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The divisions and tensions inside national cabinet mirror the political forces that are gaining strength within the anti-lockdown movement. By Rick Morton.

The political forces inside the anti-lockdown movement

A protester during the “Worldwide Rally for Freedom” march in Melbourne on July 24.
Credit: Michael Currie

There was a moment during last Friday’s venomous national cabinet meeting, as leaders fought over Covid-19 management strategies, when the military man handpicked by Scott Morrison to run the vaccination program launched a savage broadside against New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian.

Lieutenant-General John Frewen, an unelected public servant, had just listened to a desperate plea from the premier about redirecting Commonwealth-controlled vaccines from GP clinics into the most affected Sydney local government areas.

Frewen was apoplectic. According to those present in the virtual meeting, he spoke with such derision that it left other premiers and chief ministers stunned. At least one state leader told colleagues: “I would have stopped the meeting if he had spoken to me like that.”

Prime Minister Morrison seemed unconcerned, however. He spoke second to Frewen, and only to back up what the army man had said.

During the meeting, Morrison handballed much of the negotiating to Frewen. The prime minister was being beamed into the hook-up from The Lodge in Canberra, and periodically got up from his desk, turned his back to the camera, and bent down to literally stoke a fire with a poker.

Onlookers were agog. It served as a potent metaphor for the divisions and rancour engulfing the nation, much of which had been stoked by Morrison and his Coalition colleagues.

These tensions caught fire the day after national cabinet, on July 24, when thousands of people across Australia marched in a “Worldwide Rally for Freedom” to protest against lockdowns, vaccinations and the world’s scientists.

It was organised out of Germany, by a group known as the “Free Citizens of Kassel”. But they had a lot of local help.

 

On July 22, two days before the protests, George Christensen asked his Facebook followers to sign a petition and “stand against lockdowns, forced masking and mandatory tracing”.

On the morning of protests, the federal member for Dawson in Queensland posted one of the template social media images created by the German group, urging his followers to attend the worldwide rally in his home town of Mackay. There were similar such events around the globe, with the two largest Australian marches happening in Sydney and Melbourne.

“All of these things [freedom] are under attack from government and government of all descriptions, Labor and LNP, I have got to say to my shame, as a Liberal National Party member,” Christensen said through a megaphone at the Mackay rally that same day.

“They will say we need to maintain lockdowns, we need to maintain mask-wearing, they’ll say we need to maintain all of these impositions on our freedoms.”

At this point, a woman in the crowd yelled: “We should not comply!”

Christensen agreed. “And we should not comply,” he said, “because at some point in this fight, civil disobedience is going to have to be done and we are going to have to prepare for that at some stage because I see that day coming very, very soon and very, very quickly.”

It is an extraordinary statement: an elected official, preparing a crowd of protesters to break the law and take up a fight against his own government.

Christensen had support from his former backbench colleague Craig Kelly, who now sits as an independent in federal parliament and has done perhaps more than anyone in public life to push an increasingly conspiratorial world view.

For that, Covid-19 is the perfect foil. It is new and scientific understanding of the virus and vaccines is emerging. One of the best defences against the disease, to limit the risk of it overwhelming hospitals, is control: harsh and difficult lockdowns, keeping people at home until the threat has passed.

“Gladys, Chant and Health Hazzard – the people are coming for you,” Kelly posted in his Telegram channel this week, referring to the NSW premier, chief health officer Kerry Chant and Health minister Brad Hazzard. “Liberal Party – wake up and remove these incompetent fools that are ignoring the science and the evidence, before they destroy the Liberal Party and NSW.”

 

Tens of thousands of people marched in Sydney and in Melbourne last Saturday, ostensibly motivated by the economic and social consequences of harsh lockdowns, which all residents have had to endure. But a closer inspection of social media posts, and those in more secluded messaging forums, reveals a crowd united from various conspiratorial threads.

“Really, if there was a psychology experiment to induce or increase people’s belief in conspiracy theory it would be doing things like what is happening during the pandemic,” Dr Mathew Marques, a lecturer in psychology at La Trobe University, tells The Saturday Paper.

“And that includes getting everyone to focus on the same event, increasing the sense of powerlessness, increasing the sense of social and economic uncertainty.

“We just have a lot of the conditions that, for people, tip them over the edge in terms of their beliefs, and some of those people then go on to act out on those beliefs.”

Last week, the headmaster of the prestigious The King’s School in Parramatta, Tony George, sent a note to staff advising them a teacher had been suspended from duty and reported to police for breaching public health orders after attending the Sydney rally.

“It is the mark of civil society that we should be able to engage in healthy debate and respect each other’s views,” George said in the letter. “But this must be in a safe, lawful and respectful manner, at all times.”

