Protesters claim to be saving democracy, but are biggest threat to it - Speech, House of Representatives


Over recent weeks, far-Right antivax protests have cropped up in Canada, Britain, France and New Zealand. Last week these protests came to Canberra, where our 99 per cent adult vaccination rate makes us the most vaccinated city in the world. These protesters have a right to peacefully protest, but those of us who believe in science also have a right to point out that vaccines save lives and conspiracy theories can kill. Since the Morrison government belatedly began rolling out COVID vaccines in Australia, these free vaccines have protected thousands of Australians from hospitalisation and death. They work. Ivermectin, hydroxychloroquine and vitamin C do not.

These protesters aren't just wrong about the science; they're also a risk to democracy. As Van Badham has pointed out, these groups should be judged not by their relatively small numbers but by the damage they're willing to do. Ironically, the people who claim to be saving democracy are the biggest threat to it.

The violent antilockdown protests in Melbourne, the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January last year and the global so-called freedom protests have brought together a dangerous brew of conspiracy theories. Today, 15 per cent of Americans agree with the central false tenet of QAnon: that the government and other entities are controlled by Satan-worshipping paedophiles running a child sex trafficking ring. The Melbourne antilockdown protesters have waved swastikas and nooses and welcomed anti-Semites. Some of the Canberra protesters waved Ustase fascist flags and Confederate flags. One brought a loaded sawn-off shotgun into the Parliamentary Triangle.

The Canberra protests attracted support from Senators Hanson, Antic and Rennick. Like Greens Senator Thorpe, with her support for those who vandalised the Museum of Australian Democracy, these extreme senators seem not to realise they're playing with fire. Over the weekend, the Prime Minister and the Labor Leader were each asked about their attitudes to the protest. The Prime Minister said he understood their concerns and blamed state and territory governments. It reminded me of Donald Trump's remark after Charlottesville that there were ‘very fine people on both sides’. By contrast, the Labor Leader noted that vaccines save lives and called on the protesters to show some respect for health workers.

The protesters didn't seem to care who they were hurting. When the vandalism of fences at Exhibition Park forced the closure of the Lifeline Bookfair, they shut down a charity event that helps people with mental health challenges. Lifeline's amazing volunteers had been working for months to prepare for the book fair. I have made a donation to help compensate, and I'd encourage other Canberrans to do so too.

I also acknowledge the many Canberrans who turned the other cheek over the weekend, putting up with abuse in the streets and in shops. There are countless stories of nasty behaviour, but I'd particularly single out Richard Watkins and his staff at BentSpoke in Braddon, who behaved with calm decency when a protester threw a glass at the bar. I'd also commend the professionalism of the Australian Federal Police in managing these protests.

Finally, there was the attempt by protesters to co-opt the Eureka legend. In one sense, there's nothing new in this. Barely had the shooting stopped in 1854 when the battle of the Eureka Stockade became the battle for the Eureka Stockade—a battle for its history, meaning and legacy. As Geoffrey Blainey once put it, Eureka is a ‘great neon sign with messages that flick on and off, with different messages for different people on different occasions’. But the Eureka legend is too big to be co-opted by extremists. Mark Twain called it ‘the finest thing in Australian history’. Ben Chifley believed ‘Eureka was the first real affirmation of our determination to become masters of our own political destiny’. HV 'Doc' Evatt said that ‘Australian democracy was born at Eureka’. Gough Whitlam thought that it would ‘stir the imagination of the Australian people’. Even Robert Menzies and John Howard acknowledged the role that Eureka played in our democracy.

Yes, Eureka was a tax revolt, but it was also about democracy, multiculturalism, egalitarianism, mateship and the fair go. Eureka inspired the women's suffrage movement and the republican movement. It is fitting that our first female Prime Minister was the member for Lalor. As Clare Wright, Peter FitzSimons, David Headon, John Uhr, John Molony and others have made clear, Eureka is a big national story—a story for everyone, not just the extremists.


Authorised by Paul Erickson, ALP, Canberra.

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Cnr Gungahlin Pl and Efkarpidis Street, Gungahlin ACT 2912 | 02 6247 4396 | [email protected] | Authorised by A. Leigh MP, Australian Labor Party (ACT Branch), Canberra.