On 20 November, the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) held a rally of over 1,000 anti-fascists in Melbourne to stand against the sustained far-right movement marching in our streets. Rallies and speakouts have also been organised by anti-fascist activists in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth—bringing together left-wing people outraged by the anti-human politics of the far-right “freedom movement” against pandemic related public health measures.

CARF—which formed in Melbourne in 2015 to fight the growth of the Islamophobic, neo-Nazi led outfit Reclaim Australia—is a collective of socialists, anarchists, and other left-wing activists who want to build public opposition to racist and far-right movements in Australia.  The growth of the freedom movement—in Melbourne and elsewhere—has given the far-right its best opportunity to organise and grow for decades, and CARF activists are determined to push them back.

CARF jumped into action following the attack on the CFMEU headquarters in Melbourne in September. Immediately following the attack, CARF called an online public meeting to discuss how the left should respond, which over 600 people attended. The following night we held an organising meeting of over 300 people.

The “pro-vax, pro-union, anti-fascist” campaign was launched, involving hundreds of trade unionists joining our photo petition in solidarity with frontline workers. We mobilised hundreds of activists to put up over 4,000 posters across Melbourne, to spread a clear pro-public health and pro-union message in the streets.  We have since then had weekly organising meetings bringing together between 50 and 150 people who have wanted to do something to oppose the far right.  

Over the past month, it has become clear that the far right was continuing to organise, particularly around the “kill the bill” demand (referring to the Victorian Labor government’s pandemic powers bill, which passed on 2 December). This movement has been sustained, confident, and has the backing of far-right political forces like the hard-right of the Liberals, Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party, and Monica Smit’s Reignite Democracy Australia. The protests are notable for the widespread flying of “Red Ensign” flags (a traditional symbol for the far-right in Australia), the presence of many Donald Trump supporters, and believers in fringe far-right conspiracy theories like QAnon. The neo-Nazi presence has been more and more apparent.

Week after week they have been able to mobilise tens of thousands, and have had a constant presence of a few hundred outside the Victorian State Parliament. Members of the movement have attacked front-line workers, vaccination centres and politicians' families.  They have harassed and attacked left-wing activists leafleting in Melbourne’s CBD. 

At the core of the movement is a complete opposition to any measures implemented by the government to control the spread of COVID-19. The movement didn’t oppose just this or that measure in the pandemic powers bill—which actually creates a more democratic and transparent process for implementing public health measures than exists in other states. It opposed the idea that the government should have any powers at all to deal with COVID-19 or any future pandemics that might arise.

With recent opinion polls showing majority support for mandatory vaccinations in Victoria, it’s clear most ordinary people oppose the movement’s anti-public health demands. The so-called “freedom movement” represents a small minority of Australian society, but they are currently a majority in the streets. CARF’s rally in Melbourne on 20 November, and the other actions that have been organised by activists around Australia, are the first steps in building public opposition to them, and ensuring the far right no longer have a free pass to organise and grow.

Some in the liberal media and even on the left want to downplay the seriousness of this movement—arguing that alongside the far-right elements there are also many ordinary people who are just sick of lockdowns, and who might be open to left-wing arguments if only we would engage with them more. But it seems doubtful, to say the least, that small groups of activists have the capacity to win people away from a mass movement that’s so dominated by openly and explicitly right-wing and far-right forces. To the extent that the left softens its stance on people who appear very happy to march alongside known neo-Nazis, it will only put wind in their sails. The left didn’t beat back Reclaim Australia, or the upsurge in support for Pauline Hanson and One Nation in the late 1990s, by trying to better understand where those on the right were coming from.

Rather than trying to convince participants in the “freedom movement” to change sides, CARF’s aim is to draw as many people into action as possible from among the big majority who are already opposed to the movement—people who can see that its claim to be fighting for “freedom” against “tyranny” is just cover for the desire to foist an extreme right-wing, anti-human politics (like that of their hero Donald Trump) on the rest of society.

The left doesn’t tolerate scabs in our workplaces sacrificing our chances of winning improved wages and conditions through collective action. Neither should we tolerate and seek to “understand” people who undermine society’s capacity to limit the death and disease inflicted by COVID-19 due to their own personal opposition to vaccines and other public health measures.

The far-right won’t go away without a fight. Internationally this movement is real and dangerous, and in Australia it’s showing no signs of waning.  With the emergence of the new Omicron variant of COVID-19, questions of public health will continue to dominate politics, and the far right will continue to respond. In coming weeks and months, our side needs to keep building the public opposition to them. For those in Melbourne, this starts with a second counter-protest this Saturday 4 December at 12pm at the Eight Hour Day Monument on the corner of Russell and Victoria Streets. Actions are also planned for the coming weeks in Brisbane, Sydney, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth.

Ella Marchionda is an activist in the Campaign Against Racism and Fascism in Melbourne.