27 September 2021
There’s panic in the streets of Melbourne. The last four days have seen escalating chaos in the city’s CBD with what was once deemed a “peaceful protest” descending into violence. It has been reported that while playing cat and mouse with riot police, protesters threw bottles, lit flares and fireworks, and assaulted police officers. In a particularly disturbing incident, Channel Seven reporter Paul Dowsey was sprayed urine. Dowsey believed that the media, alongside police officers were a “key target” for the mob.
So how did it come to this? While there is some contention regarding the protests’ aims, it is widely accepted that they originated in response to the introduction of mandatory Covid-19 vaccinations for construction workers. The Victorian Building Authority explained that the Victorian government introduced this measure in response to a number of Covid cases being traced to construction workers, stating that “Construction workers are often highly mobile and the risk of spreading coronavirus in these settings as evidenced by recent outbreaks is concerning.” This regulation mirrored similar legislation previously introduced in NSW.
On Monday September 20 an irate crowd descended on the Victorian CFMEU offices where union secretary John Setka, attempting to placate the scene, was booed and finally attacked with bottles before retreating to safety. Union premises were smashed, and in the following days the mob took to the streets donning banners reading “Freedom” and singing the Australian national anthem.
But who are these participants? Well, it depends on who you ask.
The genuine opposition to the “no jab, no work” mandate within members of the construction industry, and in particular CFMEU members, should not be downplayed. For a variety of reasons, there has been a widening divide and growing discontent between CFMEU members and the union leadership over what many deemed an inadequate response to the new vaccination rules. The Age reported that “…in the CFMEU, with its anti-authority culture and a persecution complex – sometimes justified, sometimes not – the opposition to vaccinations struck a particular chord…”
More disconcertingly however, are claims that this industrial dispute has been hijacked by anti-vaxxers and the far right- or “fake tradies” attending and reportedly escalating proceedings under the construction banner (many even wore high-vis vests purchased from discount shops). Setka himself has been particularly keen to distance the union and industry itself from the overall mentality of the protesters, tweeting that;’ “Those drunken fascist un-Australian morons are the reason construction workers will be sitting at home and not getting paid for the next 2 weeks”. CFMEU also released an official statement, claiming that the “attack” on the Victorian branches was “heavily infiltrated” by “neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremists”.
While these claims could be dismissed as a case of the union deflecting blame from behaviour that has been widely condemned, apparently conspiracy theorists and far right activists were not shy in showing their true colours, with sightings of Donald Trump banners and Hitler salutes. These are bizarre scenes, yet experts in the field such as John Roose warn that this kind of appropriation of a movement by seemingly unrelated extremists has been simmering long before the Melbourne protest- and Covid-19 added fat to the fire. Consolidating these views, Victoria police warned a parliamentary inquiry into extremism that: “online commentary on COVID-19 has provided a recruiting tool for right-wing extremist groups, linking those interested in alternative wellness, anti-vaccination and anti-authority conspiracy theories with white supremacist ideologies.”
Whoever is responsible, it’s clear that this violent reaction to the introduction of mandatory vaccinations could be seen as somewhat of a case study which may or may not be replicated as mandatory vaccination becomes the norm in other sectors. Perhaps Victoria’s construction industry- the second largest employer in Australia- reacted with such violent opposition because it felt like a guinea pig of sorts, being the first workers in Australia (after healthcare workers and those in close proximity to quarantine facilities and airports) for whom the vaccination is the key to their livelihood. But with Australia tentatively looking toward reopening, the construction industry will not be outliers for much longer.
More sectors have already been nominated as being subject to the vaccine before work rule, and it seems only a matter of time before the Melbourne constructions rules will reach wider society.
Amidst the confusion, perhaps the only lessons to be learned from the Melbourne construction protests are that the extremist anti-vax crowd, no matter the occasion, will not go quietly in this new Covid world order.
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