The Politics    Tuesday, November 16, 2021

A gutful

By Rachel Withers

Image of demonstrators outside the Victorian State Parliament in Melbourne today. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Image

Demonstrators outside the Victorian State Parliament in Melbourne today. Image © Joel Carrett / AAP Image

The Coalition continues to court a dangerous demographic

“I think Australians have had a gutful of governments telling them what to do in their lives,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week, as he tried out a series of new campaign lines. The pitch was all about Labor’s apparent desire to “control” people, whether through the cars you drive or the taxes you pay, as the PM attempted to capitalise on pandemic-induced frustrations. (It goes without saying that such frustrations were prolonged thanks to the federal government’s failure to get the nation vaccinated.) But Morrison’s words take on a troubling new meaning in light of the disturbing “freedom” rallies taking place outside the Victorian Parliament this week, replete with mock gallows, Daniel Andrews effigies, attacks on the media and threats to ambush the building (oh, and the Nutbush). The Trumpian protests show no sign of abating despite the state government having amended its contentious pandemic legislation overnight, satisfying many of its critics, from crossbenchers to human rights experts (but not the state Opposition), and leaving Victoria’s proposal with more safeguards than the equivalent NSW laws. But the protests aren’t about the legislation – not exactly. And the protesters have the PM’s implicit endorsement. They have had a gutful of governments telling them what to do.

That’s not to say that the prime minister is directly responsible for inciting these protests, which, like the shocking demonstrations that rocked Melbourne in September, are believed to include a mix of extremists, conspiracy theorists and fed-up Victorians, boosted by opportunistic far-right groups. But decisions by the state and federal Coalition to court the anti-vax, anti-lockdown and alt-right movements – stoking their outrage, keeping them in the tent, and having it both ways, as Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews put it today – have no doubt emboldened these protestors. Some of the more extreme Liberal MPs have attended the actions over the past few days, with Liberal MP Bernie Finn telling Saturday’s crowd that “Despot Dan wants to become an emperor” and repeating the crowd’s chant of “kill the bill”. (Finn now says that the image he posted to social media of the premier depicted as Hitler, with the swastika replaced with an ABC logo, was “a joke”.) Liberal MP Craig Ondarchie has today tweeted an image of himself “thanking” protesters on the steps of Parliament, while echoing the PM’s line. “These wonderful Victorians,” he wrote. “have had a gut full of @DanielAndrewsMP controlling their lives, their happiness, their freedom.” Opposition Leader Matthew Guy, despite distancing himself from the protests, continues to push extreme lines about the bill, labelling it the “most dangerous” in the state’s history.

Even now, with the mandate-linked protests expected to spread to 13 other cities this weekend, federal Coalition MPs have continued to publicly rail against vaccine mandates while their leader takes credit for the nation’s vaccination rate. “People want their free country back and I support them!” LNP Senator Matt Canavan tweeted overnight, dog-whistling to “freedom fighters” everywhere. It remains to be seen how these groups of protestors, which have been so riled up to despise Labor government overreach, will react to the news that the NSW government has just approved plans to extend the state’s COVID-19 emergency powers until March 2023.

Growing calls for the Coalition to condemn the protests and the MPs who attended – whether from journalists, crossbenchers or the federal Opposition leader – have gone mostly unanswered. Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, to his credit, waded in on Sunday in response to some of the grossly anti-Semitic elements, while the Victorian Liberal leader this morning offered another weak condemnation of the “ridiculous” scenes, with an unnecessary swipe at an Animal Justice Party crossbencher (and some additional swipes at the amended bill). But Scott Morrison has remained conspicuously silent, having so far condemned the panic buying of toilet paper more staunchly than he has condemned the violent imagery of the latest protests. If or when it does come, it’s expected that the prime ministerial censure will contain more than a touch of “very fine people on both sides”, acknowledging the protestor’s frustrations and winking to their outrage, as much of the federal response did back in September.

It clearly remains more important to the Coalition to keep these extreme figures on-side, even as they brandish nooses, rather than to do the right thing in calling them out. Coalition MPs are likely hoping to transform this outrage into votes. As a number of experts have noted over the past 24 hours, however, it’s a dangerous constituency to court – and one that could just as easily turn on them.

Rachel Withers

Rachel Withers is the contributing editor of The Politics.


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