We are in the third day of small but loud protests taking place in Melbourne right now, and it has become crystal clear what the purpose of these demonstrations really are. What started ostensibly as a “tradies” protest against Victoria’s vaccine mandate and the Union’s support of it has quickly turned into a violent, nationalist and conspiracy ridden farce. The misinformation online has accelerated as clashes begin with police, now at the Shrine of Remembrance.
The first point that must be made clear is that this is not a Union protest. Sally McManus condemned the “violent attack on [the CFMEU Victoria and Tasmania] office orchestrated by violent right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination activists”, adding that they “will never be intimidated by violence or threats from extremists who refuse to put the good of the community first.”
The CFMEU put out a statement denouncing it too, reaffirming its position on vaccination to protect workers and the community while noting that very few of the protestors were even members. Other Union officials called it a “mob looking for a fight” and “right-wing extremists”. The offices sustained some damage and there were some injuries, but nothing serious.
Yesterday things got more violent, and the true colours of the protest became clear. Trump flags were photographed, posts and groups on Telegram, a far-right conspiracy platform, grew considerably (one has now reached over 10,000 members), and various fringe and opposing media outlets have voiced support. In one video, shared by Avi Yemini of Rebel News, protestors charged police cars – you can hear Yemini, a Trump supporter and vicious critic of the BLM protests, yelling “Get ‘em!” from his safe vantage point.
Another rather grotesque video was shared by an RT commentator (i.e., Russian State media) showing a man with his head seemingly covered in blood claiming his skull was cracked. The commentator said that Australia had “always been a tyranny”, it’s just the world “never noticed” apparently. As an Australian, I’m left scratching my head and looking back at the Bjerke-Petersen years when there was a genuine attempt at crushing the workers’ movement in Queensland.
Despite a thorough search, I cannot find any information about the above video, only multiple unsubstantiated and contradictory claims. Some say the man is dead, others that he was shot but is fine, that he got stitches, that the injury was from a fall, and much else. Until there is proof and verification, it is impossible to make any judgement about the circumstances without context. Given the credibility of those sharing it, I have doubts.
Later in the day they moved to block the freeway on the Westgate Bridge. As a protest tactic I’m not necessarily opposed to this, but there were reports of nationalist style chanting and intimidation of motorists caught in the ensuing traffic. The rather tragic aspect of the protest moving to the Westgate Bridge is that during its construction, there was a major accident caused by a myriad of design flaws and unsafe workplace practices that resulted in 35 dead. Given that this was ostensibly a “tradies’ protest”, some have commented that their refusal to get the Covid-19 vaccine is also an unsafe work practice
Today, they made their way to the Shrine of Remembrance, an odd location for workers to carry out a protest. As they marched along, they chanted “Lest we forget”, an ANZAC phrase, with a number of Australian flags being brought along. Once at the Shrine, there were videos of police moving in, with some reports tear gas was used but I’ve seen nothing to prove that claim. Again, the likes of Rebel News and Telegram were outraged that police would “storm… construction workers on the sacred place,” calling it shameful.
A keen observer might wonder why a right-wing nationalist protest with a dangerous anti-vax element would stage their protest at the Shrine. Wonder how many of them are aware WW1 soldiers received vaccinations before departing Cairo for Gallipoli, that WW2 contributed immensely to vaccine development, and that joining the ADF and being deployed requires vaccinations, many of which are usually administered during childhood.
It’s a wonder what an afternoon of responsible and critical research and Googling can do to be informed.
So, is there anything useful to take away from this beyond condemning the violent co-opting of Unions to push the anti-vax agenda?
Most concerning is that, while it is very much the minority, the Union movement in Australia does appear to have been infiltrated by right-wing elements, including extremists and/or those susceptible to that populist style of politics. The Unions need to combat this, preferably by trying to engage them and shift the direction of the movement towards worker solidarity and liberation and away from its strong ties with the State.
On the other end, you have Alan Tudge – Coalition MP and our current Education Minister – posting comments that are feeding this divisive and dangerous narrative.
Morrison is currently not in the country and has so far not commented on the matter. He is in the US in relation to the “AUKUS” agreement, which on its own is a “treaty” that increases military and diplomatic tensions in the region.
It is also worth noting that the New South Wales government has a very similar mandate for construction to Victoria, yet there is no comparable protests or outrage. This can be attributed to two main factors, I think, one being Melbourne has been a hotspot for extremist groups like the Proud Boys for some time now. That anti-vax sentiment has managed to reach the point of pulling enough numbers to protest is worrying.
The other is the media narrative. From the Murdoch press, the ABC, some segments of Nine Fairfax, and others, there has been a rather stark difference between coverage of Gladys Berejiklian’s handling of the recent outbreak and of Dan Andrews’ handling of it since last year. Compared to Andrews, Berejiklian is criticised but nowhere near as viciously, and almost always with some positive spin, while Andrews is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. Regardless of how you believe the Premiers have acted throughout the pandemic and whether you think it has been correct or not, the media bias has definitely contributed to the negative attitudes in Melbourne.
Reporters have been rather awestruck by these protests, and some on the scene have been attacked. While violence against individuals and the media is disgusting, particularly the instance with the Channel 7 reporter, perhaps it may be a chance for them to reflect on how they helped agitate this fervour over months. This isn’t just a bubble that has appeared out of nowhere, and while most of the blame falls on misinformation and fringe sources, the mainstream is not guilt-free.
International coverage has also been rather off-putting, with many outlets including the New York Times and Al Jazeera talking about it being a protest by construction workers. While they do mention that it is heavily influenced and carried out by other groups, they are definitely erring on the side of inaccuracy in how it is being framed.
Hopefully these Melbourne protests run out of steam quickly, but it is entirely possible that things may escalate before they die down. The increase in force used by police is not a good sign, even if you disagree with the current protests, because it leaves the option of violence open when there are legitimate grievances and protests to be had. Even in cases like this, the State must refrain from using force unless absolutely necessary, and even then there needs to be a critical view of it and a monitoring of how it is used.
So, get vaccinated, stay safe, and keep properly informed.
This piece is based on information known at time of writing (September 22).