After a week in the capital, Canberra’s ‘freedom’ protest shows no signs of abating, and organisers are preparing for a surge in numbers ahead of the return of Parliament tomorrow (8 February).
ACT Policing is alerting the Canberra community to the likelihood that protest activity will increase in the coming days and be prepared for delays on roads across the city.
The ‘Freedom Convoy to Canberra’ arrived last Monday (31 January) as a small number of people protesting against Australia’s reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic, chiefly in relation to vaccination and face mask mandates. Since then, the number has exploded to an estimated 3000.
Posts on the group’s official Facebook page suggest ‘a second wave’ will arrive in time for a massive rally outside Parliament House tomorrow morning when Parliament sits for the first time this year.
The group comprises many factions, including neo-Nazi extremists, conspiracy theorists and Aboriginal sovereignty campaigners, but the majority say they “just want their lives back”.
While the key protest areas are expected to be in the Parliamentary Triangle and the airport precinct, police are aware that due to the wide range of protest groups, other areas of Canberra may be targeted.
“Protest action may happen with little to no notice,” the ACT Policing spokesperson said.
“Anyone moving across Canberra should allow for extra time due to possible disruptions on roads, in open spaces, at shopping centres and near office buildings.”
The group initially set up a makeshift camp on the Patrick White Lawns near the National Library of Australia but were moved by police on Friday last week.
A spokesperson for ACT Policing on the scene described it as “mostly peaceful”, but also the biggest deployment of the force in the ACT’s history.
Several vehicles were towed away after their owners refused to move them and a man was charged with a firearm offence.
Protestors have since taken up free accommodation at Exhibition Park in Canberra (EPIC) in Mitchell, casting doubt over whether the Royal Canberra Show will go ahead at EPIC as planned on Friday, 25 February.
On Saturday, several thousand protestors met in Glebe Park before making their way along Northbourne Avenue and across Commonwealth Avenue, culminating at a massive rally on the lawns of Parliament House.
Former Qantas pilot Graham Hood retired last year after the airline announced that COVID-19 vaccination was a condition of continued employment.
Mr Hood spoke at the rally and said that people have had enough of getting nowhere with their respective premiers and were instead going straight to the top – Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
“This is what Australians do when they have their backs to the wall,” he said.
“We’re sick and tired of not being allowed to cross borders. We want the jab mandates gone, not only in government entities but also in corporate and private entities … We want to abolish mask mandates … We don’t want our kids touched.”
Leader of the United Australia Party Craig Kelly and Liberal-National Member for Dawson in Queensland George Christensen also spoke at the rally.
On Sunday, the group converged on Canberra Airport to get the attention of politicians flying into Canberra for the sitting of Parliament.
Earlier that morning, ACT Policing warned traffic control measures would be in place to minimise the impact on legitimate airport users, but delays should be expected.
Spokespeople for Qantas and the airport have said passengers should allow extra time to account for possible delays.
Due to protest activity in the area, the police had to cancel Sunday night’s purple illumination of the Parliament House facade for the Queen’s Jubilee. Other buildings still lit up.
Several local businesses have also complained of abuse at the hands of protestors.
Protestors hit Queanbeyan-based towing company All States Towing with one-star Google reviews after the company was contracted by the AFP to remove illegally parked vehicles from Patrick White Lawns.
The King O’Malley’s pub in Civic suffered a similar fate on Sunday after staff asked protestors to wear face masks while inside.
The Canberra community has since come out to support both businesses to bring their Google ratings back up.
Local Juls Jefferson has also started an online petition calling for “stronger government and police management of anti vaccine protestors in Canberra”.
“Canberrans have had enough of anti-vaccine right-wing protestors who have descended on Canberra and pose a significant risk to public health and safety”, the petition reads.
It had around 125 signatures at noon today (7 February).
ACT Policing has reiterated the right of individuals to conduct lawful, peaceful protests, but reminds the wider community not to take the law into their own hands if they see protesters acting illegally.
“Police will respond where required and the people responsible will be dealt with in accordance with the law,” the spokesperson said.
Anyone with information about illegal behaviour by protesters is advised to report their concerns by contacting Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or via the Crime Stoppers ACT website.
To report illegal activity while it is happening, call the Police Assistance line on 131 444, and in the event of a life-threatening emergency, call Triple Zero (000) from a safe location.