The most left-wing city in Australia has for months been blighted by large far-right protests that have consistently mobilised thousands. The movement is not losing momentum; it is attracting more participants through each new issue it latches on to. And it is expanding its base into the mainstream right and the Liberal Party.
What makes this movement “far right” is not merely the presence of open fascists, neo-Nazis and far-right groups at the demonstrations—although that clearly highlights the threat it poses. It’s the movement’s broader politics that are key: its vitriolic hatred of social democracy and social democratic-influenced policies, and its targeting of the state ALP, which during the pandemic has come to symbolise responsible management of the virus and the social solidarity that has followed from that.
The COVID-19 vaccine mandates and the Victorian government’s “pandemic bill” have given the movement a major boost, but it had been steadily building throughout the COVID-19 crisis on the basis of opposing any and all health measures. For its thousands of participants, the idea that public health considerations should dominate government attention, and in any way intrude on the God-given right to shop and engage beauty services, is anathema.
This anti-social message has found a receptive audience in the legions of small business owners resentful about the impact health measures have had on their operations, the right wing ideologues hostile to “big government”, and the small-minded Liberal voters who favour individualistic self-sufficiency over the public good and who resent their taxes being used to help the “unproductive”.
But this movement is also about more than the pandemic. The various high profile right wing figures throwing their weight behind it recognise the movement’s potential to transcend this crisis and potentially become a force that can reshape Australian politics in the longer run. The idea is to kick-start a US-style right-wing subculture, cohered broadly against the ALP, social democratic social policies, “big government” and the communist interests that supposedly lie behind them all.
It is no coincidence that, where Labor state governments have been the most progressive, the movement has been strongest. In Victoria, it has been united by a hatred for Premier Daniel Andrews, who is portrayed as a communist dictator. Life-sized gallows intended for Andrews were brought by protesters to a recent rally outside state parliament.
The right’s animosity towards Andrews is longstanding. Despite throwing money at the cops, being fully committed to privatisations and many other things that otherwise mark the Victorian government as a bog-standard business-friendly administration, Andrews has stood up to the political right in a way no other Labor figure has in recent times.
Early in his premiership, the more the Liberals and the Murdoch press attacked him for endorsing “union thuggery”, the more he publicly embraced the trade union movement, going so far as to say on the night he was elected that the Labor campaign had indeed been about the unions and that he stood with them—a clear affront to the right.
When the Murdoch press launched a rabid attack on his government and the firefighters’ union over their dispute with the Country Fire Authority in 2016, Andrews held his ground, resulting in a resounding defeat for the right. And his government, despite eventually capitulating, was the one that established, against endless attacks from the right, COVID-19 eradication as the benchmark that other governments were forced to follow for more than a year.
More than any other Labor leader, Andrews appears to stand for something resembling “old Labor” attitudes. That he’s a far cry even from Curtin doesn’t matter: in the minds of the right wing, the ALP can never shake off its historic connection to the workers’ movement and the social democratic agenda associated with it. The right’s goal is to destroy the remaining vestiges of social democratic consciousness associated with the party, something that continues to be an important factor—or constraint from their point of view—in Australian political culture.
The right recognises that a right-wing movement galvanised around this agenda can be a more potent social force than one associated with the more niche issue of Islamophobia, which the far right has mainly used up until now.
The response of the unions and the left to this challenge has left much to be desired. The union leadership has positioned itself to the right of the Victorian government, at times seeming to share, or at least be overly worried about, the concerns of the anti-vaxxers. The left has likewise been disoriented by the way the issues are being framed.
The right-wing movement’s leaders want to make out that theirs is a libertarian battle for freedom and against authoritarian overreach by the state, something the left is used to protesting about (quite rightly in most cases). But to think the current mobilisations are for “democracy” or against authoritarianism would be utterly naive. In reality, it is a proxy war through which the same battles that have been going on throughout the pandemic are being fought out.
Liberal leader Matthew Guy has made no bones about it—his opposition to the “pandemic bill” is on the basis that it could make the dreaded lockdowns easier to impose in future pandemics. The perception that the bill entrenches the idea that pandemics are to be taken seriously by governments, that health measures should be implemented rapidly and that acts of blatant sabotage of public health be punished, is the basis for the right-wing backlash against it.
Which brings us back to the same old question: should the state be used to protect lives, or does it exist simply to facilitate businesses making profits? For the political right, when the state deploys its resources in the interests of public health and the collective good, it’s communism and dictatorship. When it’s giving out corporate subsidies and small business tax breaks, they call it “democracy”.
This battle is not between democracy and authoritarianism. It is about the type of society in which we want to live. Is it one in which every individual is responsible for themselves, who live or die depending on their personal resources, and in which there is no overarching sense of collective responsibility or public good? Or is it one in which people are encouraged to expect that our vast collective resources are put towards ensuring that everyone is looked after, whatever the cost to business and the economy?
The left-wing response to this onslaught should not be to hand-wring about authoritarianism when the measures being enforced are to control a deadly disease against the objections from the far right and business “leaders”. When government measures and policies are supportable, and especially when they have been hard won, the left should support their enforcement. Whether it’s safety on worksites, anti-discrimination measures or the prevention of speeding or drink driving, progressive regulations become a dead letter if not enforced. Indeed, the role of the left is frequently and rightly to criticise the failure of the state to properly uphold progressive measures, including things like cracking down on tax evasion or corporate polluters, or preventing far-right violence.
During a pandemic, the state should use its enormous power to ensure people are as safe and healthy as possible. Right now, the left should be demanding that the state do more, including building more hospitals, investing in medical research, building quarantine facilities and ensuring all workers have copious sick leave. It should not be agonising about the legitimacy of the far-right’s concerns about the use of state power.
It’s bad enough that our side has been defeated on the question of COVID-19 elimination. Now to see the right prevail and establish that coronavirus containment measures are little more than repressive state overreach would compound the defeat. The main threat here is not repression; it is a triumphant right looking to build on a massive setback for our side.
This doesn’t mean supporting everything the state might do in the name of combating COVID-19. But it does mean taking on a mass street movement backed by the right wing of the Liberal Party, the parliamentary right and the organised far right as they try to establish a rabid constituency of people with the singular aim of putting back in the box the social solidarity that has come to the fore as a result of the pandemic.