Conspiracist disruptions to local council meetings must be dealt with quickly

Save articles for later

Add articles to your saved list and come back to them any time.

That most accessible level of government, the local council, is a humble yet vital forum for community debate on grassroots issues that affect us on a micro level. This year we’ve seen residents fighting to stop a basketball arena being built on parkland in Yarraville, a demonstration against a new bin charge in the City of Yarra and a 784-signature petition to Hobsons Bay council calling for an expensive swimming pool planned for Altona Meadows to be scrapped: all par for the course.

What we saw on Wednesday night at the City of Monash was something entirely different. A crowd of some 190 converged on the council meeting largely to clamour about an upcoming community drag queen event, calling councillors “paedophiles” and demanding they be arrested for promoting “sex in front of our children”. This crossed the line between peaceful protest and intimidation: behaviour that was both unacceptable and part of what has emerged as a worrying trend.

Police guard the Monash council offices ahead of Wednesday night’s meeting.Credit: Paul Jeffers

As The Age has reported, multiple councils have in recent months been targeted by groups associated with fringe online forums such as My Place and Reignite Democracy Australia, which dabble in a grab-bag of conspiracy theories involving 5G, lockdowns, gender issues, government surveillance and the so-called sovereign citizen movement.

The City of Casey, in Melbourne’s south-east, cancelled a drag queen event following threats; Yarra Ranges Council closed its public gallery after meetings were disrupted by questions about 5G phone towers and “15-minute cities” (a theory that claims planning laws aimed at making local neighbourhoods more amenable will be used to set up open-air prison camps); Knox and Whittlesea councils have heard from residents who seem to sincerely believe they are the victims of 5G “radiation poisoning” and fear council-organised “lockdowns”.

Whatever their genesis, these protests are interfering in the everyday business of local democracy, a major concern, and probably emboldening their organisers.

Yarra Ranges is within its rights to close its public gallery if it believes some residents – or likely ring-ins – are being deliberately disruptive or pose a threat to its councillors; Monash is to be commended for standing up to the mob. But neither action is a sustainable solution: councils must find a way to continue to operate transparently and openly, accountable and accessible to their community, without threat of violence or abuse.

All citizens should have the right to air their views in a public chamber – if they do so in a manner that is civil, respectful and allows others the same privilege. Perhaps some protesters have lost the ability to differentiate between what passes for “acceptable” behaviour online – where horrific threats are commonplace – and in real life. We saw disturbing aspects of this, of course, in Melbourne’s lockdown protests and more recently when groups associated with white supremacy performed a Nazi salute at an anti-trans-rights rally on the steps of parliament.

People have a right to protest peacefully, but there is no place for thugs in what should be the “safe space” of a local council chamber.

A fix will be tricky, yet the best minds in law enforcement and policy can surely develop a co-ordinated strategy. It might be as simple as pre-registration to attend meetings or limiting attendance to bona fide locals; it would be disappointing and expensive if security and police attendance emerges as the solution.

Most of all, we all, as citizens, must stop looking the other way and treating these protesters as a mild embarrassment who, we hope, will just go away. We must all make it clear to those around us, in real life or in online forums, that violence, intimidation and abuse will not be tolerated in our community. For the longer we leave these stains untouched, the harder they will be to remove.

Patrick Elligett sends an exclusive newsletter to subscribers each week. Sign up to receive his Note from the Editor.

Most Viewed in National

From our partners

Source: Read Full Article