Thousands of people have marched in “freedom” rallies in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, with the largest crowds in the Victorian capital as protests against the state government’s pandemic legislation ramped up again.
Protesters marched from Victoria’s state parliament, down Bourke Street and up to Flagstaff Gardens, carrying Australian flags and placards bearing anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown and anti-government slogans, while chanting “kill the bill”, “sack Dan Andrews” and “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi”.
The rally drew a significant increase in numbers following weeks of protests against the Victorian premier’s Public Health and Wellbeing (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021, which previously came to a head last weekend, when thousands of people marched through central Melbourne in a demonstration that included a prop gallows, protesters posing with nooses, and chants of “hang Dan Andrews”.
The bill as introduced by the Victorian government would allow the premier to make an indefinite declaration of a pandemic and state of emergency, give the health minister power to make broad public health orders, and grant authorised officers the power to detain people under quarantine.
The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has been racing to pass the pandemic legislation before the state of emergency is due to lapse on 15 December.
If the bill fails to pass, the Victorian government may not have the legal framework to enforce and create Covid-19 orders to manage the pandemic. The bill has been criticised by the Law Institute of Victoria, the Victorian Bar Association, and the Human Rights Law Centre, who say it lacks oversight and transparency.
Speakers at the Melbourne rally included the rightwing fringe pundit Morgan C Jonas and Harrison McLean, who was charged earlier this year with incitement for allegedly encouraging people to breach the chief health officer’s directions with regards to Melbourne protests on 18 September, in the middle of the city’s sixth lockdown.
Speakers claimed credit for the pandemic legislation bill being delayed in parliament this week and called on the crowd to “go to any length necessary to rid our parliament of those traitorous politicians”.
At least one protester was detained before being led away by police.
A counter-demonstration organised by the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism, a coalition of progressive activists and leftwing organisations, which met at the Eight Hour Day Monument in Carlton, attracted a crowd of about 300 to 500 people.
While it seemed initially like a confrontation was imminent, the anti-fascist demonstrators took a route through Carlton rather than making their way into the CBD.
Nahui Jimenez, an organiser from the campaign, said on Saturday that the purpose of the rally was to draw attention to the conspiracy theorists and far-right elements that were a feature of the “freedom” rallies.
“Hostility to vaccines and other important health measures has become a gateway to the far-right globally,” Jimenez said. “We will not allow fascist groups to propagate their bigotry and occupy our streets without resistance.”
Victorian parliament was the site of ugly scenes this week as protesters occupied the front steps to demonstrate against the proposed pandemic laws.
A crowd staged a mock execution of the premier using wooden gallows on Monday evening, while another demonstrator attended an earlier protest with three nooses in an apparent reference to crossbenchers who have supported the bill. It was also reported figures associated with the neo-Nazi movement had joined the protests.
In Sydney on Saturday, several thousand protesters also marched through the CBD.
The sound of bagpipes echoed through York Street as a man dressed in white screamed “destroy the new world order” and others chanted “walk with us”.
A Sydney demonstrator carried a “kill the bill” sign, despite there being no such bill in NSW, while others waved Australian flags.
United Australia party leader and federal MP Craig Kelly addressed the crowd at Martin Place after attending a Melbourne protest last weekend.
“We will hold every politician and every bureaucrat responsible for forcing injections upon the Australia population,” he said, drawing chants of “sack them all”.
The party’s founder and former senator, Clive Palmer, was spotted at the sister rally in Brisbane’s Botanical Gardens.
When the Brisbane crowd was asked by a protester giving a speech what they thought of the Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, someone yelled: “Hang the bitch.”
It came after Queensland MP Brittany Lauga contacted police after she and other members of state parliament received an email with “threats of terrorism, extremism and violence”.
“I understand local doctors have been sent death threats and other threatening letters,” she wrote on Twitter.
“I unequivocally condemn these threats of violence, terrorism and extremism. This is not peaceful protest.”
On Friday, key Victorian crossbench MP Andy Meddick revealed his daughter Kielan had allegedly been attacked on a Fitzroy street the previous evening and had suffered a head injury after being confronted by an unknown man over the spray painting of an anti-vax poster.
The incident drew condemnation from the prime minister, Scott Morrison, and the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews.
Experts say protesters in Melbourne have capitalised on criticisms of the bill to maintain the momentum of anti-government protests, which began as anti-lockdown protests last year, morphed into anti-vaccine mandate protests in July, and were fuelled by outraged construction workers in September after the two-week shutdown of the state’s construction industry.