Scott Morrison has sought to defend government MP George Christensen for anti-lockdown activism in Queensland, stating Australians have “free speech” and can attend rallies where public health orders allow, while condemning rally-goers in Sydney as “selfish”.
In addition to attending a lawful rally in Mackay, Christensen has appeared to endorse the rally in locked-down Melbourne, arguing on social media that civil disobedience was “moral” and “the only response to laws that restrict freedom”.
Christensen is one of a number of rightwing politicians seeking to capitalise on social unrest generated by lockdowns responding to the Delta strain outbreak 18 months into the global Covid-19 pandemic and months before the entire Australian population will be offered a vaccine by the end of 2021.
Former Liberal MP turned independent, Craig Kelly, addressed the Brisbane protest, which did not breach health orders, by telephone while One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts recorded a video message blasting the social impacts of lockdowns.
Liberal Democrat candidate, John Ruddick, filmed himself at the unlawful Sydney rally, later boasting on social media he had been fined $1,000 for his attendance.
The rallies have been promoted by Reignite Democracy Australia, a group that shot to prominence during Victoria’s second wave lockdown for its anti-mask mandate and anti-lockdown stance.
On Saturday, Christensen invited “freedom lovers” to attend in Mackay, later posting images of himself at the rally and addressing a crowd he claimed numbered “more than 200”.
Christensen posted footage of the Sydney rally with the caption: “Looks like thousands upon thousands of Sydneysiders are protesting against the removal of freedoms under the guise of the pandemic.”
In a separate post, he said “civil disobedience eventually becomes the only response to laws that restrict freedom”. “This is what we’ve seen in Melbourne today.”
That post also included an image quoting Martin Luther King that “one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws”.
Morrison told reporters in Canberra that rallies in Sydney and other locked down cities were “selfish” and “self-defeating” because it “won’t end the lockdown sooner”. “It will only risk the lockdowns running further.”
Morrison accused people who attended the rally in Sydney of “putting themselves at risk, those around them at risk, particularly the police at risk”.
Asked about Christensen, Morrison said that “as for other parts of the country that aren’t in lockdown, well, there’s such a thing as free speech”.
“And I’m not about to be imposing those sort of restrictions on people’s free speech. In Queensland, there are no lockdowns.”
Morrison said the rally attended by Christensen was “very different” to the one in Sydney and it “would not be accurate” to compare them.
When Morrison’s attention was drawn to Christensen’s comments about civil disobedience, he added: “I don’t support any suggestion that people should gather like they did in Sydney yesterday, whatsoever.”
Kelly told Guardian Australia he was working in his office in Sutherland, south Sydney, all day but “did address the protest in Brisbane via telephone”.
Kelly said that NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian was responsible for the Sydney protest because she had “arrogantly taken away people’s freedom to earn a living, even in open-air building sites, without any evidence that this will achieve anything”, despite the health advice backing lockdowns as a way to prevent coronavirus spread and further deaths.
“When they parrot on about denying people their freedom to earn a living until some time to October – it’s a wonder that a million people didn’t take to the streets,” Kelly said.
Ruddick, a longtime Liberal member who is now running for the Liberal Democrats in Warringah, posted a video of himself at the Sydney rally suggesting he hopes that it will triple in size next week.
On Sunday morning Ruddick posted that he had been fined $1,000 for his attendance:
In an email on Saturday evening the Liberal Democrats urged its supporters to “help us grow the anti-lockdown movement”.
The email, by policy officer Rob Cribb, said state governments “seem to have no interest in rewinding the lockdown laws or travel restrictions”. “These are continued human right abuses.”
“The next step should be the unification of a group that believes in freedom of fear; of private property over socialism; and of voluntary interaction over coercion.”
Ruddick told Guardian Australia the Liberal Democrats had “nothing to do” with organising what he acknowledged was an “illegal rally” in Sydney.
Ruddick said he had attended after learning about the rally on Friday, and intended to keep his distance until he saw the police were allowing the protest.
“I was a normal citizen in the rally. I made a video and said ‘let’s triple it’ – but I said that when I assumed police were fine with it. I retract that, I don’t think there will be another.”
Ruddick argued zero Covid is an “impossibility” so Australia should give up on lockdowns. “We have to choose the least worst option – one is to keep persisting in growing $1.2tn of debt, smashing small business and increasing social tension, or we just deal with it.”
In his recorded video message, Roberts accused state governments of “locking people up even when they’re healthy and creating a mental health catastrophe for generations” and “arresting protesters fighting for our freedom”.
In response to Berejiklian urging people to report anyone who may have attended the rally, Roberts said this was “one of most unAustralian things of all – asking us to become dobbers to turn in dissenters who are standing against the regime of oppression”.
Guardian Australia contacted Christensen for comment.