The ACT's Police and Emergency Services Minister called on the federal government to condemn "extremist" anti-vaccination protesters twice, but was brushed off despite comparing the risk of the groups to terrorist organisations.
The director-general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation also advised the emergency management committee of the ACT's cabinet the extremist groups linked to the anti-vaccination mandate protests posed a "substantial threat to national security", correspondence obtained by the Sunday Canberra Times has revealed.
Mick Gentleman wrote to the federal Home Affairs and Territories Ministers, as well as Attorney-General Michaelia Cash, on January 10, calling for the Commonwealth to denounce and call out "extremist groups" that spread conspiracy theories regarding COVID-19 and other vaccinations in an effort to prevent a build-up of protest activity before Australia Day.
"Failure to do this only emboldens their [the protesters'] actions, assists in their growth and places the nation's capital at risk," Mr Gentleman wrote.
"It is crucial the Commonwealth government, including the Prime Minister, condemn extremist groups and do more publicly to stop their misinformation and [the] threat to national security."
Mr Gentleman's calls came before Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he understood the concerns of the protesters but the issue of vaccine mandates was a state responsibility.
In its advice to the ACT, ASIO likened the threat posed by the extremist groups linked to the protests as similar to terrorist groups, the letters show.
Home Affairs Minister Karen Andrews first wrote back on January 14, advising Mr Gentleman the Commonwealth had publicly denounced the criminal activity at Old Parliament House. Protesters lit a fire which significantly damaged the heritage registered building's portico in December.
"The Commonwealth government is committed to upholding the rule of law and safeguarding Australia's long-cherished democratic processes, traditions and institutions," Ms Andrews' letter said.
But Mr Gentleman wrote again, calling on the Commonwealth to specifically denounce the extremist elements of the protest groups.
"The failure to condemn the extremists' groups such as those spreading misinformation regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and sovereign citizens has now directly led to Canberrans being harmed," Mr Gentleman wrote on February 7.
"My earlier correspondence foreshadowed the risk to the national capital if the Commonwealth government failed to act. The current gathering of these extremist groups in Canberra is unlikely to have occurred had the Prime Minister, his ministers, and members of his government called out these groups and made more effort to tackle their misinformation.
"Instead, it appears since my correspondence, members of the Commonwealth government have encouraged these groups and participated in their activities in the national capital."
Government senators Gerard Rennick and Alex Antic, along with north Queensland MP George Christensen, all publicly backed a national convoy to Canberra in protest against mandatory vaccinations.
First Nations leaders and the long-standing Aboriginal Tent Embassy condemned the protests outside Old Parliament House, that sought to draw a link between Indigenous land rights and the right to refuse mandatory vaccinations.
Weeks of tensions culminated in police moving in to remove tents and other structures at a camp of protesters on January 14.
The group had expressed ties to the sovereign citizen movement, with members saying they do not recognise authorities and often asserting that police had "no jurisdiction" over them.
Sovereign citizens, which have been considered a domestic terror threat, believe laws do not apply to them.
Protesters had declared on social media that they planned to "storm" Old Parliament House, and had called for supporters to come and support them in Canberra, in an effort to "evict" the Australian government and establish a so-called "people's council".
A larger group of so-called freedom protesters began to gather in Canberra following that camp's removal. The new group made false claims and spread conspiracy theories about COVID-19 vaccinations.
Around 10,000 protesters descended on Parliament House on Saturday, February 12, with many of them camped at Exhibition Park. Police helped clear the showground after a fortnight of anti-vaccination mandate protests in the capital.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he "understood" the protesters' concern about the issue of COVID-19 vaccination mandates, but it was really a matter for the states.
"My message to them ... is Australia's a free country and they have the right to protest, and I would ask them to do that in a peaceful way and in a respectful way. I would ask them to respect the directions that are being provided by the Australian Federal Police there in ACT and they're doing their job. And those who are protesting today are speaking up for the things they feel strongly about," Mr Morrison said on February 12 at a press conference in Port Hacking, NSW.
Mr Morrison said Australia was a free country and the protesters had a right to express their views.
"I would ask them to do it with respect to their fellow Australians, particularly to the federal police who are there, simply to make sure that it's a safe environment for everybody and to ensure that they comply with all lawful directions that have been provided to them," he said.
Mr Morrison's comments came less than a week after Mr Gentleman reiterated to the federal government the need for authorities to condemn the protests, which had been identified as as security risk.
"The current gathering and their activity in Canberra is a direct result of extremist groups radicalising Australians. I once again ask the Commonwealth Government to urgently denounce and call-out extremist groups and provide funding to counter their rise," Mr Gentleman had told the Home Affairs Minister, Ms Andrews, on February 7.
On February 8, Ms Andrews said she had confidence the taskforce led by the Australian Federal Police would identify protesters responsible for the fire at Old Parliament House.
"In response to the Convoy to Canberra protests, the AFP has deployed additional resources to support ACT Policing keep the community safe," Ms Andrews wrote.
"Additional AFP resources have been deployed to assist ACT Policing respond, including to maintain public order during the protest at the National Press Club on 1 February and supporting the removal of illegal campers from the Patrick White Lawns on 4 February.
"The AFP is drawing on all its resources to support ACT Policing prevent further violent protests, including increased presence within the Parliamentary precinct."
Police said this week they expected protesters would ramp up their activities to focus on the budget sittings of Federal Parliament. Some protesters have remained camped in smaller groups in the region.
ACT chief police officer Neil Gaughan this week confirmed that his operational resources were being prepared for the anti-vaccine-mandate and sovereign citizen protesters to return, adding that the Canberra public could reasonably expect disruptions from next month.
ACT Chief Minister Andrew Barr has said the territory government has little power to prevent the protesters congregating in the ACT.
"Often there are no good solutions available to these types of issues, only least-worst ones. For now, most have gone home," he said.
Mr Barr said the ACT did not have a political test for people seeking places to stay in the territory, and the government would struggle to define who was part of the so-called movement that led to wide-scale and disruptive protests in Canberra at the weekend.
"I understand that a lot of people didn't like some of the people who were here, but that's not a legal basis in which to deny access to accommodation facilities," he said on February 14.
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