Putting the anti-vax rallies in historical perspective
Putting the anti-vax rallies in historical perspective

The ongoing anti-vax, anti-lockdown movement across the country is one of the most sustained and militant series of street marches of the far right in decades. In different states, the demonstrations have different political targets, but they have been largest in Labor-governed jurisdictions.

In Melbourne, the demonstrations have been regular and have grown to the biggest in the country. In Queensland, although the character of the demonstrations is slightly different, protests in both Brisbane and the Gold Coast have attracted several thousand. In Western Australia, up to 5,000 people protested in Perth last month. After the Labor government introduced a broad vaccine mandate, protests have occurred almost daily.

The demonstrations attract a motley crew of small business owners aggrieved by the economic effects of lockdowns, open fascists, Trumpist conspiracy theorists, COVID denialists, far-right “wellness” advocates, far-right Liberals and supporters of Pauline Hanson and Clive Palmer. Along with them are a host of what might be called “concerned citizens” who are not themselves part of the organised far right, but who clearly share their sensibilities: hostility to public health and safety measures and hostility to social democratic governments.

Putting these demonstrations in the context of similar historic mobilisations gives a sense of their scale and significance.

The last serious street movement of the far right occurred between 2015 and 2018. An umbrella group called Reclaim Australia organised a variety of far-right political forces, including radical evangelical ministries such as Catch the Fire, prominent racists such as Pauline Hanson and openly fascist grouplets in a campaign of rampant Australian nationalism and aggressive Islamophobia.

On 5 April 2015, the group held sixteen rallies in capital cities, regional and rural centres. The largest of these mobilisations was in Melbourne, where up to 2,000 people—skinheads, “concerned mums and dads”, conspiracy theorists, patriots, enraged evangelicals and others—faced off against a similar number of anti-fascist protesters.

The numbers in the other states were significantly less: in Sydney 500, in Hobart 40, in Adelaide 200, in Brisbane 300 and in Perth 300. Although they maintained a significant and large online presence, the Reclaim Australia movement never mobilised such numbers on the streets again. Indeed, within two months the group fractured, its hard core splitting away to form the United Patriots Front, a much more thuggish and openly fascist operation.

The UPF was largest such group in Victoria, but it could mobilise only 200-800 in any street march over the next two years. Although the militancy of some UPF (and later True Blue Crew) demonstrations was significant at the time, there was nothing like the scale and enraged determination of the current far-right anti-lockdown, anti-vax, COVID denial protests. The broader Reclaim Australia movement morphed into a latent sentiment (some of which is reappearing at the current demonstrations) that could be mobilised for special events, such as the speaking tours of Milo Yiannopoulos or Jordan Peterson, but the street fighting days ended in 2019.

Prior to Reclaim Australia, the most sustained far-right mobilisations of more recent years were those around the formation of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in the late 1990s. These were different to the current mobilisations in a variety of ways. After Hanson was elected to the federal parliament in 1996, she inspired a range of far-right forces to fall in behind her.

Pauline Hanson “support groups” were established by longer term far-right activists from groups such as National Action and the League of Rights. They were conceived of as the basis for a new and reinvigorated far-right political movement, rather than a narrow street fighting body. Nevertheless, the support groups represented a possible breakout moment for fascists. Through them, they gained access to a significant new audience. When Hanson moved to establish a formal political party in 1997, her advisers suggested she distance herself from the open neo-Nazis in order to make a play for a broader far-right constituency.

One Nation had success on this front and, prior to a sustained campaign by anti-racist forces, there were around 200 One Nation branches across the country, reportedly with tens of thousands of members. Only a minority were mobilised at public meetings, however, where their commitment to the politics was tested by determined anti-racist activists protesting the events. So, while the breadth of the Hanson phenomenon probably dwarfs this current far-right movement, the Hanson moment did not involve the levels of militancy that have been on display in recent times.

Prior to Hanson, there was a series of far-right mass demonstrations in the 1990s that undeniably dwarf the current mobilisations—but they were far less militant. After the Port Arthur massacre in Tasmania, the Howard federal Liberal government introduced strict gun control laws. This provoked a major right-wing backlash. Up to 80,000 and 60,000 people marched in Sydney and Melbourne respectively, and there were large demonstrations in the smaller capitals and rural towns.

