But that unity has begun to fray. As states lift restrictions and life returns to normal for the almost 90 percent of eligible Australians who are fully vaccinated, the holdouts find themselves barred from cafes, bars, restaurants, gyms, pools and other nonessential venues. A small but highly visible anti-vaccine movement routinely shuts down city centers with protests, some of which have turned violent, and has trained its anger on politicians who have supported vaccine mandates.
While only a handful of people have been arrested for threats against lawmakers, experts say the incidents underline growing polarization.
“At the beginning of the pandemic there was a sense that the nation was pulling together as one to face off against a common challenge,” said Michele Grossman, an expert in violent extremism at Deakin University. “All that is gone now.”
Judith Brett, professor of Australian politics and history at La Trobe University, said she could not recall previous protests with “this level of anger and violence.”
In the wake of the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and the October killing of a member of the British Parliament, the threats have rattled Australian politicians and led authorities to increase their protection.
It’s a stark change from a year ago, when Australia appeared to have quashed the virus and vaccinations were still months away. “There was political solidarity as well as community solidarity,” Grossman said.
Both began to crumble this year as much of the country endured months-long lockdowns amid an outbreak of the delta variant. State leaders took swipes at one another over their responses, and anti-lockdown protests drew thousands to downtown Sydney and Melbourne.
Instead of fizzling out as vaccination rates soared and states lifted lockdowns, the protests have continued and, at times, grown more menacing.
In Melbourne, where Victoria state’s premier, Daniel Andrews, has pushed for pandemic legislation to replace expiring emergency orders, protesters have compared him to Hitler and hanged him in effigy. One man was recently arrested after encouraging protesters to bring guns and shoot the premier.
A lawmaker leading talks on the legislation said she received 70,000 emails, including death and rape threats. Another got an envelope containing a used condom and a note to “enjoy” a sexually transmitted disease.
Some threats have had a “performative” aspect that reflects social media’s influence, Grossman said, citing nooses and gallows that echo the U.S. Capitol attack.
“It just seems to be imported from America,” Brett said. “There was somebody holding a sign up [at an Australian protest] saying ‘Defend the 14th Amendment.’ ”
Australia’s covid restrictions, meanwhile, have become the target of conservative American pundits, forming an international far-right feedback loop.
Some of the anger in Australia appears rooted in fears that it is becoming a two-tier society, as states open up — but only for the vaccinated.
In Sydney and its state of New South Wales, the unvaccinated are banned from many venues until Dec. 15. In Victoria, the exclusions apply for the foreseeable future. This week, a Melbourne cafe owner had a brick thrown through his window for following state law and allowing in only vaccinated patrons.
“The move to a two-speed opening-up — if you’re fully vaccinated you’ll have access to certain things — has created a sense of grievance among those who choose to remain unvaccinated,” Grossman said. “We are coming out of the covid pandemic and yet to some extent the levels of rage, resentment and frustration among this group have never been higher.”
In states that have had few infections and no lengthy lockdowns, such as Queensland and Tasmania, the unvaccinated will nonetheless be shut out of nonessential shops later this month.
And in Western Australia, which has been almost untouched by the pandemic, Premier Mark McGowan has said roughly 75 percent of all workers must be fully vaccinated by Jan. 31 or face firing. Two young men were recently arrested after threatening to behead the premier over the mandate.
“It’s the sort of stuff that Islamic fundamentalists do,” McGowan said of the threats, which led him and his family to consider moving. “It’s not the Australian way.”
Shanna Hicks’s home dreadlocks business doesn’t appear to fall under McGowan’s mandate. But the 35-year-old, who lives in Karratha in the state’s north, said she would sooner stop working than get the shots. Hicks condemned the threats against politicians and lamented that they had distracted from peaceful anti-
vaccine protests. But she also bristled at Western Australia’s plan to boost vaccinations with a door-to-door drive in areas with low immunization rates, such as hers.
“It makes me angry to think that somebody might knock on my door and try to vaccinate me or my son,” she said of her newborn, though only children 12 and older are currently eligible for the shots. “Not just angry, it makes me wild.”
With a federal election early next year, some politicians have courted the anti-vaccine vote by calling for a law against vaccine mandates. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has walked a fine line, saying he is against such a law but also that it is time for governments to “step back and for Australians to take their lives back.”
When the far-right One Nation party introduced anti-mandate legislation last month, Sen. Jacqui Lambie, an independent, delivered a fiery defense of vaccines. A One Nation senator shared Lambie’s cellphone number on Facebook and the threats started to pour in. “It was just constant ‘No Caller IDs’ coming through,” Lambie said in an interview. “Then the office started getting calls as well, and my staff got abused.” One expletive-laced text message warned the politician from Tasmania that her “time was coming.”
She likened the pandemic to a war in which most Australians had done their part by getting vaccinated but a small minority had gone AWOL. And she warned that the situation could get worse in the coming weeks as more states — including hers — impose restrictions on the unvaccinated.
“Maybe some Christmas cheer will calm things down,” she said, “but I’m not sure.”
Vinall reported from Melbourne.