The first week of February saw the arrival of ‘Convoy to Canberra’ anti-vaccine protesters to the capital, converging on the grounds around Old Parliament House and setting up camping tent hubs at various sites around the city. It also saw another arrival, albeit without fanfare: me.
After four years living overseas I was perplexed by such anti-vaccine sentiment. My time in Thailand had been among a population that adopted masks both indoors and outdoors and sought vaccines as soon as they were available. You couldn’t visit your local 7-Eleven without having your temperature checked, friends take RAT tests before dinner parties, and to be ‘anti-vaxx’ is beyond comprehension.
My bewilderment at a Canberra ‘convoy’ resembling Dad’s Army was palpable. Easily identified by their Australian flags, often worn cape-like, participants also took a liking to the Eureka Flag and the Australian Red Ensign, a banner flown by Australian merchant ships and inexplicably adopted by anti-government ‘sovereign’ groups. The flags of European nations and the United States were represented, as well as the Australian Aboriginal flag.
The arrival of protesters was heralded by incessant honking while mini-convoys criss-crossed the city. Lines of protesters marched on foot like sunburnt dromedaries, with lone stragglers sometimes found lost wandering the capital searching for someone to call to.
Many were having fun, stopping to discuss views on vaccines with comrades, comparing notes on where exactly they’re supposed to be going, or joyriding the main tram line (sans-mask, of course). But it’s not all ‘Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi’; I see sinister undertones amongst this brand of larrakinism.
Up to 10,000 protesters swarmed Parliament House and local community events near the convoy’s tent city were cancelled after an unexpected 10,000-15,000 protesters arrived to set up camp, dismantling security barriers and damaging property. Protesters breached barricades at Parliament House, tussled with police, burned down the doors to Old Parliament House, and the convoy participant responsible for a GoFundMe that raised over AUD$179,000 was arrested for carrying a rifle. This fundraiser was shut down for a lack of detail in how those funds would be managed.
But we’re talking chump change compared to the US$7.8 million raised through GoFundMe for the protest convoy that descended on Canada’s capital and blockaded the US-Canada border at Detroit. Those funds were also cancelled by GoFundMe, which whack-a-mole-like spawned another crowdfunding effort through the Christian website GiveSendGo, one that amassed US$8.7 million. This organisation now rejects a local court order blocking fund distribution. Canadian protests began as a result of an Ottawa vaccine mandate for truckers entering the country and lead to the government enacting a public order emergency for the first time. Just like the coronavirus and the resulting measures that generated the protests, this movement is transnational.
Canadian protests created their own variants not only in Australia, but in France, the Netherlands, and in New Zealand, as well as murmurings of a future convoy in the United States. Border closures may have hampered the transmission of COVID-19, but if you ‘follow the money’ it’s clear this confluence of disillusioned peoples are not localised; hacked data shows that of the 92,844 donations flowing to the Canadian convoy, only 29 per cent actually came from Canadian donors. The 56 per cent majority came from the United States, with the United Kingdom coming subsequently with 2 per cent and Australia next, albeit with only 0.6 per cent and 588 contributions.
The role of media, social or otherwise, has been prevalent in flaming the convoy movement. Right-wing pundits in the United States have fawned over Canadian protests, and international far-right media have disseminated news on the Canberra convoy, as well as utilised anti-vaccine protests to boost their own subscriber count. Social media has been key in protest coordination, with Meta removing large-member groups involved in organising protests in Canada and Australia. In another boon to multilateralism, these patriot groups were actually found to be run by administrators originating from Vietnam and Bangladesh.
Domestic extremism has been identified as a significant threat by the ASIO Director General and the United States has implemented a National Strategy for Domestic Extremism. Australian protests may seem relatively benign, but it is a slippery slope and one only agitated by the ‘echo chamber’ of social media. After all, violent delights have violent ends, and right-leaning politicians such as Pauline Hanson and Craig Kelly have supported Australian protests, while United States Republican politicians such as Donald Trump have lauded the Canadian movement.
The Canberra convoy will dissipate naturally due to a lack of cohesive leadership, but compared to the spontaneous Melbourne anti-vaccine protests of 2021, the ‘Convoy to Canberra’ has been well-organised and has shown persistence over several weeks. The opportunities for fund-raising from such campaigns have been established, as well as the commitment from individuals to uproot themselves and follow the cause.
For now, this Canberra transplant can only hope that the participants of the ‘Convoy to Canberra’ will stay at home next time, and that the shouts of one driver outside my window while I enjoyed breakfast were but a dream: “White power! White power!”.
Shaun Cameron is an Australian postgraduate student in International Relations and National Security. He has a background in academic research, psychology, and teaching.