Rhetorically, these demonstrations were very heated. For example, the head of the Firearm Owners Association of Australia, Ian McNiven, threatened civil war at a rally in Gympie in May 1996. “Little Jackboot [John Howard] is launching a brutal totalitarian attack on our fundamental freedoms”, he said, in language not dissimilar to speeches at the current Melbourne rallies against Premier Daniel Andrews. “It’s not about this bullshit that it’s only semi-automatics that’s going to go. It’s everything. Make no mistake. Once it’s given up, it must be bought back, and you can only buy it back with the most expensive currency in the world. The only currency you can buy your freedom back with is blood.”

Such lurid declarations were never matched with any action, however. And while a series of far-right militia groups were given a brief injection of life, the movement didn’t sustain itself.

Between the 1960s and the 1980s, there was a range of different far-right street mobilisations. The glue that tended to hold these disparate movements and moments together—one that is prominent again in these current mobilisations—was a deep and abiding hostility to social democracy, the ALP, the workers’ movement and to any force perceived to be communist. For instance, in the 1980s, there were large anti-union protests by a far right aggrieved by Labor in power and a workers’ movement considered still too powerful.

Small fascist grouplets in the 1970s engaged in hostile action against an energised and large left, but the space for large scale openly far-right organising was limited by the dynamics of the moment. The immediate post-World War Two period was also punctuated by a series of far-right mobilisations against communism, but the scale of these was again limited. That was partly because, as historian of Australian fascism David Harcourt argues in Everyone wants to be fuehrer: National Socialism in Australia and New Zealand, “There was, in the midst of the Cold War hysteria, plenty of scope in the conventional parties for the expression of views which would now be considered extreme”.

Nevertheless, in time, the centring of anti-communism opened space for a new, energised and aggressive far right. The Liberal and Country parties and returned soldiers associations provided fertile ground for anti-communism. Importantly, so too did the labour movement. The Industrial Groups (bodies of anti-communist workers inside trade unions) developed by a secretive right-wing Catholic organisation called simply the Movement, were in fact some of the most aggressive anti-communists during these years.

However, most of these currents did not see themselves, or even present themselves to the world, as part of a fascist tradition; nor did they give rise to any ongoing Nazi organising. Far-right mobilising during these years therefore tended not to involve large demonstrations, but rather resulted in anti-communist forces attacking left-wing meetings or speakers.

Communist Party members reported being pelted with rotten fruit and eggs and driven out of small towns across the country. Many of the far-right mobilisations during this period were met with counter-protests. At the May Day demonstration in 1956 in Sydney, for instance, the Australia Party, an anti-communist organisation, attacked the rally. And in rhetoric similar to today, party leader Frank Brown declared: “There are only two parties in the Domain this afternoon. The Aussies and the stinking Reds over there. Us over here for freedom and those over there for slavery”.

So we have to return to the movements of the pre-war period to see sustained, public, militant far-right mobilisations that dwarf today’s mobilisations in scale, militancy and consistency.

In the period around World War One, a variety of far-right organisations arose in Australia. Many viewed themselves as bodies dedicated to the preservation of the capitalist status quo and against working-class agitation inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917.

The social polarisation associated with the Great Depression of the 1930s resulted in a significant radicalisation on the political right and in the development of mass organisations devoted to a militant defence of the capitalist order. The largest and most significant of these were the New Guard in NSW and the White Army in Victoria. Between 1931 and 1932, more than 130,000 people were under arms. These militias, populated by the denizens of respectable society—doctors, lawyers, graziers and the like—trained with open fascists and on a number of occasions physically attacked trade unionists, ALP meetings and rallies of the unemployed.

Like today, an ALP government focused the anger of these far-right forces. In 1932, the New Guard in NSW was preparing for a coup against the NSW Labor Premier Jack Lang, and it organised a riot of some thousands outside Sydney’s Central Police Station.

So while there are obvious differences between far-right movements of the past and today’s anti-health-measure mobilisations, they nevertheless share important similarities. The most important is rabid hostility to left wing social democracy and the ability to find communist conspiracy behind actions taken to protect the living standards of working-class people. While we can’t predict where this new movement will go, it is nevertheless a historically significant development, and an exceedingly dangerous one.

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