The protests against the Bendigo mosque were the most grassroots, enthusiastic and highest-attended right-of-centre street movement in Australia this century. They mobilised thousands of normally apolitical ordinary Australians. And yet the mosque is still being built. What happened? What went wrong? Why did the Bendigo mosque protests fail?
Daniel Andrews, the Age, the Guardian, the Bendigo Advertiser and much of the rest of the leftist establishment have in recent months been loudly celebrating the beginning of construction on the city of Bendigo’s first mosque.
Their joy has been almost gloating in tone, and perhaps justifiably so. This project had to overcome an unprecedented grassroots backlash including some of the largest Australian right-wing protests seen this century.
So as Dopey Dan minces around his victory lap, awarding himself pay rises, it’s time for all those on the right-thinking side of politics to ask ourselves: why did the Bendigo mosque protests fail? What went wrong? What could be done better next time?
So what happened? The background to the Protests
The Bendigo mosque protests of mid-to-late 2015 grew out of the momentum of the Reclaim Australia movement. Reclaim held rallies around Australia protesting a variety of issues including Halal certification and Islamic immigration. Many were mobilised by the atrocities of the Islamic State caliphate in the Middle East or, closer to home, the Lindt Café siege in Sydney in 2014.
Reclaim Australia’s first event, held on April 5th 2015, hit the consciousness of Australia like a lightning bolt out of the blue. In a dozen cities and towns, Reclaim gathered thousands of protesters waving Australian flags.
Speakers at these rallies included relatively mainstream right-wing figures such as Danny Nalliah, Pauline Hanson and LNP MP George Christensen. The extreme left organised counter-events but in all cities bar one, they were ludicrously outnumbered.
That one city, of course, was Melbourne.
In Melbourne, the “No Room for Racism” group organised to occupy the intended demonstration site of Federation Square before the “Reclaimers” could arrive. “No Room for Racism” was an initiative of the Socialist Party, a Trotskyist group then led by long-term Marxist activist and Yarra Councillor Stephen Jolly.
The Socialist Party was a relatively small left-wing extremist group but used the prestige it had gained in organising the successful campaign to block the proposed East-West link project to take a leading role in organising the counter-protest.
Police allowed them to block the entrances to the raised platform where a few hundred patriots had set up, thus trapping the patriots and dividing the Reclaim rally.
The left-wing extremists then attacked and physically blocked the rally attendees who were arriving in ones and twos, hurled manure from police horses at them, threw elderly attendees to the ground and stole Australian flags which they then burnt on video.
The contrast between the two groups could not have been clearer. Flag-burning Australia-haters attacking Australian patriots and burning their flags in the centre of Australia’s second city.
This event and other violent protests around the country continued in July as the Australian extreme left tried to make up for its embarrassment at being outnumbered at the April events. They stepped up the violence of their attacks.
This formed the backdrop to the first Bendigo mosque protest in August. The extreme left was pissed off. I was watching some of their private messaging groups at the time and there was a palpable atmosphere of fear around the fact that a street movement had come from absolutely nowhere to challenge their presumed predominance on the Australian pavement.
They were especially enraged when Channel 7 gave a fair interview to the founders of Reclaim Australia. The Anarchists and Marxists of the extreme left rely on being able to paint their opponents as nefarious neo-Nazis to maintain both the moral high ground amongst their supporters and the sympathy of the wider Australian public.
It’s difficult to maintain the image of your enemies as evil jackbooted skinheads when they’re allowed to go on TV and the world sees that they are nothing more than ordinary concerned mums and dads.
Meanwhile, in Bendigo (a city of 110,000 people in Victoria’s inner north-west), the building of a proposed mosque in a town with very few permanent Muslim residents was causing a distinct fuss.
The project had been plagued with difficulties unrelated to community opposition. The project coordinators, in particular, had issues raising enough cash for a large mosque all out of proportion to the size of their local faith community.
Unlike neighbouring Shepparton which has a large and well-established Islamic community, Bendigo does not. An estimated 20% of the already small community was made up of transitory students at the local university campus. Another 10% of the city’s Muslims are Shia and probably wouldn’t be welcome or comfortable at a Sunni mosque. Most estimates put the number of the entire faith community at only 300 at most.
