As preparations start for yet another so called “freedom rally” to oppose lock down we wonder if Covid is the only thing driving the protesters. Nope… as you might have suspected there are other tensions and influences afoot and after Covid they could well turn their sights to anti climate action.

As the official rally start time neared, the Telegram channel was tense. Posts flooded in from would-be attendees struggling to find a way to the starting point past a heavy police presence.

Trolls had found the channel, gleefully mocking “suburban gronks in athleisurewear getting fined on live stream”. As 12pm ticked by it was looking like the August 21 Melbourne Freedom Rally was going to be a bust.

Instead, just a few minutes later, a group of hundreds of protesters coalesced at the corner of Little Collins and Bourke Street and soon snowballed to a crowd of at least 4000, by a later police estimate. 

Braving arrests and fines the protesters marched through Melbourne’s locked-down CBD in what Reignite Democracy Australia head and rally organiser Monica Smit (since arrested and charged with incitement) exultantly told the group’s Facebook livestream was a big victory for the movement.

From small fringe gatherings in March 2020, the protest movement can now boast two of the largest unsanctioned rallies in recent Australian history, with the July 24 Sydney march also drawing a crowd of several thousand. In contrast to the typical forms of Australian street protest these gatherings have assembled without legal approval or the support of established parties or campaigning organisations.

While demographic and polling evidence is limited, it is clear that the crowds at these rallies extend beyond the pre-pandemic anti-vaccination movement, which skews affluent. 

The crowds at both Sydney and Melbourne rallies were visibly young and the former rally had noticeable participation from the city’s south-west suburbs. 

The youthful face of the movement appears to be reflected in the Melbourne Institute’s polling on vaccine hesitancy. It found that, while overall hesitancy has fallen since July, combined vaccine hesitancy and opposition among 18-44 year olds remains higher (28.2 per cent) than the national average (20.3 per cent). Also, the number of people of all ages opposed to COVID-19 vaccination rose from 9.2 per cent to 11.7 per cent in NSW over August. 

Categorising the beliefs uniting the two most recent Freedom Rallies can be difficult. While opposition to lockdown measures is universal, some rally participants express their grievances in terms of lost business or work while others array themselves against the current crop of coronavirus vaccines as well. 

Vaccine opposition can extend to a total rejection of vaccination on medical (or religious) grounds or a principled opposition to the introduction of mandates or vaccine passports. Participants have diverse starting points but they are united in the rejection of the present COVID-19 containment measures and distrustful of the political and medical authorities behind them.

Many of the groups organising the rallies are more readily characterised. 

While Reignite Democracy Australia, the most prominent national anti-lockdown organisation, presents itself as platform for disenfranchised people of all backgrounds, listing “inclusiveness” alongside “integrity” among its core values, its leader Monica Smit has been associated with both the Victorian Liberal Party and far right groups

Monica Smit in a YouTube still from an Australian Survivor reality TV show audition tape

How the movement sees itself

Other major groups, including Australians vs The Agenda are less coy about their ideological bearings, accusing Victorian premier Daniel Andrews of using pandemic controls to bring about a “socialist, communist, fascist state”.

While that description might sound confusing to ears versed in political theory or 20th century history, it reflects an increasingly globalised language of conspiracism that regards conventional political labels as part of a sham political process. 

Instead of seeking to operate inside public discourse, this milieu styles itself as freethinking outsiders assembling a new counter-public to challenge, expose and (somehow) defeat a totalitarian media-political-corporate cabal. 

While these groups frame their struggle in terms of personal and spiritual liberty their rhetoric has obvious resonance with the far right, who have been far from shy in seeking to join and recruit from this audience. In Germany, this anti-lockdown movement has drawn on the language of corporate disruption and innovation, terming themselves “Querdenker” or in English, “diagonalists”, and it’s this label that I think applies best to the organisations driving the Australian movement as well.

The link between Australian diagonalists and their international counterparts is more than academic. As a Guardian Australia report revealed, the dates for Australian “Freedom Rallies” are set and even posters produced via an international diagonalist group Worldwide Demonstration, whose operators appear to be German residents calling themselves the Free Citizens of Kassel. 

While Australian protests are organised and led by local groups, Worldwide Demonstration functions as a clearinghouse for ideals and a space for co-ordinating rallies for maximum media impact.

The vital role of social media

Media impact is essential, both in organisational and personal terms. Australia’s diagonalist movements are keen to attract clicks and views on as many platforms as will accommodate them – RDA’s frontpage proudly lists its following across multiple platforms. 

In addition to public outreach, social media platforms function as launching pads for the enterprising leaders of these movements including serial reality TV auditioner Smit and a gallery of “independent” livestreaming journalists. As well as providing motivational images and stories, the globalised far right media ecosystem allows Australian diagonalist leaders the opportunity to promote themselves to a world audience as well.

Dependent on attention and events but lacking a concrete political strategy, the present diagonalist movement faces an impasse. Though they are unlikely to storm state or federal parliaments (physically or electorally) it would be a mistake to dismiss this movement. In addition to producing the largest unsanctioned right wing rallies in recent history, the movement has the potential to further engage those left without business, work or other support by state and federal pandemic responses that have been early on enforcement but late on assistance. 

Will it all disappear with Covid?

Co-option and normalisation of diagonalist language and agenda is also an issue. The conflict between the Coalition government’s mainstream and right wings over the role of restrictions and identification measures in facilitating the new normal is likely to be a central issue heading into next year’s election, while several far right parties have made clear their intention to draw diagonalist voters.

The election is unlikely to be the final word as various state and federal COVID-19 measures will likely remain after vaccination targets are reached, leaving further terrain for the diagonalist fight to exempt themselves. 

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Looking further ahead, diagonalism’s deep hostility to scientific expertise and suspicion of state and collective action in response to crises has obvious implications for the shape of climate politics as mitigation and adaptation measures deepen in severity.

It’s also worth remembering that the present politics of blame and the goal of a return to normal are likely to fuel, not stifle this movement. 

Danielle Lavelle is Melbourne based observer of politics and social movements, who “hangs out in these online spaces so you don’t have to”.  

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