What a difference a few months make.
In the second half of last year, I confidently reckoned the anti-lockdown movement would experience a rapid downturn as a result of Victoria and New South Wales shying away from lockdowns. What I reckoned was hopelessly wrong; there were vaccine mandates for them to war over, a huge "Kill the Bill" campaign to wage and, crucially, a 2022 Federal election looming.
We were only starting to witness a new chapter of prolonged camp-outs, convoys and fringe political attentions.
So now we know my crystal ball is worthless. But I have enough experience to know when I’m watching a movement in decline as it’s happening. At the moment, the anti-lockdown movement is not making headlines. The political vulture class is paying less attention. Factions within the movement fundamentally disagree on what they’re rallying for.
They have accumulated a dedicated, core base of thousands of activists, but it’s also evident they’re waning in the shadows. What happened?
For one, South Australia happened. State election results there demonstrated that recent political developments are translating into a swing to the Labor Party. One Nation received 20,000 or more votes but, beyond a single upper house seat count still too close to call, their first push in South Australia since 2006 hasn’t translated into any seats.
This, then, is the first poor outcome of all the breathless talk among "anti-lockdowners" of pandemic measures translating into "landslide" results.
Not that the conspiracists were ever savvy on politics. One faction of the movement, the sovereign citizens (currently converging on Canberra yet again), are convinced that they’re just about to set up a new political system, currency and so on. Reality rarely taints their stupid pseudo-political fantasies.
Mostly I think this movement was gassed up in late 2021 – by the "Kill the Bill" campaign and the attention paid to them by parties like the United Australia Party (UAP) – until they were convinced they could make real political change. COVID-denialist group Reignite Democracy Australia (RDA) were organising an army of volunteers to post up at political booths around the nation to influence voting for "freedom candidates". The "landslide elections" chatter was constant.
Now, while the UAP are still emblazoning every spare billboard space in Australia with their meaningless, piss-coloured "FREEDOM FREEDOM FREEDOM" cliches, their love affair with the anti-lockdown movement has turned rocky. Star anti-lockdown influencers have abandoned them.
Morgan Jonas, COVID-denialist influencer amd partner of RDA head Monica Smit, quit his candidacy on 5 March. Clive Palmer responded by accusing Jonas of joining the UAP to further his own interests.
That’s true, if a bit rich coming from a man who plugs millions into a Federal election only to further his self-interest.
That necessitated a change for Monica Smit and RDA, who were once on the precipice of announcing a partnership with the UAP in late 2021. Now they protest their independence from all political parties.
Simeon Boikov, also known as the "Aussie Cossack", another prominent influencer and professional Russian ultranationalist, was disendorsed by the UAP a few weeks ago.
To be fair, even Palmer would be better off without having to take care of the growing liability that is Boikov, who’s currently being ordered by Australian courts not to harm his ex-wife’s pets. But specifically, the disendorsement happened over Boikov’s pro-Putin messaging.
Soon after his departure, Boikov began attacking Craig Kelly for his stance on Russia. It’s just another severed link in a deteriorating relationship between conspiracists and their former political patrons.
The other factor compounding this recent deterioration is that for a movement driven by spectacle and viral moments, they’re inevitably outdone by larger events at the moment. Events of international significance have taken over. There’s a war. Australia’s eastern seaboard experienced catastrophic floods. These events stole a local media spotlight once reserved, for months on end, for howling idiots in red ensign capes.
Only weeks ago the UAP were reportedly actively financing the Canberra convoy with the supply of food, drinks, speaker stages and more. Now, they’re still showing up – Craig Kelly’s going to a conspiracist rally outside Parliament for the Budget on Tuesday – but the UAP are less actively involved in these rallies.
Do they even need to be? They stole all the movement’s hollow "freedom" rhetoric for their billboards, but now that the conspiracists aren’t making headlines, what use are they to Palmer, except as a tiny voting bloc to keep on side?
More than anyone in the UAP, Riccardo Bosi of the Australia One party has worked hard to capitalise on the military-chic bloodlust of the faux-insurrectionist wing of the movement. But that’s come at the expense of the bare basics: he neglected to register Australia One as a political party.
Now, any political will Bosi cultivated has been warped into a kind of accelerationism by all his grim fairytales of hanging, before ultimately being squandered by his inaction. In short: the most dedicated political candidate of the movement is not a political candidate. It’s surreal.
I think it is important business to scrutinise this movement. But I also see how they wither in the shadows, and frankly, I would rather the shabby world of conspiracist fringe politics be left to the shabby likes of me to wade through. It’s as good as they deserve.
I’ve seen a few of these movements in decline over the years; I’m always delighted to watch it happen.
But the concern remains: left to the shadows, after a heady time in the media spotlight, what more extreme ideas will these fringes begin to entertain for their next steps?
The remnants of this movement, still in the thousands, are headed to Canberra right now. They’re in split factions with radically different ideas about why they exist. A few are there to canvass for UAP. Some are there for mandates. Some believe they’re setting up a new, sovereign government. Some are hunting paedophiles. Some think they’re going to hang everyone in Parliament.
Comrades on the ground in Canberra tell me that the conspiracists are becoming more confrontational than ever. Now that the manipulative political faction is less focused on taming them for the sake of an election, what comes next?
Tom Tanuki is an online satirist, social justice commentator, writer and comedian. He has worked in anti-racist political comedy, most notably through his satirical group the Million Flag Patriots and anti-racist group Yelling At Racist Dogs (Y.A.R.D.). You can follow Tom on Twitter @tom_tanuki.
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