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When police in Victoria arrested a 28-year-old pregnant woman named Zoe Buhler at her home near Ballarat over a post on social media two weeks ago, John Roskam’s phone wouldn’t stop buzzing.
“I must have had something like 100 texts and emails that night saying ‘have you seen this?’” Roskam told Guardian Australia this week.
“I think, like everyone, I initially just thought, ‘Gee, that looks bad. I wonder what she’s done?’”
Then, about 11pm, Roskam, the executive director of rightwing thinktank the Institute of Public Affairs, received a phone call from the Liberal party backbench MP Craig Kelly.
“He said, ‘John, have you seen this? We have to do something about it.’”
Buhler was one of a handful of Victorians arrested and charged with incitement in the lead-up to the so-called “freedom day” protests held across Australia on 5 September, a demonstration organised in defiance of lockdown restrictions, mandates on mask-wearing in Victoria, 5G, vaccinations and “child trafficking and pedophilia”.
Victoria police have continued to arrest people associated with the movement in the weeks since, but it was Buhler who sparked a wave of outrage. Footage of the arrest taken by her husband showed her wearing pyjamas as she was placed in handcuffs in front of her children. Within hours of being posted online, the video had attracted more than 1m views.
The arrest was criticised by the president of the Victorian Bar, Wendy Harris QC, who said it appeared to be “disproportionate to the threat she presented”, and even the Victorian police assistant commissioner, Luke Cornelius, who, while defending the arrest, conceded that officers had “absolutely stuffed” the “optics”.
Amid increasing pushback against Daniel Andrews’ government in Victoria, Buhler’s treatment by police has galvanised sections of the right in Australia. Two days after her arrest, conservative columnist Janet Albrechtsen wrote a sympathetic piece about Buhler under the headline “One mum’s desperate voice silenced by fascist behaviour”. On Thursday, Liberty Works, the organisation behind the Australian version of the Conservative Political Action Conference, launched a fundraiser for her legal defence. By Friday afternoon it had raised about $37,500 of its $290,000 goal.
Andrew Cooper, the Liberty Works president, told Guardian Australia he’d been drafted by the Institute of Public Affairs to help with Buhler’s legal case, saying he thought her arrest was “pretty abhorrent”.
“It seems crazy that a Facebook post is something that would lead to an arrest,” he said. “If it was exhorting people to conduct a bombing, then maybe we could have an argument that it’s a criminal matter, but we’re talking about protesting, which I think is fundamental to a democracy.”
But no one has been louder in their criticism than Kelly. Following Buhler’s arrest, the outspoken backbencher shared the footage with his ever-growing Facebook following, describing it as “what you’d expect to see in Nazi Germany”.
“Every politician that voted for laws that allows a pregnant mother to be handcuffed for a Facebook post (that criticises government policy) stands condemned for eternity,” he wrote at the time.
Kelly and Roskam moved quickly to draft Melbourne lawyers Stuart Wood QC and Stephen Andrianaki to act for Buhler pro bono in her case against the Victoria police, and Kelly boasted – again on Facebook – that it was “conservatives standing up to protect Zoe’s rights” while “Labor Luvies” remained silent.
“Zoe’s arrest was completely shocking,” Kelly told Guardian Australia.
“What we are seeing in Victoria is a severe breakdown of the social licence police in Australia enjoy. As politicians, we might want to create laws, but we have to think through how police are going to have to enforce those laws and what the consequence of that might be.”
Encrypted message calls for ‘crowbars and baseball bats’
Those concerned with over-policing in Australia might be forgiven for feeling a sense of ideological whiplash watching conservatives prosecuting the issue.
As recently as June, Albrechtsen, for example, tutted at Black Lives Matter protestors for “ignoring laws that millions of Australians have dutifully followed in an effort to contain a pandemic”. Kelly, too, blasted BLM demonstrators for “threatening yet another street protest in our main streets of Sydney, even though we have the Covid restrictions in place”.
Roskam explains the apparent change in position by saying conservatives feel as though a “double standard” has been applied to anti-lockdown protests after a Black Lives Matter demonstration in Victoria went ahead prior to the stage-four lockdown.
