A university professor involved in an incident while volunteering for the Yes campaign believes the man who filmed the altercation set a “trap” for her.
Denise Ferris, an Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University, was involved in a confrontation with controversial activist and former political candidate Andrew Thaler at an event at Centennial Park in Cooma on Sunday.
Video of the incident went viral after being shared on social media by pro-Russian commentator Simeon Boikov, who goes by “Aussie Cossack”.
Both sides have given conflicting accounts of what led up to the incident seen in the clip, which begins mid-confrontation and in which Mr Thaler repeatedly verbally abuses Prof Ferris.
“I’m getting a photo of your lambs you stupid mole, get out of the way,” he says.
In the background several animals can be seen in a cage under the Vote Yes tent.
He repeats, “Get out of the way. You just grabbed my phone.”
Prof Ferris, who is wearing a Yes23 shirt, tells the man “don’t you dare call me …” before appearing to spit directly at him.
“Right, that’s … now what’s your name?” Mr Thaler says as he follows her back to the tent.
“What’s this crazy b***h’s name? She just spat on me!”
She slaps at his phone, telling him, “Don’t stalk me, go away.”
“You just spat on me,” he says.
The woman tells the man she’s calling the police and denies she spat on him.
“You did just spit on me!” he says. “It’s on video you stupid b***h.”
In an email on Thursday, Prof Ferris said the altercation had “nothing to do with the Yes or No campaign, there was no argument” and that she was simply “standing alone in front of the Yes tent”.
“Out of the blue, Andrew Thaler moved toward me filming me with his iPhone extended,” she said.
“I felt intimidated at first. I asked him to stop, he was holding the camera out, using the camera like a weapon pointed at me, and screaming ‘give me the bitch’s name’ and other expletives. I was more than terrified, he was literally in my face, I had a visceral response, a panic attack, fight or flight. I did not spit on him. I wanted to block his camera without engaging in physical contact. Flight? Am I to turn my back on him — no way, too scared of his actions, it was so traumatic.”
Prof Ferris alleged Mr Thaler had “heavily edited” the video and that it felt like “a trap [from a] professional full time provocateur”.
“Please note, some of my best friends here are No voters, LNP, we have never argued about this and never will,” she said.
Earlier, Mr Thaler gave his side of the story, saying tensions had been high all day between the volunteers in the Yes tent and his group, who were sharing “Yes and No information” at their own stall about 30 metres away.
“We had a lot of people talking with us and engaging with us, they couldn’t handle it, they lost their s**t,” he told news.com.au.
“I walked over to get a photograph of a little tiny pen of baby lambs that were in the sun all day that the Yes people had to attract people to their tent. I was about 10 metres away getting a photo when this woman came over … I put it onto video and held it up.”
NSW Police confirmed officers were called to Centennial Park in Cooma, about 110km south of Canberra, on Sunday.
“Officers attached to Monaro Police District were told three people had been involved in a physical altercation,” a spokesman said.
“No injuries were reported, and police are investigating the incident.”
A Yes23 campaign spokesman said, “We understand the volunteer involved reported this to the police. She has also stepped back from volunteering to take care of herself and her family.”
As of Thursday afternoon Prof Ferris’ researcher profile page with the ANU College of Arts and Social Sciences appeared to have been taken down.
It previously described her areas of expertise as “lens based practice”, “culture, gender, sexuality” and “art criticism”.
An ANU spokesman said in a statement on Thursday morning, “This video has just been brought to the university’s attention. We will investigate and take appropriate action as required. Emeritus professors are not paid members of staff.”
It comes ahead of a series of anti-Voice rallies this Saturday organised by Boikov, who has been living in the Russian Consulate in Sydney since December.
Boikov, who was born in Sydney, claims he is the leader of the Australian Cossacks – a group which promotes pro-Russian government sentiment.
His following increased substantially during Covid as he promoted anti-vaccine views, before he was dumped as a candidate for the Shooters, Fishers and Farmers Party over his pro-Putin activism.
The official No campaign, Fair Australia, has distanced itself from Boikov’s “world freedom rallies”, telling The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday the events were “not supported, endorsed or funded by us in any way”.
“There is no official No campaign … it’s open slather,” Boikov said in a video response.
“Anyone out there who wants to vote No and campaign for No is welcome to. Everybody is welcome to the rally, everyone is going to have different views.”
On Sunday, tens of thousands of Australians marched in cities across the country to show their support for the Indigenous Voice to Parliament ahead of the October 14 referendum.