By Rebecca Turner
For many observers, it’s been puzzling trying to understand the myriad forces at play in the regular anti-vaccine mandate rallies in the Perth CBD.
At these rallies, nurses in scrubs, people in high-vis vests and parents with small children march alongside people in Donald Trump caps and QAnon t-shirts.
They wave upside-down flags and hold signs with messages like “stop the tyranny”, “reveal the truth” and “ban the mandates”.
Curtin University political extremism researcher Ben Rich said the WA government’s mandatory COVID-19 vaccination policy had galvanised people who had concerns about health, as well as government intrusion on their personal and economic freedoms.
“The protests have demonstrated a much more diverse set of characters and groups than we would have traditionally associated with the anti-vax movement in past times here in Australia,” he said.
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Dr Rich is the co-director of the Curtin Extremism Research Network, a group of academics from diverse backgrounds focused on studying cultural extremism, including anti-vaccination movements.
“They make people feel part of something and they are part of an exciting story, an exciting narrative,” he said.
“They’re standing up to power.”
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But Dr Rich said his network would be watching closely when WA opened its borders on February 5 to see whether the anti-mandate movement continued to attract support.
“If they can’t maintain a growth momentum in the movement, it’s likely to peter out because there’s not a lot that’s going to get people out there,” he said.
But for now the protests remain a regular fixture of the weekend calendar, right across the nation.
To try to understand what is going on behind these protests, the ABC looked at some of the symbols and slogans they use.
These photos are from a rally at Elizabeth Quay in Perth’s CBD on December 4.
In this photo, the Australian national flag and the red ensign flag, flown at sea by Australian merchant ships, lead the way across the Matagarup Bridge in East Perth.
But they’re being flown upside down, which is a sign of extreme distress, according to University of South Australia law lecturer Joe McIntyre.
“It’s a way of communicating: ‘I am in intense distress,'” he said.
“There’s this sense that, ‘I know the truth. I am fighting a righteous battle to protect my country. Why can’t anybody see how unlawful our governments are?'”
Under Australian national flag protocols, the flag should never be flown upside down.
But upside-down flags have been used around the world as a protest symbol, including at the Capitol Hill riot in Washington in January this year.
Dr McIntyre said the use of the red ensign was associated with sovereign citizen groups, who believed that admiralty law was the only valid law.
This fringe movement’s supporters dispute that Australian laws apply to them, believing that state governments and their police forces have no legitimate power to enforce coronavirus laws, lockdowns and vaccination mandates.
They have been identified as a potential terrorism threat by NSW Police.
Flags reappropriated throughout history
Dr McIntyre said that when Australia became a federation, it had two flags; the blue ensign for Commonwealth government business and the red ensign, which was used for maritime purposes.
He said the red ensign was often adopted as the de facto national flag because it was the only national Australian flag that the general public could use.
It wasn’t until the passing of the Flags Act 1953 that the blue ensign became Australia’s national flag, replacing the Union Jack.
But Dr McIntyre said the use of the red ensign by sovereign citizen groups could also be because it was associated with a time in history when the White Australia policy existed in Australia.
The Canadian alternative-right has also appropriated their country’s red ensign.
“The sovereign citizens’ movement in the US is historically white supremacist,” he said.
It’s no great surprise that the blue Eureka flag is being flown at these rallies against government-imposed mandates, given it has been used by all sides of politics since it made an appearance at one of Australia’s first anti-government rebellions.
CERN member and humanities academic Philip Chilton said the Eureka flag sits with the protesters’ view of themselves as “oppressed rebels fighting for freedom against a tyranny”.
“I see on one of the flags is the slogan ‘when injustice becomes law, resistance is duty’,” he said.
Donald Trump looms large at protests
But some protesters have co-opted and adopted symbols and slogans from overseas, including supporters of former US president Donald Trump.
For example, on the right of the photo below, two people are wearing matching red “Make Australia Great Again” caps.
It’s a local remake of Mr Trump’s campaign slogan, which has been widely adopted by the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protest movements, including Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party.
In the photo, a man is wearing a T-shirt of the QAnon conspiracy theory, based around a belief that the world is run by a global cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles who control American politics and the media.
His T-shirt’s slogan of “where we go one, we go all” is QAnon’s rallying call.
Part of the pro-Trump conspiracy theory was that Mr Trump would expose the cabal, including Democrat politicians like US President Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton.
Dr Chilton said the anti-vaccination movement was alive with these kinds of theories.
“That the virus is a hoax, that it is caused by 5G, that tracking microchips are being implanted with the vaccine, that the virus is a scam for big pharma to make money, that big media is in cahoots with big pharma,” he said.
“Again, [you see] the construction of anti-vaxxers as those who know the truth and being punished for it.”
Many of these protests are being billed as “freedom rallies”, with some people seeing the vaccine mandate as a restriction on their ability to work.
“There’s a concern — and it’s not entirely unfounded — that these mandates produce a de facto second-class citizen who doesn’t have access to all of the economic freedoms expected as a member of the Australian public,” Dr Rich said.
Protesters demand freedom from ‘medical apartheid’
Others also see the vaccination mandates as representative of excessive government control, carrying signs calling for freedom from the “medical apartheid” and “medical tyranny” of vaccine mandates.
Some attendees at the rally also bore signs and badges stating “my body, my choice”, appropriating a key slogan of the pro-choice abortion movement.
A lot of this language has been taken from interstate and overseas anti-government movements, where government-imposed lockdowns and rules have been more restrictive than in WA.
“I’d say most of these ideas are not coming out of WA,” Dr Rich said.
“They’re mostly being transmitted in WA through social media, through mass media and inspiring people here.”
This sign uses symbols from Nazi Germany, including the deeply offensive use of the yellow star, which Jews were forced to wear.
In recent years, it has been used in the US by anti-vaccination protesters to symbolise oppression.
Dr Rich said the use of this symbol could indicate the involvement of white supremacist groups or just that people had created an alternate reality in their mind where this was appropriate.
“There could also be a genuine feeling in some of the people’s minds that they are on the path to some type of industrial extermination or genocide,” he said.
But Dr Rich said people often used emotional symbols to get their point about excessive government control across.
“As much as you saw a few pictures of McGowan with a Hitler moustache, he’s still an incredibly popular leader,” he said.
*Rebecca Turner joined ABC News in 2015 and has worked for the Australian Financial Review and the Australian.
*This article first appeared on the abc.net.au website