Anti-lockdown protesters have promised to return in greater numbers for more demonstrations in coming weeks, with plans for large gatherings nationwide, including in Sydney and Canberra.
“If you hated yesterday, we’re working on the next national protest right now,” one group said on Sunday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called the protesters as “selfish” and “reckless” but stopped short of criticising Coalition colleague George Christensen, who promoted and spoke at a smaller event in Queensland.
“It offended many, many fellow Sydneysiders,” the PM said in Canberra on Sunday.
“People understand there are frustrations with lockdowns, but that type of behaviour doesn’t help anybody.”
There were large demonstrations nationwide at the weekend, including thousands congregating in Sydney, Melbourne and regional areas in between.
Although some branded it a “far-right” rally, the reality is more nuanced. Attendees drew from a wide range of loosely-aligned cohorts that have coalesced under a broad umbrella of opposition to lockdowns, including anti-vaxxer groups, COVID sceptics, conspiracy theorists, QAnon supporters, wellness and fitness groups, libertarian groups and multicultural backgrounds, as well as far-right extremists.
The events, organised in Australia via Facebook and Telegram, were the local arms of a so-called “Worldwide Rally for Freedom”, with dozens of co-ordinated events happening globally on Saturday.
Official estimates put the number of attendees in Sydney about 3000, but video footage showing crowds filling the area outside the CBD’s Town Hall suggested there were many more.
Organisers claimed attendance was closer to 30,000 in Sydney and 8000 in Melbourne.
NSW Police deputy commissioner Gary Worboys asked anyone with footage of the protest to report to CrimeStoppers, so that police could track rule breakers or those involved in violent affray.
“Over 5500 reports have been made to Crime Stoppers and so far, investigators have identified over 200 people,” NSW Police said in a statement.
About 40 people have already been charged with serious offences, including two men who allegedly assaulted police horses, and more than 90 COVID fines handed out.
Beyond the official police investigation, numerous unofficial efforts to identify protesters or gather footage were organised by ordinary citizens on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.
Those initiatives were noticed by anti-lockdown movements, with calls going out on their own channels to “go and report” people for gathering such evidence.
Former Liberal MP Craig Kelly, now an independent after quitting the Coalition, posted on his Telegram channel his praise for the “HUGE crowds protesting in Sydney against the tyranny of the clueless Gladys [Berejiklian]”.
Mr Kelly, banned from Facebook and suspended from Twitter for posting debunked claims about COVID-19 and its associated vaccines, claimed the NSW government were “incompetent fools” and “ignoring the science”.
One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts recorded a video message that was played at a Canberra event protesting against “mandatory vaccinations”.
Mr Christensen, Nationals MP for the Queensland seat of Dawson, attended and spoke at a small rally in Mackay.
In the days leading up to the event, he promoted the event’s poster on his social media pages and asked “freedom lovers” to “voice their opposition to pandemic restrictions”.
Afterwards, he commented on photos of the Sydney rally and said “eventually civil disobedience becomes the only option to authorities that violate freedom”.
Facebook posts by Senator Roberts and Mr Christensen about the rallies were three of the four most popular posts by any Australian politician over the weekend, according to social media tool CrowdTangle.
The New Daily approached Nationals leader and deputy PM, Barnaby Joyce, for comment.
At the Prime Minister’s press conference, TND also asked Mr Morrison about the protests and Mr Christensen’s involvement.
The PM called the Sydney event “reckless” and “selfish” and would “risk the lockdowns running further”.
But he said Queensland wasn’t under the same stay-at-home rules as Sydney and Mr Christensen’s event was “very different to the event that was in NSW”.
“As for other parts of the country that aren’t in lockdown, there is such a thing as free speech, and I’m not about to be imposing those sorts of restrictions on people’s free speech,” he said.
“To draw a comparison between the two would not be accurate.”
Labor shadow health minister Mark Butler called protesters “selfish boofheads”.
Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese condemned “at least one of the LNP MPs [who] has been out there promoting these rallies”.
“People expect more of their public representatives and people expect more of their leaders as well,” Mr Albanese said.
Following the protests, the loose coalition of anti-lockdown groups began immediately brainstorming their next steps.
Some suggested the next instalment be held on July 31 in Sydney, when the city’s current lockdown order is scheduled to expire but likely to be extended by the state government.
Others suggested large-scale national protests in August, including on the steps of state and federal Parliament buildings.
‘Big tent’ of protesters
Ariel Bogle, disinformation researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s Cyber Policy Centre, warned against “reductive” explanations of the protesters’ intentions and said they drew from a wide range of origins.
“It was such a grab bag,” she told TND.
“There was talk of lockdowns hurting business, economic and poverty arguments, sprinklings of global conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxer ideas.”
Ms Bogle said this “big tent” protest meant the message and event was spread through many different social media groups, amplifying it to a far wider range of people than standard anti-vaxxer or conspiracy events.
Elise Thomas, freelance journalist and researcher studying conspiracy theories, called Saturday’s rallies a “huge propaganda victory” for the groups.
“They would be very happy with the coverage they got,” she told TND.
“I think it’s interesting what happens now, if police crack down on them seriously.
“It would be a deterrent for people flirting with going to the next one, and there will be a next one, but it also potentially gives them a martyr.
“These groups love a martyr.”
Buoyed by the attention from Saturday’s protests, event organisers are already hinting at their next moves.
“This has to change, and we will not rest until it does,” one prominent anti-lockdown activist told her thousands of followers.