He also argues that, in the same way that figures on the left in New South Wales have expressed concern about the state’s police commissioner, Mick Fuller, and his close relationship with the state’s Liberal government, Victorian conservatives feel senior police are too closely tied with Daniel Andrews’ state Labor government.
But he is also clear-eyed about the rhetorical shift. A former academic and political staffer who writes for the Australian newspaper, Roskam is the type of conservative who uses phrases like “political elites” while citing frequent “discussions with MPs” and invoking the allegory of Plato’s cave during conversations.
He concedes that much of the outrage is overtly political. As the Victorian government stays the course on its harsh Covid-19 restrictions, targeting concern about the role of police in enforcing the lockdown is a way to “pushback against the whole package”.
“It is a vehicle to talk about the program as a whole,” Roskam says. “That’s where the left are struggling with this. They can’t criticise one part of the package without starting to unpick it as a whole.”
But by joining the anti-lockdown chorus, members of the right in Australia are walking a thin line.
The event Buhler created specifically called for a “peaceful protest” which would help give “a voice for those in stage-four lockdowns”. Footage from the arrest showed her telling officers she did not realise creating the event was potentially in breach of the state’s laws.
But others associated with the protests that have broken out in Victoria are less benign.
The anti-lockdown protests in Victoria have been actively driven by a loose coalition of conspiracy groups that in some cases have links with the far-right in Australia. At protests held on 5 September, some demonstrators held anti-semitic signs while others were associated with the baseless conspiracy theory QAnon.
In August, one of the leaders of the 99% group, which organised an anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne in May at which attendees chanted “arrest Bill Gates”, appeared on the Unshackled, an Australian far-right podcast. Guardian Australia has previously revealed that one of Kelly’s Liberal party colleagues, the Victorian MP Anne Webster, installed security cameras at her home because she feared being physically attacked after a conspiracy theorist falsely accused her of being “a member of a secretive pedophile network” in a series of vicious social media posts.
On encrypted messaging apps associated with the movement, some members now explicitly advocate using violence against journalists and the police. In one group this week, a member wrote that protestors “will need to start arming themselves with crowbars and baseball bats”. Another posted a video of themselves using a bow and arrow, while someone else posted photos of bullets, writing “these go thru Kevlar and armor plate vests”.
“Several of my mates are refusing to participate in these protests because they don’t want their firearm licence taken off them,” one member wrote. “That said, they believe the use of them may be necessary if this shit escalates.”
The same person wrote that protestors “should start going after the journalists”.
“They are the vehicle that have allowed this to occur. They have become an enemy of the people,” they wrote. “They all have names and addresses.”
Craig Kelly denies spreading ‘dangerous disinformation’
As the pandemic stretches on, no one has walked the line between criticising the Victorian government and openly nodding to this audience like Craig Kelly. He has long been known for speaking to the beliefs of his party’s right flank, and has made a career out of mocking climate change “exaggeration”, denying its link to last summer’s bushfires and accusing the Bureau of Meteorology of falsifying weather data.
But the Liberal party backbencher has expanded his repertoire during the Covid-19 pandemic to include advocacy for the use of the drug hydroxychloroquine in treating Covid-19, a campaign against what he calls “health bureaucrats”, and a barrage of criticism against the Victorian government. In videos for an online streaming site called the Cave, Kelly has called for the removal of Daniel Andrews from office, saying Victoria was “being run by a megalomanic [who is] getting his totalitarian kicks out of keeping 5m people in captivity”.
Founded by Australian filmmaker Simon Hunter, the executive director of the Sydney Film School, the Cave also promotes videos from the likes of Ben Shapiro, Candace Owens and Gavin McInnes, the founder of the far-right Proud Boys group.
Kelly’s tireless online campaigning has undoubtedly found him a new and thriving audience. His Facebook following has grown by almost 37% since June, and of Australia’s federal MPs only the prime minister, Scott Morrison, has enjoyed more “interactions” on posts shared to the social media site. Kelly’s posts are also regularly among the most shared social media posts on the site from Australia.
