Candidates backed by an anti-vaccine, conspiracy theory-promoting group have been elected to councils across Western Australia after last month’s election following campaigns in which they played down or hid their fringe beliefs.
The group, run by the founder of the federal Family First party and his former property mogul wife, encouraged group members to campaign on more electable issues and to use councils as a springboard to state and federal politics.
Stand Up Now Australia is a group run by husband and wife duo Peter Harris and Ruby Janssen that purports to “inform and empower individuals, connect like-minded people, create change in the world and stand up”.
Born of the COVID-19 pandemic, the group started as a primarily anti-vaccine and anti-lockdown group which a Crikey investigation revealed was behind a group of online anti-Dan Andrews groups. Since then, Stand Up Now Australia has morphed into a broadly conspiratorial and anti-institutional sovereign citizen movement. Some of its recent campaigns include opposing an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, Australia’s proposed digital ID system and the World Health Organisation’s international health regulations.
One of its initiatives is the Community Connect program that encourages group members to establish local pods to, in Harris’ words, “draw other members of the community into the program”. Part of this includes running for local politics — a plan that has had early success.
Harris told a Zoom meeting of his group earlier this month that 11 people who were part of their Community Connect scheme had been elected to various WA regional councils at the state’s local government elections held on Saturday, 21 October. The meeting included a number of recently elected councillors including Shire of Augusta Margaret River’s Nicki Jones, City of Joondalup’s Rebecca Pizzey, City of Busselton’s Jarrod Kennedy and City of Karratha’s Brenton Johannsen.
Other names mentioned as being sympathetic to their movement but not present were City of Geraldton’s Aaron Horsman, who declined to comment; Busselton’s Anne Ryan, who agreed with Crikey’s characterisation that she was anti-vaccine but noted “the difference between a conspiracy theory and the truth [is] six weeks”; along with a handful of other candidates who didn’t respond for requests for comment. Harris said in an email over the weekend that this number had grown to 20 but Crikey was not able to independently verify this number.
These candidates did not highlight or campaign on their fringe beliefs. Echoing an idea floated by Harris when he first launched the program months ago, Pizzey said that she’d been elected on a platform of opposing the council’s use of glyphosate, a popular herbicide that’s the subject of lawsuits or bans around the world (including in Australia) over claims it causes cancer.
“[My campaign had] nothing to do with ‘freedom stuff’”, Pizzey said in the Zoom meeting, referring to the anti-vaccine, anti-mandate “freedom movement” that emerged in Australia during the pandemic.
Jones spoke of a similar strategy. “I knew to keep my mouth shut when it was needed,” she said.
Despite this, those present spoke about how their movement needed their new position-holders to act on their extreme views. One meeting attendee, Peterine Smulders, spoke about how a similar local conspiracy franchise group My Place was also targeting next year’s 2024 Victorian local government elections.
“This is where they’re deciding things like 15 Minute Cities and Drag Queen Storytime,” she argued.
In some councils, the group claims to have established a serious presence. Kennedy claimed that there are “three of us, maybe four” on the City of Busselton’s nine-member council.
“Those kinds of blocs become very influential,” Harris chimed in.
The appeal of local governments, Harris argued, is that they allow insurgent groups like Stand Up Now Australia to subvert the party-entrenched higher levels of government. He said that he believed his group was tapping into an anti-institutional sentiment that is widely felt, even mentioning a phone call with former Liberal Party federal president and campaign director Brian Loughnane expressing the same view.
With an eye to repeat this success at next year’s local government elections along Australia’s east coast, Harris’ hopes for the recently elected councillors go beyond just local politics.
“It’s always been a platform to state and federal governments,” Harris said. “I think it’s great for Australia that you’re populating local council chambers.”