"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."
This month'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. In combination with the civil unrest - increasingly violent - seen in those same societies arising from government responses to COVID-19, we are left to ask whether there is a generally growing threat to democracy and national resilience.
Recently, Australia saw 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. Mr Gunner's family were forced to flee, after their address was given out at an anti-vaccination protest. Meanwhile, groups were 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 eased restrictions, a majority of Australians breathe a sigh of relief. But at the same time, there is an expanding divide between the returned freedoms of the vaccinated and those of the unvaccinated. The implied, or overt, threats of "no jab, no shop", "no jab, no meal", "no jab no travel", and even "no jab, no job", risk creating a societal sub-class. What might be the consequences for our social cohesion of such an outcome? Certainly, such circumstances risk providing a fertile ground for discontent, disaffection and opportunities to seed and grow extremism.
Australian leaders need to consider this risk in parallel with the national COVID-19 strategy, to address the fractured elements of social cohesion.
The NT's most recent anti-vaccine 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 being branded as "enemies", and being targeted and sometimes threatened by those with differing views, is becoming disturbingly common. The recent UK tragedy is not the first time extremists have murdered politicians.
Although COVID-19 protesters within Australia do not represent the majority of our citizens, and whilst protesters appear to have varying grievances (some are anti-vaccination, others are 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 a more insidious frustration and anger in many 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 have 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 focusing on the single factor of COVID-19.
As federal and state governments develop, implement and enforce post-COVID policy, the cracks in Australia's social cohesion risk remaining unpatched and unattended to.
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 "second-class citizen" status for the unvaccinated in the 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, Opposition Leader Keir Starmer articulates a lesson for Australia: "Of course, our differences matter - after all, that is what democracy is about - but today we are reminded that what we have in common matters far more."
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