Australians in the state of Victoria gathered in the streets over the weekend to protest the ongoing vaccine mandates in the state, as well as the approval of legislation that would give the Victorian government unprecedented pandemic-related powers.
Thousands took to the streets of Melbourne for the fifth Saturday in a row to voice their opposition against the contentious measure, the Public Health and Wellbeing Amendment (Pandemic Management) Bill 2021, which officially passed the upper house of state Parliament on Dec. 2 following lengthy debate and multiple amendments.
Victoria is now the first state in the country to have pandemic-specific legislation, which will come into effect from Dec. 16, a day after the current state of emergency expires. The bill has been the focus of intense public debate and a series of protest rallies in Melbourne’s central business district over the past month.
One among the many controversial provisions in the law gives the Victorian government the ultimate power to declare pandemics and issue public health orders. The law also threatens hefty fines for breaching pandemic orders.
Signs protesters were holding changed from “Kill the Bill” in previous demonstrations to “Repeal the Bill” on Dec. 4, because the legislation has been passed and is now waiting for royal assent.
Videos circulated on multiple social media platforms show thousands of people gathering in the Treasury Gardens, and later marching through the city peacefully to occupy the Flinders Street station intersection. Demonstrators waved Australian flags, with some among them flown upside down to signal a time of distress.
Victoria Police estimated 8,000 to 10,000 protesters in the city at the rally’s height, at least half the size of the protest a week earlier.
Separately, a counter-protest took place in nearby Carlton with attendees in the hundreds, who held signs pushing for vaccines and decrying fascism, the Australian Associated Press reported.
On the same day, an estimated 200 people also gathered at the government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corp’s (the ABC’s) Melbourne headquarters in Southbank. The crowd chanted “liars” and “tell the truth” at the building’s front entrance, while police officers prevented them from entering the facility, The Age reported.
Ex-Liberal MP turned United Australia Party candidate Craig Kelly was a speaker at that protest. The New South Wales-based MP criticized the Victorian government’s vaccine mandate for “authorized workers.”
“You cannot work in so many occupations without [a] license issued by the government,” Kelly said, referring to vaccine mandates for many workers in the state. “That is undemocratic, it is unethical, it is a violation of our human rights, and we should not stand for it.”
Kelly was also at a protest on Dec. 5 in Ballarat, the city home to the Eureka Stockade of 1854, when miners protested against the need for a license in order to work, among other stringent government measures.
The Eureka flag has been used by Australians in recent COVID-19-related protests to symbolize defiance against the government. Hundreds of protesters gathered in the gold rush city on Dec. 5, waving Australia and Eureka flags, the Herald Sun reported.
The protesters gathered outside the Ballarat Civic Hall and shouted slogans including “Free Victoria!” and “Jail Dan Andrews!” while holding signs that oppose vaccine mandates. At least 70 police officers surrounded the hall courtyard and nearby businesses, the newspaper reported.
Speeches were held as the crowd grew, before they proceeded through the CBD and to the Ballarat skate park, where there were more speeches, the ABC reported.
Police said that about 1,000 people gathered in the Ballarat CBD, but there were no arrests made, the outlet reported. Ballarat Mayor Daniel Moloney told the ABC that about half of the businesses in the CBD had closed for at least part of the day in anticipation of the demonstration.
Tens of thousands tuned into livestreams published by independent journalist Rukshan Fernando, who was present at both the Melbourne and Ballarat events. Videos were also being circulated on multiple channels on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, throughout the weekend.
Separately, the Australian government on Dec. 5 granted provisional approval for Pfizer’s Comirnaty COVID-19 vaccine for 5- to 11-year-olds.
Victorians have faced some of the longest COVID-19-related lockdowns and most stringent restrictions in Australia and the world. Besides vaccine mandates for many workers, people in Victoria over the age of 12 need to show proof of vaccination or an exemption to access most nonessential services and venues.