Why the leaders of Bendigo’s Muslims had decided to build a mosque with a planned capacity almost twice as large as the amount of Muslims actually living permanently in Bendigo seems to have been a puzzle not only to locals but to potential Islamic donors as well.
When news of the mosque proposal became public in early 2014, local community opposition sprung up immediately. Unknown activists began tying black balloons to fences outside the houses of public supporters of the mosque.
Targets for these balloons included Bendigo councillors who had voiced their support for the project and the offices of the pro-mosque Bendigo Advertiser.
On social media, the anger against those politicians and journalists perceived to have betrayed their fellow citizens by pushing through the proposal without proper consultation was clear.
Local opposition coalesced around three local women: Julie Hoskin, Monika Evers and local councillor Elise Chapman, who became the voice of the many Bendigo residents furious at Mayor Peter Cox for forcing through a project without even asking the wider community if it was wanted.
In May 2014, the Islam-critical group “Q Society”, held an organising meeting in Bendigo to help mobilise people against the mosque. Almost 200 locals attended and heard a speech given via video link with UK lawyer and noted mosque construction opponent Gavin Boby.
The locals made an appeal to outside support for their campaign and wider Australia slowly began to take notice. Former One Nation candidate Mike Holt helped to co-ordinate fundraising after the Bendigo Bank shut down the accounts of mosque opponents. People around Australia began to follow the story.
In May of 2014, Bendigo council cancelled the community consultation session that would normally happen for a project this size, stating that it had decided against holding a forum in this case because it felt meaningful mediation was impossible.
When Bendigo council met on June 18th 2014, the council chamber was packed with hundreds of locals enraged by what they saw as the betrayal of their town. They jeered the councillors and in particular singled out mosque champion Councillor Mark Weragoda, playing the Islamic call to prayer from a loudspeaker to drown him out whenever he rose to speak.
Over 435 official objections to the mosque project were submitted. Nearly all of them by Bendigo residents. There were more official objections than there were Muslim residents in Bendigo.
Despite this genuine show of grassroots anger, all the councillors bar two voted to approve the mosque, with only Elise Chapman and Helen Leach opposed. The council was publicly congratulated for “staring down intolerance” by the state MP for Bendigo East, Jacinta Allen.
Then Planning and Multicultural Affairs Minister and future Victorian Liberal Party opposition leader, Matthew Guy, backed the council’s decision and criticised the conduct of those opposing the mosque.
Julie Hoskin appealed the decision in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal. In his ruling in August 2015, VCAT president Justice Greg Garde found against Hopkins and for the mosque, declaring that there was no evidence of any significant social or other effects to the community of the mosque being built.
In response, mosque opponents began to organise a rally for August 29th 2015. Many of those from outside Bendigo who had been involved in the Reclaim Australia events were inspired by the cause and decided to travel to show their support. Equally inspired were the extreme left which had bounced back from its humiliation at the first Reclaim Australia rally and was now attacking Reclaimer and related “patriot” events in every major city (and especially in Melbourne).
On the day of the 29th, an estimated 500 mosque opponents waving Australian flags marched into the centre of Bendigo, chanting slogans against the mosque. In the largest police operation outside of Melbourne in decades, 350 officers separated the protesters from a much smaller rally of far-left extremists and mosque supporters numbering at most 250.
The far-leftist nightmare had taken flesh yet again; a group of people who take almost all of their perceived power and influence from their ability to project intimidation through numbers on the streets were outnumbered and bettered at their own game, protected by the police they hate from the people they had travelled up the highway from Melbourne to attack.
They were angry, attacking mosque opponents in backstreets, throwing pot plants and rocks and in masked gangs assaulting the objects of their hatred wherever they could sneak around police lines.
The leftists snarled their hate, tried to spit it at their tormentors who continued to torture them by obstinately existing. Then one of their number decided to display an individual symbolic act representing their collective bile. She climbed a lamppost to publicly burn an Australian flag in view of the patriot crowd watching from the other side of the police lines.
The response was immediate, the patriots charged the police lines and briefly burst through. Most of the leftists shrank back in fear with the few remaining being battered by the people they had only recently been taunting, before everyone involved was gifted a nice bath of capsicum spray by Victoria’s finest boys in blue.
The vision of this confrontation went viral around Australia. Almost every news bulletin had pictures of Australian flag-waving mosque opponents battling with black-masked leftist thugs. All of a sudden, the Bendigo mosque wasn’t a local issue anymore, but a national one. The question of whether residents have the right to oppose developments in their neighbourhoods and towns, and on what grounds they have a right to do so, was suddenly on the lips of the nation.
The momentum had shifted. Leftists both local and state-wide scrambled to explain away the Bendigo protests but it was undeniable that – despite the opinions of the mayor, a couple of local business owners, the media and the state Premier – the Bendigo mosque opponents had far more local support than the far-left extremists attacking them. It was during this period that recently elected ALP Premier Daniel Andrews attempted to falsely dismiss the opponents of the mosque as all being outsiders from the town, declaring that “They wouldn’t even be able to spell Bendigo” (thus enraging local mosque opponents and dyslexics alike).
In October 2015, the mosque opponents held their second rally. This time the sea of Australian flags was even more impressive, with up to 1,000 attendees of all backgrounds packing the area around the cupola in Rosalind Park to express their opposition to the unwanted construction. The far left had shrunk in numbers to about 100.
Their poor showing at the first rally had taken the fun out of it for most of the black-masked cretins who had so enjoyed attacking Reclaimers and police in Melbourne. The big brave “revolutionaries” had discovered the eternal truth that hunting really isn’t as much fun when the rabbit has a gun.
Their numbers had diminished to the point where nearly all the people who actually showed up were members of the Trotskyist group Socialist Alternative (SAlt) as well as those sheep that SAlt had personally herded there.
The mosque protesters can’t take all the credit for the truly dismal turnout from the extreme left, however. The sectarian nature of Marxist and anarchist groups also had a part to play. During the period of time between the first Reclaim Australia rally and the October rally against the mosque, the “No Room for Racism” group had splintered and more or less died.
The Socialist Party for which “No Room for Racism” had been a front group had dissolved into splits and infighting. Their main figurehead Councillor Stephen Jolly ended up leaving the group he had founded three decades before, over allegations of a cover-up regarding a sexual harassment claim (somewhat ironically, as it later turned out).
They had in turn been replaced as the primary “anti-racism” front group by “Campaign Against Racism and Fascism”. CARF was a front group for the rival Trotskyist organisation SAlt, configured to leech support away from “No Room for Racism” and ultimately destroy it.
With the help of a few local leftists, SAlt set up “Bendigo Action Coalition”, a front for CARF which was in turn a front for SAlt. It’s a lot of acronyms, I know. That’s Marxists for you.
The third rally in February 2016 saw a significant decrease in the numbers protesting against the mosque, but the numbers of left-wing counter-protesters collapsed entirely. They could barely muster enough people to block a stretch of pavement, let alone the hundreds of patriots waving Australian flags and marching down the road. Their friends at the ABC declared that they had gathered 50 people to protest the protesters and even a cursory glance at the pictures of the event shows that to be absurdly generous.
The Victorian extreme left had run into the brick wall that would become even more evident at its later protest against Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern In Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs. Something had become clear that had been hidden for quite a long time.
The extreme left in Australia has all its infrastructure and activists oriented towards the centre of the capital cities. Their ability to project force and organise crowds once they get 30km or so outside the CBD is significantly reduced, and in regional areas to organise large protests they require an effort in man-hours and resources that they find very difficult to sustain over repeated events.
As street movements with negligible electoral support – their entire claim to relevance is their ability to physically shut down the meetings and events of people they dislike – this represents a significant chink in the extreme left’s armour. But it was to remain a weakness unexploited.
In amongst the joy of seeing the far-left bullies gloomily looking at their feet and participating in half-hearted chants while being protected by multiple lines of sniggering police was the disappointment that, at the February rally, the anti-mosque side had also lost numbers. While small protests continue to this day, that was to be the last major protest against the mosque. After the dust died down, the process of building continued unabated.
