An anti-government conspiracy group is targeting councils across Victoria with a campaign of disruption and influence, prompting the cancellation of events and the closure of meetings to the public.
The Municipal Association of Victoria confirmed to The Age that 15 councils had reported the disruption of their activities by members of the My Place network.
Association president David Clark said anti-government groups like My Place were targeting councils because they were the most accessible level of government.
“You can turn up to a council meeting. You can’t turn up to state parliament [and ask a question],” he said.
Extensive correspondence within the My Place network, examined by The Age, shows members espouse a range of controversial ideas, including a misleading sovereign citizen theory of legal rights known as “pseudolaw”, which argues taxes, land titles and even governments are illegitimate. Also prevalent are anti-vaccination and “freedom” movement ideas popularised during COVID-19 lockdowns.
This year, Yarra Ranges Council had to call the police and deploy security guards after more than 100 protesters hijacked a meeting, espousing 5G and 15-minute city conspiracies. The council announced this week it would close its public gallery indefinitely.
City of Casey in Melbourne’s south-east cancelled a series of drag queen events after a threat assessment by Victoria Police when the council was targeted by people linked to My Place. A spokeswoman from Casey Council said the decision to cancel the events “in no way legitimises or validates the actions or statements of individuals, activists or protest groups”.
This month, emotional residents blaming councils for giving them 5G “radiation poisoning” and fearing council “lockdowns” have appeared at Knox and Whittlesea council meetings in tetchy interactions during public question time.
The Age has obtained social media posts and witness accounts of events at the property of Mansfield Mayor James Tehan and his wife, Sarah Tehan, which featured keynote speakers known to promote “pseudolaw” and other ideas similar to the sovereign citizen ideology. Sovereign citizens believe a “straw man” is created when a person is born, which is their legal entity and separate from their actual self. Adherents argue that society’s laws do not apply to them.
Sarah Tehan is a member of My Place’s Mansfield closed Facebook group where the event was promoted, but her husband is not. While the Tehans declined to comment, a Mansfield Shire spokesman said the gathering was “not a council event”.
“The mayor is not a member of any of the groups mentioned in the questions received [from The Age] and does not support them or their ideologies,” the spokesman said.
Whittlesea Council has also employed security at its recent meetings following advice from Victoria Police “to ensure those attending the meeting and our staff and administrators can feel safe”.
“To date, our meetings have continued to run in person without major disruption; we will continue to monitor the situation,” a spokeswoman said.
In the past six months, My Place activists and overlapping anti-lockdown “freedom” groups have staged rallies at council meetings against climate change policies, council-backed events involving drag queens and what they believe to be citizen surveillance.
Interstate, Salisbury and Onkaparinga councils in South Australia and Cessnock Council in NSW have also been targeted by protesters calling for citizens arrests and railing against CCTV programs and 15-minute cities. Conspiracy theorists believe the urban planning concepts of 15- or 20-minute cities, which aim to offer residents key services within walking distance of their homes, are actually a ploy to keep people locked in their suburbs.
This week, video emerged of a My Place Greensborough chapter meeting where followers discussed meeting last week with a councillor from Banyule Council, Alison Champion, who they claimed was “very receptive” to their views on 20-minute cities, drag queens and surveillance.
“I understand that Alison is sympathetic towards us,” a Greensborough My Place member relays to other chapter members in the recording, which was posted on Facebook.
Another member at the meeting with the councillor relayed to the Greensborough group that Champion “clearly stipulated that she would talk about things openly with us, but she will not put them in an email, or she won’t put them in writing. But she’ll be very open about her views when she’s face to face”.
Champion declined to respond to questions from The Age, referring inquiries to the council. It is not known if she shares the views propagated by My Place members.
In a statement, Mayor Peter Castaldo said Banyule “increasingly had individuals and groups actively presenting their views to council through letters and at council meetings on topics like vaccination requirements, 20-minute cities and other topics”.
“We respect peoples right to have and express those views and it’s not uncommon for councillors to meet with community members to understand and listen to local views even if we don’t agree with them,” he said. “Within a group of councillors you will always have different views and that’s part of the democratic process.”