His posts are regularly shared by groups associated with both the far right and individuals connected to the ever-mutating conspiracy movement. Earlier this month, the US conspiracy theorist and anti-vaxxer David “Avocado” Wolfe encouraged his 16,000 Telegram subscribers (he has more than 12m followers on Facebook) to sign a petition supporting Kelly over his advocacy for hydroxychloroquine.
Similarly, in August, the former celebrity chef Pete Evans shared a speech by Kelly promoting the drug to his 1.5m Facebook followers. Evans regularly posts favourably about a range of discredited ideas including risks of 5G exposure, while platforming anti-vaxxers and pushing content aligned to Qanon.
Hydroxychloroquine, which has also been pushed by Donald Trump, has been shown to be ineffective and potentially harmful when used to treat the virus. The Therapeutic Goods Administration, the federal health body responsible for evaluating and approving medicines for use in Australia, recommends the drug not be used to treat Covid-19 outside of clinical trials and has restricted its use outside of the conditions for which it is approved.
The acting chief medical officer, Paul Kelly, has said simply that “it doesn’t work”.
Kelly’s advocacy for the drug has prompted significant criticism. Last month the shadow health minister, Chris Bowen, accused Kelly of spreading “dangerous disinformation” for continuing to push the use of the drug, and the usually staid deputy chief health officer Nick Coatsworth has rebuked his advocacy for it. “I think Australians are very clear which Kelly should be listened to in Covid-19, and that is Paul Kelly,” he previously said.
In an interview with Guardian Australia, Kelly denied engaging in misinformation, saying he was not intimately familiar with online conspiracy theory groups including QAnon. In online videos, he’s also railed against criticism he has received for promoting hydroxychloroquine, accusing the media of “implying I was engaging in peddling conspiracy theories, defunct facts [and] dangerous facts. All I’ve been doing is reporting what the medical experts are saying around the world”.
Kelly is insistent and ferocious in his advocacy for the drug. In two interviews with Guardian Australia, he quoted from dozens of medical papers which he says show the evidence for the drug is “overwhelming”.
“Is it any wonder, when you’ve got medical doctors around the world speaking out and saying this drug works, and yet the chief medical officer of the country is saying it doesn’t work, is it any wonder people on the fringes of conspiracy theories are saying hang on a minute, what’s going on?” he said.
Kelly says his support for the drug is based on a belief that the government is interfering with the relationship between patients and doctors. In videos for the Cave he’s argued that much of the opposition to it from mainstream health organisations is a result of Trump’s advocacy for it, saying it has “resulted in hydroxychloroquine becoming, I think, the first drug in history to become politically incorrect”.
Asked by Guardian Australia why he believed health officials would block access to the drug if it did work, Kelly said he didn’t know, suggesting they were either “overwhelmed” by the task of combatting the virus or that they were “subconsciously” biased against it both because it had been promoted by Trump and because it was “off-patent”.
“It is a mystery to me,” he said. “A lot of this started in the US, and that’s a factor because as soon as Trump said it would work, a lot of people were determined to show it wouldn’t. He’s the worst advocate for the drug.”
“There’s also the factor that hydroxychloroquine is off-patent … there’s no money in it for anyone. I don’t know whether that’s affecting anyone but it has got to be one of the considerations that are weighed up. Maybe it’s a subconscious close of the eye.”
In the main, Australia conservatives continue to support him. Last month the Coalition blocked Labor’s attempts to rebuke Kelly over the drug, and, indeed, Roskam says he sees Kelly as a model for future conservative politicians.
“I give a lot of speeches to young conservatives and young Liberals and I say you can be a cabinet minister for 10 years and achieve nothing or you can be Craig Kelly,” he said.
Andrew Cooper said he hadn’t followed the debate around hydroxychloroquine, but that broadly he supported Kelly.
“In general I think democracies needs your Craig Kellys, I really do, because what we’ve learned through this period is there’s a consolidation of everyone’s mindset into one, and you do need those outliers to stir it up,” he said.
“Surely we’re big enough to work out whether we agree or disagree with Craig Kelly.”
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: How Victoria’s Covid lockdown protests are galvanising Australia’s right | Australia news