Far-Right and Fascist Organizations Are Leading Australia’s Anti-Vax Movement

In Australia, a growing protest movement is challenging public health measures intended to counter COVID-19. Although its organizers claim to be defenders of freedom, it’s clear that far-right and fascist groups are at the heart of this movement.

Anti-vaccination and anti-lockdown protesters sit on the steps of the Victorian parliament in Melbourne, Australia, on October 26, 2021. (William West / AFP via Getty Images)

The far right in Australia is taking leadership of the anti-vax, anti-lockdown movement. These extremists are radicalizing the movement, both politically and tactically.

On the evening of November 12, right-wing activists rallied outside the home of Victorian MP Andy Meddick of the Animal Justice Party. At the protest in Melbourne on November 13, several marchers turned up carrying nooses and a model guillotine. From the stage, one speaker attempted to start a chant of “Hang Dan Andrews.”

So far, these threats of violence have been merely performative. Nevertheless, they suggest the rising to prominence of a movement that’s gaining confidence as it shifts rightward. Initially, the protests were aimed at undermining public health measures. However, in recent months, the organizers have broadened their focus to include other far-right talking points, such as attacking Victoria’s Labor premier, Dan Andrews, as a “socialist” and “communist.” The Australian far right is also updating its ideology with a toxic cocktail of “New World Order” conspiracy theories and opposition to public health measures, concealed under libertarian rhetoric about personal freedom.

The next right-wing mobilization will be an Australian version of the global so-called “freedom” rallies, to be held on November 20. The Campaign Against Racism and Fascism is organizing a counterprotest for the same day. In the lead-up, however, it’s important to be clear about the danger posed by the increasingly right-wing anti-vax, anti-Andrews movement.

A Front for Fascists

According to anti-extremism researcher Jordan McSwiney, fascists have both organized these anti-vaccine protests and recruited from them. Federal MP Craig Kelly, a member of the right-wing populist United Australia Party (UAP), spoke at the November 13 protest in Melbourne. Although the UAP isn’t fascist, as anti-fascist research group the White Rose Society has pointed out, it does have close links to right-wing extremists. Security for the event was provided by the fascist Stuart von Moger. Von Moger was formerly a leading member of the Lads Society, which is associated with the National Socialist right and was formed by members of the now defunct United Patriots Front.

Similarly, Melbourne’s Proud Boys were in attendance on November 13 and can be seen in photographs of the rally. Noted far-right figure and fascist sympathizer Andrew Nolch livestreamed the event. At the same rally, spectators photographed members of the National Socialist Network carrying placards with the antisemitic dog whistle “Qui.” Qui is a reference to the antisemitic conspiracy theory that the pandemic is fake and a Jewish conspiracy. Western Australia’s most prominent fascist, Dennis Huts, also attended a rally in Perth.

Nazis and fascist sympathizers have also maintained an active and increasingly savvy presence online, especially in encrypted group chats that have become a crucial organizing tool for the far right. For example, Harrison McLean was a moderator of the main account for the “Melbourne Freedom Rally.” The Guardian has revealed that while being involved in organizing for the Freedom Rally, he was also running explicitly pro-fascist chat groups — one of which he described as dedicated to “digging into the relationship between Jews, and the NWO [New World Order].”

At the same time, fascist activists like McLean are arguing that their organizations should learn to be more tactical about when they express their more repellant views. In a series of messages to other Nazi recruiters, McLean explained that many new supporters and recruits are “normies” and are “not ready for the JQ [Jewish Question]” or “the idea that [Adolf] Hitler had some good points.”

Instead, McLean suggested that Nazi activists seeking to gain influence in the anti-vax, anti-Andrews movement start with “‘Dan [Andrews] Bad’ and go right through to ‘No Coercive Vaccines.’” These can, McLean argued, serve as a propaedeutic to learning about far-right conspiracies like “the Pedo suppression orders and NWO agenda and One World Government.”

In other cases, chat moderators have intervened to ask posters to tone down their praise for Hitler and the Nazis, fearing it will generate bad publicity. This was evident in one exchange between two activists named Mikey and Bill on the main Telegram channel for the November 20 “Melbourne Freedom Rally.” After asking Bill to go back through a thread and delete “all the ones that seem dangerous,” Mikey added, “Please remember we need to have good optics.”

The Right United

Fascists and members of far-right organizations have also drawn inspiration from more mainstream right-wing organizations and politicians. The January 6 Capitol Hill riot clearly resonated with many in the Australian anti-vax, anti-Andrews movement. On November 13, marchers chanted the QAnon slogan “Where we go one, we go all” and echoed Donald Trump’s rhetoric by making reference to the threat posed by “antifa” and claiming that the Democrats have a socialist agenda. Trump 2020 flags and QAnon signs have also been prominent at the recent protests in Melbourne, as have banners reading “Make Victoria Great Again.”

The mainstream right has responded positively to the anti-vax, anti-Andrews movement, seeing in it an opportunity from which they stand to benefit electorally. The conservative Rupert Murdoch press has promoted these movements for months, relentlessly campaigning against the state Labor government and its public health measures. Peta Credlin, former chief of staff to Tony Abbott and Sky News luminary, attended the November 13 rally along with several other Victorian Liberal MPs.

Similarly, right-wing politicians like Liberal MP George Christensen and UAP parliamentarian Craig Kelly have seen electoral opportunities in the backlash against vaccine mandates and other public health measures. Kelly is a Trump-supporting climate change and COVID-19 denier. Like Christensen, he has supported the anti-vax, anti–public health cause and touted the dangerous myth that the horse deworming paste, Ivermectin, is a suitable prophylactic treatment for the virus.

Indeed, now that Kelly has teamed up with mining magnate Clive Palmer’s UAP, the party has gained electoral legitimacy and become a highly visible pole of attraction for the far right. More concerningly, the UAP recently recruited the entire membership of Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA). As a result, the UAP now boasts a membership base of over 70,000 people, making it the largest political party in Australia by a significant margin. Whether or not this will translate into parliamentary gains, it will likely channel crucial votes to the Coalition.

A Growing Danger

Given recent indications, we can expect significant numbers at the rallies across the country on November 20. We can also expect openly far-right and fascist groups to be in attendance. The situation today in Italy, Germany, and other parts of the world is a stark reminder that the far right can grow rapidly and become a fixture in political life.

There are, of course, debates to be had within the Left about vaccine mandates and the threat to civil liberties posed by laws slated as necessary public health measures. And by a similar token, it would be mistaken to suggest every anti-vax protester is part of the far right. However, these points do not erase the reality that far-right and fascist organizations are at the core of this growing movement.

The size of these rallies is evidence of a dangerous shift in Australian politics. Over the past decade the far right has repeatedly tried to build its presence in Melbourne, and each time the Left has stood up to them. In 2016, 2017, and 2018, progressives challenged fascist protests and pushed them back. Thanks to the pandemic, the stakes have been raised. The Left now has a greater responsibility to counter the far right, both politically and on the streets.