melbourne in the past few weeks.
Emboldened by this growth, more reactionary elements of the movement have ramped up their attacks through death threats against elected politicians and the presence of mock gallows at protests. Protesters have also harassed people at vaccination clinics, causing some centres to temporarily close.
A supporter of the movement physically assaulted the daughter of Animal Justice Party MLC Andy Meddick as she painted over an anti-vax street poster, while others have attacked the offices of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union and Reason MLC Fiona Patten.
The growth of these far-right protests should be a serious cause for concern for the left.
Yet some progressive individuals have been caught up in the movement on the supposed basis that it is “anti-government” or due to opposition to vaccine mandates.
Some have tried to make the movement more appealing to progressive activists by asking prominent Aboriginal activists to speak at rallies.
Others have commented that the left needs to support the protests as they are “working class” in composition. But looks can be deceiving.
Just because someone wears high-vis work gear does not make them a worker. Thirty years of neoliberal policies has seen many workers made redundant and forced to set up small businesses or become self-employed to survive.
Together with the decline in unionisation rates, this has led to a whittling away of social solidarity among workers and its replacement with a more individualistic consciousness.
This is reflected in the movement’s highly individualistic demands against lockdowns, masks and vaccines, in place of fighting for any collective expansion of our rights or for collective solutions to combat COVID-19. The most fundamental element of health and safety on the job is to collectively look after each other and put responsibility on the bosses and government to provide safe workplaces.
This lack of social solidarity has also been expressed in the lack of sympathy for families that have lost loved ones due to COVID-19 or for healthcare workers who have been drowning under the workload.
We need to counter-protest the far right — but we need to do more than that.
We also need to build social movements that take up economic issues affecting working-class people, as well as movements around social issues, such as racism.
Socialist Alliance and other socialist groups are active around these issues, but we must get unions, community organisations and other political parties such as The Greens on board to help expand their reach.
At the same time, we have to build a movement for socialist change capable of presenting a coherent alternative to the political class that can win over the growing numbers of people expressing their discontent with the status quo, and not just leave this space to the far right.
[Jacob Andrewartha is the Socialist Alliance Melbourne branch convenor and SA national executive member. Sue Bolton is a Moreland City councillor and SA national executive member.]