The Saturday Paper has seen a video from a staff member at a different school, posted to Telegram, who was told not to come to work for 14 days after attending Melbourne’s rally.

In this video, the education support officer said he was upset because he cannot see his “very highly traumatised kids” for another two weeks.

“We’ve already had two or three weeks this term where I haven’t been allowed to see the kids, and towards the end of last term, because I won’t wear a mask, they wouldn’t let me see them.

“Because this [rally] was done all around the world, I’ve spoken before about different acupuncture points on the globe and projecting this energy en masse, which is really just sovereignty, that sends energy into the collective field.”

The man, whom this newspaper has chosen not to name, said “we know that 7000 people meditating can reduce violent crime by in the 70 per cents”. He added that he felt like he had been “attacked by an energetic weapon” after the rally, possibly caused by “satanic rituals”.

Attendees at the protests ranged from believers in the now pervasive but totally unfounded QAnon theory – that the world is being controlled by satanic paedophiles in the global business, media and political elite – to hardline anti-vaccination groups, wellness influencers, tradesmen locked out of building sites and groups run by fringe conservative Christian voices.

 

There is a political aspect to these protests, coalescing around a revival of the Liberal Democrats party. This is a political problem for Morrison.

One former NSW Liberal Party figure, John Ruddick, was fined $1000 for his attendance at the Sydney march. He has announced he will run at the election as the federal candidate for the Liberal Democrats in Tony Abbott’s former seat of Warringah.

“It was a jam-packed protest and 99 per cent had no mask,” he tweeted after the march. “So we have conducted an experiment. Will there be corpses piling up in the three weeks from now from Covid! Let’s see.”

Ruddick is joined in the party by another former Liberal operative, Ross Cameron. The former member for Parramatta, who served in the Howard government, told The Australian the Liberal Democrats would approach the next election strategically:

“We are actively looking for the biggest, most magnetic candidate in every state – a recognisable figure – with the aim of winning the last senate quota in each of them.

“The party is enjoying quite strong financial support and we are testing a number of different names and candidates. We will be running an anti-lockdown message like Nigel Farage’s single-message campaign on Brexit.

“I was a member of the Liberal Party for 40 years and I can say we will tear strips off the Liberals and Nationals like hammerhead sharks tearing at the carcass of a sperm whale.”

The Saturday Paper approached Cameron for comment. He did not respond before deadline but did ask: “Does TSP retain NSW Dept Health or Commonwealth Dept of Health as a cash sponsor?” (The paper does not.)

Former Queensland premier Campbell Newman is also tipped to join the Liberal Democrats. He announced his resignation from the LNP last week, blaming Liberal governments and opposition parties for either “closing down businesses and shutting borders” or failing to oppose them.

“I was disgusted, too, to see a Liberal minister in NSW attack protesters as ‘boofheads’ on the weekend,” he told The Australian, “when these people were protesting to protect their livelihoods and freedoms.”

Clive Palmer has also begun placing anti-lockdown advertising in newspapers and is expected to campaign on the issue at the next election.

 

In the online ecosystem in which these figures command an audience, the tide appears to be fast turning against the prime minister. The mood of voters who would otherwise form part of the Coalition base may explain some of Morrison’s messaging.

When asked if he condemned George Christensen’s role in the Mackay rally, Morrison was quick to declare that Australians enjoy “free speech” but drew a distinction with the Sydney protests where there were public health orders in place.

“Well, the comments I made before related to an event that took place in Queensland where there are no lockdowns. And, I have, I don’t support any suggestion that would suggest that people should gather as they did in Sydney yesterday, whatsoever,” Morrison on Sunday.

“Of course it was selfish. It was also self-defeating. It achieves no purpose. It will not end the lockdown sooner; it will only risk the lockdowns running further.”

But for all its media coverage, popular support for the anti-lockdown protests appears to be limited. Respected pollster John Utting, a fixture in the Labor Party for years and director of Utting Research, shared the results of his latest survey on Wednesday.

Just 7 per cent supported anti-lockdown demonstrations; 83 per cent were opposed and 10 per cent undecided.

What the demonstrations attempted to hijack, however, was a real and valid concern among law-abiding Australians that there is not enough economic and social support offered, especially to essential workers, during the pandemic.

While JobKeeper was available last year, it has vanished now. On Wednesday, the prime minister announced a second increase to the Covid-19 Disaster Payment, to a maximum of $750 a week, for those who have lost 20 hours or more work.

At national cabinet on July 23, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews provided Gladys Berejiklian with one piece of advice from his state’s hard-won experience: lockdown fatigue is real, and residents need to know that what they are doing is working.

It is the gap between those two points the Liberal Democrats and others are exploiting.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 31, 2021 as "The political forces inside the anti-lockdown movement".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.