Recent anti-lockdown protests in Melbourne have exposed the rise of the far-right movement over fears stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, unemployment, and continuing lockdown measures.
The most recent — and arguably most violent — protests were sparked by the state government’s decision to suspend work on building sites for two weeks and make vaccination mandatory for construction workers.
Construction workers protesting at the trade union offices in Melbourne, Australia’s second-biggest city, were joined by several other groups, many from far-right backgrounds.
The protest soon turned violent, with police responding with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray.
“Very quickly we saw ‘freedom marchers’ join the protests with other right-wing antagonists,” far-right analyst Josh Roose, a senior research fellow at the Alfred Deakin Institute in Melbourne, told Al Jazeera.
“That then gave the impression of being a much larger movement than it necessarily was at the very beginning of that day. It’s gone from a couple of hundred angry trade unionists to several thousand people.”
The protests have focused attention once again on the far right in Australia, two years after an Australian white supremacist attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 51 people.
Condemnation of the September rallies was widespread, with Labor Member of Parliament Bill Shorten publicly dismissing the protesters largely as “hard-right man-baby Nazis”.
But Roose — who has previously advised governments about such groups — says such stereotypes are simplistic and misleading.
He says for Australia to combat the far right, people need to understand what it is, and that such groups are more than just “jackboots and swastikas” even if they have previously held public displays of Nazi symbolism and salutes.
“The far right is a lot more nuanced. It has evolved and taken new shapes and morphed into something far more sophisticated than that stereotype,” he said. “The far right has its vocabulary. It has far-right discourse. It’s anti-Semitic. It’s racist. It’s anti-Muslim. It’s primarily anti-women.”
“It is deeply anti-science and propagates disinformation and distrust in government. It views the world as governed by liberal elites who are oppressing and corrupting wider society, and to that extent, it overlaps nicely with conspiracy theories.”
Such conspiracy theories, circulated primarily on social media, include the belief that COVID-19 is a hoax, the vaccine is designed to kill people, or that the recent rollout of 5G technology is to blame for the pandemic.
Pandemic disinformation has also recently crept into the federal Parliament, with Liberal MP George Christensen publicly promoting the use of ivermectin as a coronavirus treatment — despite the Therapeutic Goods Administration, Australia’s medicine regulatory agency, banning its use for the disease.