‘Today is a chance to remember David, but in the weeks and days to come we must confront the threats and violence that everyone faces in enacting this country’s democracy.’ - Keir Starmer
Last week’s brutal murder of British MP David Amess has thrown a spotlight on the growing dangers to elected officials and government workers in democratic societies, arising through violent extremism. Against this backdrop, we witness civil unrest – increasingly violent - seen in those same societies, arising from government responses to Covid-19. As we plan for the post-pandemic era, we are led to reflect on what needs to be done to win back hearts and minds, secure our democracy and bounce forward as a nation.
This month, Australia has seen its own evidence of the risk to government officials. An emotional Greg Hunt condemned the recent attack on NT Chief Minister Michael Gunner’s house, whilst drawing on his own experience of violent threats targeting his children. The NT Minister’s family was forced to flee, after their address was given out at an anti-vaccination protest. Meanwhile, groups are heard chanting ‘proud boys’ at protests targeting mandatory vaccination in Perth. And we saw disturbing imagery of CFMEU members (allegedly infiltrated by right wing extremists) violently protesting mandatory vaccination.
With each announcement of easing Covid-19 restrictions, a majority of Australians breathe a sigh of relief. Though simultaneously, there is an expanding divide between the returned freedoms of the vaccinated and those of the unvaccinated. The implied, or overt, threat that ‘no jab, no shop’, ‘no jab, no meal’, ‘no jab no fly', ‘no jab, no job’, risks creating a societal sub-class. What might be the consequences to our social cohesion of such an outcome? Certainly, such circumstances risk providing a fertile ground for discontent, disaffection and opportunities that seed and grow extremism.
NT’s most recent anti-vaccination protest, which put at risk the family and home of the Chief Minister, is a prime example of how an escalating societal divide fuels extreme responses. Public figures are being branded as ‘enemies’ or targeted and sometimes threatened by those with differing views. And, it's becoming disturbingly common.
Although Covid-19 protestors within Australia do not represent the majority of our citizens, and whilst protestors appear to have varying grievances (anti-vaccination, anti-lockdown), we sense more general factors underpinning their discontent. A broad-based civil frustration, economic grievance, and political anger seem to be simmering undercurrents within democratic societies.
Commentators have referenced right-wing extremist activity in protest movements over the past 18 months, and it’s likely true that elements of extremism have been present at most major protests. But attributing events to a single faction may be distracting us from recognising the more insidious frustration and anger of our citizens, compounded by the societal issues arising from the pandemic and its responses.
Although drivers of extremism vary depending on group ideology, extremism is broadly driven by economic grievance, political resentment, and societal change. Since the pandemic response all three of these drivers have been in abundance and becoming increasingly mainstream. If protests are seen as a response to a changing environment, with extremist actions apparently on the rise, we should consider whether it is the environment more generally that is supporting the development of extremism, rather than simply focussing on the single factor of Covid-19.
Current strategies to address extremism within Australia revolve around building strength in diversity, social participation, and de-radicalisation. But a framework to address widespread economic grievance, political resentment and societal changes, is not readily apparent.
The absence of a holistic plan to mitigate the societal consequences of the management of Covid-19 is hinted at by the absence of a pathway for unvaccinated Australians in the National Transition Plan. There is already a sense of limbo and implied ‘2nd class citizen’ status for the unvaccinated in transition to the ‘new normal’. The new normal, as it is being communicated, is ultimately likely to provoke a general response from unvaccinated Australians, and further develop threat narratives.
Unvaccinated Australians are just one example of a divergent social group that should be ‘brought back in’. An inclusive and comprehensive societal transition to the post-Covid era demands that all citizens and their pandemic experience are represented in pathways towards a ‘bounce forward’ for Australia. Overlooking these diverse experiences and outcomes leaves Australia open to the festering influences that work on economic grievance, political resentment, and societal changes, such as those likely to be leveraged by ideological extremists.
Emerging from this turbulent period, Australia must strengthen its democracy, build national resilience, and catalyse economic prosperity; but, to do so it is critical that we repair and reinforce our social cohesion. While this is not easy, a failure to do so in our post pandemic policy will only serve to extend the divides that have become a chasm and create a void to be filled.
As the UK faces its latest atrocity, Keir Starmer articulates a lesson for Australia: