FREMANTLE council has firmly rejected calls to declare itself a mandate-free zone during a meeting which had to be briefly adjourned when rowdy protestors pounded windows and abused councillors.
A crowd of around 800 gathered peacefully in Walyalup Koort before the council meeting and sat patiently as a two-hour question time, focused primarily on Covid vaccines, was beamed out through speakers.
But many arced up when councillor Ben Lawver bluntly told them organisers had misled them into thinking the council could intervene in state decisions. Following the vote they pounded the windows facing the council chamber while shouting “shame”, some eyeballing councillors while making threatening hand gestures.
Cr Lawver told the Herald he later received profanity-laced threats.
“You need to be deported you f…ing uneducated piece of s..t. How the f..k can you actually stand up and call yourself an Australian. Your own country probably f…d you off because your [sic] a f…ing collabirator [sic],” one of the messages read.
“I was more than happy to listen to the speakers and am glad Freo is a place where people feel comfortable expressing their views,” the American-born Cr Lawver said.
“But because of how I voted threats to myself have already started coming in.”
Around 35 people spoke during an extended question time, including those convinced Covid vaccines are ineffective
or dangerous, others who’d lost jobs due to the McGowan government’s strict mandates, several who were convinced their health backgrounds warranted jab exemptions but had been rejected, and business owners facing closure. Pro-vaccine supporters said it was clear the jab saved lives, with some urging the council to protect them in their workplace from unvaccinated customers so they wouldn’t catch Covid themselves or pass it on to more vulnerable family members.
A woman identified as Zala said she had been a general inspector with the RSPCA until December 31 when the first job mandates were implemented in WA, but she’d previously been a police officer for 12 years, working the front line and attending “unimaginable scenes”.
“I’ve worked frantically to save a dying baby … I’ve stood with animals who took their last breath … I’ve been assaulted and abused and now I’ve been discarded like a piece of trash,” she told the chamber.
She claimed to have known two police officers who took their own lives over the mandates, while her own partner had sacrificed his career over his opposition to mandates.
Fran Posney, widow of former council community services director Ken Posney, said she was glad he hadn’t lived to see Covid’s effect on the city he loved.
“We should have every reason to be excited for the future of the city, but the mandates will ruin that future,” Ms Posney said.
“Good governance should lead to inclusivity for all.”
North Fremantle Primary School corporate services manager Katharine Elphinstone told the chamber she’d had to give up a successful career after suffering an autoimmune response to a pre-Covid vaccination. After years recovering her health, she’d landed the job at North Fremantle and had worked “weekends, nights and holidays” ensuring the school would be Covid-safe for pupils. Despite her background, she’d been knocked back for a vaccination exemption because the reaction hadn’t been for the Covid vaccine and she’ll now be without a job.
“I chose my health over my job,” Ms Elphinstone said.
“I feel totally abandoned by the healthcare system.”
Others argued the McGowan government’s mandates were out of proportion with the threat faced by the Omicron variant, a theme picked up by councillor Marija Vujcic who moved an alternative motion in support of the protestors after staff recommended councillors ignore their pleas.
After a lengthy speech outlining the background to Covid-19 and fatality statistics, Cr Vujcic said Omicron was a “super-spreader on the east coast and is going to get to us … whether the borders come down or whether the masks are here or not, or the mandates are here or not.
“Vaccination is not going to prevent most of the population getting Omicron,” she said.
“We are all going to pass it on to someone else, but we are not going to die in the numbers suggested in the previous waves.”
After an objection from veteran councillor Doug Thompson that she was straying off-topic from her motion, Cr Vujcic said WA shouldn’t adopt a “one size fits all” approach to tackling Covid, suggesting “natural immunisation is still the best”.
She recommended people “keep fit, limit junk food, keep out the sugar, limit alcohol” while consuming more vitamins and minerals, and taking up healthy pursuits such as yoga, meditation and tai chi.
“My message to premier Mark McGowan is … his method worked at the beginning, but Omicron has made mandates obsolete.”
She concluded by quoting Yoda from Star Wars: “Fear is the path to the dark side. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”
But Cr Lawver took exception to the reasons given for her motion, saying it contained factual errors, something he later said he tried to warn organisers about days before the meeting.
He said a lot of resources had been wasted on the protest.
“If we did everything you ask, nothing will change,” he told the crowd.
Cr Andrew Sullivan also spoke against lobbying the McGowan government over the mandates, but he did urge the state and federal governments to show more compassion
and acceptance of the need for exemptions and to “do more in terms of monitoring where this pandemic is going”.
UWA researcher Vashti Fox, a North Freo resident and mother of three, also spoke against supporting the protestors, saying one of the reasons she was “deeply disturbed by the mobilisation outside” were links to the far right, saying some of the protestors were associated with Reclaim Australia and the Proud Boys who’d been banned in the US.
“This is a dangerous precedent to be setting,” Ms Fox said. Her research has focused on fascism and the far right.
Local worker Max Vickery said he had been yelled at for “politely” asking a customer to pull their mask up.
“I have worked in Fremantle for four years, but the danger the unvaccinated pose to me leaves me worried.”
Mr Vickery had been involved in organising a counter-protest in support of vaccinations at Pioneer Park earlier in the day, which attracted around 25 people.
After the debate, Cr Vujcic almost had the first section of her motion voted in which would have seen the council accept the protestors’ petition from last month, and Cr Thompson had indicated support for the second section which would have seen it sent to the state government, but when mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge revealed that would kill off the officer’s recommendation, there was a rethink and all four parts of Cr Vujcic’s recommendations were roundly defeated, sparking the angry reaction from the crowd.
After the vote Ms Fitzhardinge said the only way to ensure Fremantle was safe for locals and interstate and international visitors was for everyone to get vaccinated.
“I have listened to people on both sides of this discussion with an open mind, have read and researched, and have spoken to professionals working in healthcare and emergency management,” she said.
“Vaccination is the way we will get through this pandemic with the least loss of human life.
“In WA our hard border has been effective in keeping the virus out but, as community transmission becomes a reality, we need to do everything we can to keep ourselves, and the people around us, safe.
“Also Fremantle is a destination city. I want everyone who lives here, works here, or comes to our city to have a coffee, go to a gig, enjoy a meal, buy a book or visit the library to feel that they can do that with the least chance of catching COVID.
“The latest figures from the federal health department show more than 95 per cent of Fremantle residents have had their first vaccine dose, and slightly under 95 per cent are double vaccinated.
“This indicates the vast majority of Fremantle residents understand the importance of getting vaccinated, and that the people opposed to the vaccine mandates do not reflect the prevailing view in the community.”
by STEVE GRANT