SYDNEY - The introduction of vaccine mandates in Australia has prompted a fierce backlash, beginning with public protests which have spread to the federal Parliament where a group of vocal legislators from the ruling Liberal-National coalition has turned against its leader, Prime Minister Scott Morrison.
As rising vaccination rates in the country lead to the end of lockdowns and an easing of restrictions, states and businesses are introducing limitations on those who are unvaccinated. These include bans on visiting gyms, hairdressers, museums, libraries, non-essential shops, and other people's houses.
The moves initially prompted small public protests that attracted far-right activists, libertarians and conspiracy theorists. But the protests gradually grew, leading to demonstrations last Saturday that attracted tens of thousands of people across the country.
Opinion surveys in Australia have found that vaccine mandates have strong support. Australia's vaccination rates are soaring, with only a tiny minority of people refusing to be vaccinated. As at Wednesday, 92 per cent of eligible residents had received one dose and 86 per cent were fully vaccinated. These rates continue to climb.
But the rising displays of discontent against the mandates have spread to Canberra, where a group of disaffected Members of Parliament from the ruling coalition has taken the unusual step of voting against government policy.
On Monday (Nov 22), five of the 36 coalition MPs in the Senate, or Upper House, backed a controversial private Bill that would have banned vaccine mandates. The Bill, which was defeated, had been introduced by the One Nation party, which is led by right-wing firebrand Pauline Hanson.
Former Cabinet minister Matt Canavan, a National party MP who supported the One Nation bill, described the vaccine mandates as "unfair, cruel, unnecessary and unAustralian".
The rebellion continued on Wednesday when another coalition MP, Mr George Christensen, described restrictions on the unvaccinated as "medical apartheid". He compared states introducing such measures to totalitarian regimes led by "Stalin, Mao, Hitler, Pol Pot" and called on citizens to practise civil disobedience.
Several MPs have also threatened to stop voting for government legislation unless Mr Morrison overturns vaccine mandates.
The Prime Minister has played down the divisions in the coalition, saying the Liberal and National parties are "not run as an autocracy".
But some analysts say the growing protest movement is being fanned by rhetoric from MPs and could ultimately lead to violence.
Dr Josh Roose, a research fellow at Deakin University, said the protest movement was "grounded in anger and resentment", and was leading to divisions that could affect the outcome of the federal election to be held next year.
"We are seeing the pre-conditions for fringe politicians with extremist views to be elected and hold the balance of power in Parliament, by doing or saying whatever it takes to hold that power," he wrote on The Conversation website.
"If developments in the United States are any measure, Australian democracy is facing one of the greatest threats it has ever known."