RMIT SPECIAL FEATURE: far right councils: By RMIT Students Tiarna Condren, Eliza Freeman, Declan Bailey, Jack O’Shea-Ayres

    If you’ve tried to attend a local council meeting in the western suburbs recently you may have noticed that access is not as easy as it used to be. There are more security guards for a start, you might have to register to attend or ask a question, and in some cases you might not be able to attend in person.

    These extra security measures have been adopted by councils to quell a growing number of rowdy protestors angered by council decisions across a range of issues.
    Earlier this year protesters incensed by a proposed public toilet policy, which includes plans for gender neutral toilets, resulted in the Hobsons Bay City Council (HBCC) increasing security guards, installing floodlights, and checking IDs as residents entered the building.

    Over at Brimbank some Council meetings have been abandoned altogether following disruptions from a small group holding ‘Vote No’ in the referendum signs, seemingly angered by moves to change the date of Australia Day Citizenship ceremonies.

    This issue isn’t confined to the western suburbs. The Municipal Association of Victoria (MAV) says that at least 15 different councils across Victoria have faced disruptive protests, leading them to add security personnel, move online, ticket meetings or cancel meetings entirely for the safety of the councillors.

    Many of these protests included threats of violence and were in opposition to planned LGBTIQA+ events. Groups targeting local councils often present themselves as ‘concerned citizens’, a cloak also adopted by conspiracy groups, and far-right agitators.

    A recent parliamentary inquiry into rise of extremism in Victoria provides some valuable insights into the rise of conspiracy groups and the far-right. It explores various aspects of extremism including ideological motivations, recruitment strategies, and the implications for community safety, with one of the key takeaways being the urgent need for proactive measures.

    The inquiry found that far-right groups operating in Victoria adopt a dialogue which focuses on nationalism, but target local politics, seeking to exploit local issues in order to be heard.

    These groups, though diverse in their ideologies, often share an inherent hostility towards liberal democracy. They encompass neo-Nazis and proto-fascists as well as the radical right which is focused on nationalism and anti-immigration.

    Associate Professor of Politics at Deakin University, Josh Roose says ‘what we’re seeing globally is a push to target what is considered the softer underbelly of democracy.’

    He says local groups like My Place take this ‘straight out of the playbook of fringe actors in the US’ where municipal councils, school boards, and other local grassroots levels of democracy are being targeted by far-right activists.

    The fringe conspiracy network My Place has made headlines for its disruptive tactics, garnering notoriety for brazen attempts to silence democratic proceedings in outer suburban municipalities throughout Victoria. A report by The Age (April 22, 2023) has found that some members of the group espouse a range of bizarre conspiracy theories.

    Operating with an agenda that is at odds with its alleged principles of inclusivity and diversity, this group has brought its divisive ideology into the heart of local governance.

    ‘It’s very clear from the dissemination of their material, you’ve got far-right actors, you’ve got a variety of religious groups.’ says Roose. And they’ve grown in numbers since the pandemic.

    ‘We’ve seen a resurgence, a real growth of various movements. The “freedom movement” has evolved and morphed into a more, I suppose, fluid group consisting of a number of different actors who come together and converge,’ he says.

    Local Brimbank resident and My Place member ​Anastasia Kalaitzidis said she joined the group after regularly meeting with members for coffee in one of Brimbank’s local parks.

    ‘I met all of these wonderful people because during the lockdown we used to catch up in the Brimbank park, just for a coffee, or go for a walk and we blossomed some friendships there,’ she said.

    After joining, Ms Kalaitzidis said conversations about their local councils evolved into the group’s goals and objectives.

    ‘These governments have been doing this and this and well, let’s do something about it,’ she said.
    ‘There are quite a few in the group that know a lot about the councils. They just try and say, if you are the council, where is your coat of arms? And they don’t answer. We just want answers, they are corrupt.’

    The disruptive tactics of these groups underscore the pressing need for a concerted effort to safeguard democratic values at a local level. They risk eroding the very foundations of Australia’s democratic system making it harder for groups with legitimate concerns to be heard.

    Recently, residents from Williamstown’s Techno Park Drive community were handed eviction notices by the Hobsons Bay City Council. Fearful of being left homeless they organised a peaceful protest at Council chambers but were denied entry to the Council meeting after it was moved online at the last minute due to alleged safety concerns.

    In response to questions about safety measures at HBCC, Mayor Tony Briffa said ‘we regularly review and refine our security processes and procedures to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our Councillors, employees and community.’

    But some residents say it’s overkill and are concerned about where the funds for these security measures are coming from.

    Avid council meeting attendees Philip and Kaylene O’Shea say there has never been the slightest hint of an unruly council meeting at HBCC. Ms O’Shea says there is a ‘lack of transparency on multiple levels’ and despite asking the Council how much it costs, she was not given an answer and was instead directed to the CEO reports where there is no direct financial breakdown. She says the Council uses these disruptions as an excuse to hide from criticism and says it has a history of trying to ignore residents.

    Mayor Tony Briffa is an administrator of the Altona & Seaholme Residents 3018 (Altona Meadows, Altona North & Brooklyn) Facebook page, where local residents voice opinions and share community events.

    Phillip O’Shea says when there was opposition to parking metres a few months ago, the page was ‘running hot’ with opinions and ‘people were just getting chucked off the website left, right, and centre’.

    ‘We know literally dozens of people who have been blocked,’ he says.

    In a counter move, community members created a similar Facebook page to voice concerns about the current council and their actions. One resident wrote, ‘I hope people realise the conflict of interest when a councillor who administers a community page controls the discourse and blocks people whose opinions they don’t like and disagree with.’

    About one third of questions submitted to Hobsons Bay City Council last month were concerned with communications between council and ratepayers, and diminishing public access to council meetings.

    Professor Roose says that local councils in the western suburbs are doing the best with the resources they have available, but it isn’t sustainable.

    ‘It’s not sustainable in the long term and it can feed into the narratives of an unaccountable government. But it’s also important to acknowledge that the councils are dealing with not just the peaceful protestors but people who are making threats, seeking to intimidate and to disrupt,’ he said.

    In response to these developments, Victoria Police have increased their efforts to monitor and counteract the activities of extremist groups through the monitoring of online networks and the use of artificial intelligence to predict their movements.

    The Inquiry into Extremism in Victoria also serves as a long-needed and crucial step toward addressing this challenge, offering insights and recommendations to guide a response.

    RMIT special feature
    RMIT special feature
    RMIT journalism students investigate important issues for the west.

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