The once-promising embers of mass resistance drifted away like mist. The left had been humiliated, there was nothing to stop future protests pushing the issue deep into the home territory of those who had approved this development with so little concern for the feelings of locals in particular and Victorians in general. It was the verge of victory. So what happened?
The Bendigo protests had been fuelled by the momentum of the Reclaim Australia rallies. These had sprung almost spontaneously from genuine grassroots community concern about issues they felt had been deliberately ignored by those in power.
This terrified the far left. It’s difficult to illustrate how enraged and panicked they were when media outlets began reporting honestly on the average Aussie mums and dads who had started the protests. There’s a part of the extreme-left mentality that sees ordinary working-class people as objects buffeted on the winds of capital and history, only able to achieve agency via the benevolence of activists like themselves.
The reaction from anarchists and Trotskyists in Melbourne in particular to being almost outnumbered in their own stronghold was furious, even frenzied. This wasn’t a part of the plan. Things like that simply aren’t supposed to happen.
The spontaneous grassroots nature of the Bendigo and Reclaim protests was also part of what doomed it. The only people organised enough to try and ride such an unexpected tiger were themselves the echo of the Marxist and anarchist extremists they sought to oppose.
Arguably both phenomenons were doomed when a picture was taken of neo-Nazi Glenn Anderson wearing a Nazi T-shirt and marching happily alongside the members of the Reclaim Australia offshoot “United Patriots Front” at a rally in the inner Melbourne suburb of Richmond. It was splashed on the pages of the newspapers of the nation.
After that, the general deterioration in the movement was inevitable, with only the Bendigo mosque protests as an upward blip on an otherwise downward trajectory.
This highlights two issues that the right in Australia never seems to want to address.
Firstly, right-of-centre Australians hate neo-Nazism and find the sort of antisemitism that fuels American style “White Nationalism” to be confusing, off-putting, repulsive and irrelevant. It’s not a part of our culture, it’s not a part of our history and it doesn’t matter how much you try and meme it online, it never will be.
It seems strange to have to explain to people waving Australian flags that Australians are not and never will be Americans, but apparently it has to be done. It was immediately after that image of a swastika-bedecked man standing beside UPF marchers became public that the mainstream right-of-centre press, including commentators like Andrew Bolt (with his multitude of mainstream followers) began to turn away from Reclaim Australia and its derivatives like the plague.
Yes, the far left will always call everyone a Nazi because it’s in their interest to do so. Activists on the Australian right need to realise that they aren’t appealing to anarchists and Marxists and they aren’t appealing to the leftist journalists who help the left-wing extremists either; they’re appealing to the ordinary people of middle Australia, and those people hate Nazis.
Secondly, if you want a protest movement that can win the streets and, with them, the culture back from the extreme left that mob-attacks anyone to the right of Malcolm Turnbull, you have to have a well organised group of activists who can behave like the far left does.
The violent counter-protest to the Melbourne Reclaim Australia rally on April 5th was organised by a very small group of disciplined and motivated activists. The original group behind the “No Room for Racism” organisation had no more than 20 members, but each and every one of them was willing to organise fanatically and take advantage of any campaign to push their brand of politics.
That was what the Bendigo mosque protests needed. The UPF attempted to fill this void, but its ties to neo-Nazism as well as its disorganisation, personality clashes, online drama and lack of focus doomed this effort to failure.
As a prime example in the middle of the Bendigo protests, the UPF began a bizarre and ill-fated attempt to start its own political party. If those resources had been used to entrench the victories already achieved in Bendigo, who knows what would have been possible?
If, at the time of the first Reclaim rallies, there had been a dedicated group of activists – with no ties to the sort of outdated extremism average Australians find repulsive – ready to do the hard yards, perhaps the Bendigo mosque protests could have been the start of something much bigger.
We’ll never know. Instead, we get to see the picture of Daniel Andrews’s smirking face turning a shovel, the likes of which he’s clearly never handled in his entire working life, to begin the construction of yet another mosque in yet another town in Victoria.
Unless Australian patriots are willing to learn from the mistakes of the past, that is what the future looks like. A smirking Daniel Andrews, shovelling dirt on your face, forever.