The activities have attracted the attention of Local Government Minister Melissa Horne, who when asked about My Place and the Mansfield events, she said: “Councillors should not use their position to promote intolerance, division or hate.
“Councillors and council staff work for local communities and they have every right to a safe workplace. While public debate is fundamental to democracy, it must be respectful. There is no place for threatening or aggressive behaviour.”
In making the call to close his public gallery, Yarra Ranges Mayor Jim Childs said his council had tried to accommodate the groups and their requests.
“Despite trying to engage, understand and respond to members of the gallery behaving this way, our efforts have not resulted in the desired outcome, and we are not prepared to enable this behaviour to continue at our public meetings,” he said.
He told ABC Radio Melbourne on Friday that he personally had felt threatened in a meeting.
“As they’re departing the gallery, I get eyeballed by members of this group, and then yelling abuse and saying, ‘well, you’re on notice now’. Now, what does that actually mean?
“Our councillors are elected by the residents of Yarra Ranges. They shouldn’t be threatened like that.”
The My Place network’s reach has also extended beyond councils. Last week, My Place followers threatened to “stake out” and track down drag queens who were scheduled to host a children’s event at a Chelsea cafe in Melbourne’s south-east.
My Place is the brainchild of Frankston builder Darren Bergwerf, who unsuccessfully contested the state and federal elections as an independent candidate last year.
He established the first chapter of My Place in Frankston in June last year, and now boasts more than 100 chapters across the country. In social media broadcasts, he says My Place’s purpose is to create “parallel communities” that are divorced from mainstream society.
Bergwerf would not give his phone number to The Age and agreed to speak only via a messaging service after “his last experience” with the media, which was a TV interview with the ABC. He did not answer questions about his beliefs but distanced himself from threats towards those involved in the Chelsea drag queen show after they became public, and vowed to act against those who were involved.
While the groups promote sharing organic food and self-sufficiency, Bergwerf has recently shared multiple antisemitic videos and posts on My Place channels, and in his ABC TV appearance would not accept that the Holocaust had occurred. In early April, he issued a video apology for the posts and the Holocaust comments, but antisemitic videos about Zionists “harvesting human meat” and committing “pedo crimes” shared by Bergwerf remain online.
At one event at a Mansfield pub in Victoria’s high country, Bergwerf described local councils as “corporate” entities, which are seeking to undermine property rights.
“So it’s up to us to stand up and take the power back,” he said in a recording of the meeting.
The Age does not assert that Bergwerf is himself an extremist, only that extreme views are espoused on the online platform he established. During his Mansfield address, Bergwerf encouraged people to attend council meetings in a “collaborative, informative way — not combative”.
Humanities lecturer Dr Kaz Ross, who independently researches Australian far-right extremism and conspiracy groups, said the rise of the sovereign citizen movement — including My Place — was concerning because adherents believed all levels of government were invalid.
“The heart of the sovereign citizen movement is, ‘[governments] have no authority over me. Police have no authority over me’. And therefore that can be taken to the extreme,” she said.
Ross is among a growing number of experts and security organisations who fear sovereign citizen rhetoric can have violent consequences, citing the conspiracy-fuelled killings of two police officers and a resident in outback Queensland as an example of where authorities fear anti-government ideologies can lead.
Deakin University extremism expert Dr Josh Roose, who has analysed multiple Bergwerf speeches, said he appeared genuine and authentic to followers, but he was concerned by elements of his rhetoric.
“He’s talked about people being ‘awake’ or a ‘mass awakening’, and that his job is to ‘wake up the masses’,” he said.
“He’s careful to avoid violent talk, but it’s implicit in the messaging. The idea of a great ‘reset’ is an inherently violent one.”
ASIO has flagged concerns about sovereign citizen ideology after adherents set fire to Old Parliament House in Canberra during a protest in January 2022.
The protesters maintained the old building was the “true” seat of the Australian government and the current Parliament House was a “corporate” imitation.
University of South Australia law professor Joe McIntyre said pseudo-law, a term used to describe Sovereign Citizen views, became particularly dangerous when adherents believed gun regulations or other public safety laws did not apply to them.