Hundreds of protesters assembled at the Melbourne CBD headquarters of the CFMEU (the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union) on Tuesday morning, following violent clashes between protesters and riot police at the same location the day prior.
Those gathered out the front of the Elizabeth Street CFMEU office on Monday, attempted to storm the building in opposition to a government-imposed vaccine mandate for construction workers.
The Andrews government has since responded to the attack by shutting down the entire construction industry in locked down areas for a fortnight.
In a statement on Monday, CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan insisted that the demonstration had been “heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other right wing extremist groups and it is clear that a minority of those who participated were actual union members”.
ACTU secretary Sally McManus agreed, stating the attack on the office was “orchestrated by violent right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination activists”.
Warnings that the anti-lockdown or freedom movement has been infiltrated by the far-right have long been made, with the understanding being that these extremist groups have found fertile ground amongst COVID conspirators to disseminate their usual racist and divisive messaging.
A terrorist threat
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been used by right-wing and issue-motivated extremists to promote their views,” reads the ASIO Annual Report 2019-20.
“They are seeking to exploit social and economic dislocation and their extremist ideology has been spreading more quickly and widely as Australians spend more time online engaging with like-minded individuals,” it continues, adding that calls for “violence and sabotage” had not been acted upon.
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation further set out that while Islamic extremism is still its main preoccupation, far-right groups were now taking up a third of its counterterrorism inquires. And it warned that these groups have been emboldened by the Christchurch massacre.
With their neo-Nazi and fascist trappings, far-right groups have long been a feature of Australian suburbia. However, since 2015, with the onset of Reclaim Australia and its offshoot the United Patriots Front, these white nationalists have become increasingly sophisticated in their organising.
Their latest iteration is the National Socialist Network. The Age recently reported that it went undercover amongst the NSN to find that these race war advocating individuals have been active in the promotion of and participation in anti-lockdown demonstrations.
Antivax wasn’t always right
No one is suggesting that the anti-lockdown movement is the sole domain of the far-right. Many people active in the movement are those whose lives have been significantly impacted by restrictions, while others are opposed to getting the COVID vaccination.
Indeed, certain people have been against vaccinations since these treatments have been around. And prior to the pandemic, being an antivaxxer didn’t necessarily align you with a particular side of politics or put you in opposition to government-imposed restrictions on movement.
Sydney Criminal Lawyers spoke to the No Health Passports campaign in May this year. The not-for-profit group maintained that it was neither antivax nor provax, but rather it doesn’t believe a vaccination certificate should be required to enter certain venues or places.
A No Health Passports spokesperson noted that recent freedom rallies in Melbourne had seen a far-right group calling itself the Australian Peacemakers involved, and they also related that one of the key anti-lockdown protest organisers is an affiliate of the Proud Boys.
The campaign had purposely separated itself from the larger freedom movement, as organisers had found it “alarming to see the trajectory of that movement” and they preferred to distance themselves “from being associated or affiliated with it in any way”.
Lockdown opposed pollies
Far-right nationalist groups have always had their supporters within federal parliament. Back in 2015, Liberal Nationals MP George Christensen and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson were both seen to put in an appearance at different Reclaim Australia rallies.
Katter’s Australia Party leader Bob Katter was exposed as having taken the Proud Boys’ pledge of allegiance in mid-2017. While during his short time in office, Senator Fraser Anning made his far-right leanings well known, as he attended the 2019 Cronulla Riots 2.0 rally at St Kilda Beach.
And these days, some of these ultraconservative MPs have been rubbing shoulders with anti-lockdowners. Hanson was a vocal supporter of the truckies’ anti-lockdown protest late last month, and she’s also been called out for her comments in opposition to getting the COVID-19 vaccination.
While in July, Christensen staged his own freedom rally in the Queensland town of Mackay, where the federal MP called upon fellow demonstrators to “not comply” with public health restrictions and asserted that the time for “civil disobedience” in reaction to them was fast approaching.
Then there’s former Liberal backbencher Craig Kelly. The current leader of the United Australia Party left the Liberals after he repeatedly came under scrutiny for his conspiratorial remarks about lockdowns, masks, vaccines and unapproved alternative COVID treatments.
Mind you, prime minister Scott Morrison had been quite vocal in his support of both Kelly and Christensen’s right to propagate such views, whilst, at the same time, condemning citizens who’d taken to the streets to advocate for these same ideas.
Shifting to the extreme right
The far-right Trump supporters who stormed Capitol Hill on 6 January were some of the same actors who’ve been participating in that nation’s freedom movement.
Trump supporters have revelled in COVID conspiracy theories, with the former president having been a chief pandemic conspirator.
US journalist Chris Hedges outlines that much of Trump’s supporter base was made up of right-wing Christian fundamentalists, who he’s referred to as American fascists. And he warns that these forces pose a real threat to the stability of that nation’s secular democracy.
And just as the charge of infiltrating current union demonstrations are being made in relation to far-right adherents in Melbourne, white nationalists were also caught out in 2018, secretly joining the ranks of the Young Nationals in an attempt to sway that party’s policies.
While Christensen was heard to advise conservative Christians at Brisbane’s Church and State Summit in February, that they ought to be covertly joining the ranks of the Coalition without revealing their plans to shift policy in line with their faith doctrine until after they hold positions in parliament.