Experts say anti-vaxxers and the far-right have infiltrated protests against mandatory vaccines for construction workers. But they’ve stopped short of claiming these individuals ‘orchestrated’ the event.
Just before 9am on Monday, The Feed tuned into a livestream that showed a dozen-or-so construction workers standing outside the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) building.
A solo livestreamer - who’s become infamous for broadcasting Melbourne’s anti-lockdown protests - spoke to the men who said they were protesting against mandatory vaccines.
But as the day went on, the humble protest transformed into a violent riot.
At 10am, a Melbourne anti-lockdown group caught wind of the protest, promoting it in an encrypted chat. By midday, The Feed saw that hundreds of people had rocked up, including well-known agitators and anti-lockdown “celebrities”.
CFMEU Victorian state secretary John Setka attempted to calm down protesters who in turn yelled expletives at him and threw projectiles, forcing union officials to take cover inside.
From inside the building, Mr Setka spoke to 3AW radio, telling them: “some of our members are out there. They've expressed their feelings to me and I've engaged with them.”
But he maintained it was a “small minority” of union members involved and labelled the rest of the protesters: “drunken morons”.
A CFMEU spokesperson later told The Feed, "we are not going to be intimidated by outside extremists attempting to intimidate the union, by spreading misinformation and lies about the union’s position."
"The CFMEU will always advocate for..freedom of choice"
The riot wrapped up with police arresting several protesters. Plenty of unionists and politicians have since weighed in.
Former Labor leader Bill Shorten told Nine's 'Today Show' there were some construction workers at the protest but there was “also a network of hard-right man-baby Nazis, people who just want to cause trouble.”
The Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) issued a statement condemning “the violent attack” that they claimed was “orchestrated by violent right-wing extremists and anti-vaccination activists.”
The Feed asked the CFMEU and ACTU what evidence they had to make such claims.
The CFMEU did not respond before deadline but a spokesperson at ACTU sent through the following comment.
“For months we have been seeing these extremist groups targeting unions on social media and spreading misinformation about the vaccines,” the spokesperson said.
“The slowness of the vaccine rollout and the lack of an effective Government public education campaign has created a void that these groups have tried to exploit.
“Safety is our number one priority… Everyone who can get vaccinated should, it saves lives and is the only way out of lockdowns.”
So what do the experts say?
The protests have continued today, with many on social media quick to point out that this time around they were promoted by an anti-lockdown group in Melbourne prior to the event.
But experts told The Feed the issue needs nuanced reporting.
Elise Thomas, analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said yesterday’s protest saw a lot of “opportunists” grafting onto the movement. However, she said it’s not accurate to label the majority of protesters as far-right.
“That speaks to a broader issue that we're seeing at the moment where the label of far-right is used to describe other people they don’t like,” Ms Thomas said.
“There are objectionable people who are not far-right. There is very little evidence that yesterday’s protest was coordinated by the far-right.”
Ms Thomas said there have been examples of anti-lockdown protesters co-opting the concerns of the working class on a global scale.
“In France and a bunch of other places, we’ve seen conspiracy groups latch on to the legitimate concerns of people who are dealing with significant workplace relations issues, trying to represent themselves as a true voice of the people,” Ms Thomas said.
“It gets amplified and sort of twisted into their own forms of propaganda through their own networks.”
Conspiracy theory expert Dr Kaz Ross agreed the protest was hijacked by the far-right and anti-vaxxers. Like Ms Thomas, she said further investigation is needed to determine who organised the protest.
“I see that fake tradies is trending on Twitter and that's a very easy take to just dismiss the whole movement,” Dr Ross said.
“From my observation, like a lot of protests, there's a mix of people there with a mix of concerns.”
Dr Ross said she spotted a number of Neo-Nazis and far-right figures at yesterday’s protest, as well as construction workers.
She said the co-opting of industry protests by anti-vaxxers has also occurred during the truckie protests and health care worker strikes this year.
“At these rallies yesterday and today, if you look at what they're saying it’s not like a normal union protest,” Dr Ross said.
“There is sort of standard union shirts or words or phrases that people use. What we’re seeing yesterday and today are all the chants and slogans from the anti lockdown movements.”
But she said the situation is complicated by the fact that there also may be an overlap of construction workers who are involved with these groups.
“People do have jobs, even extremists have jobs, and they do work in industries like construction,” she said.
“We've also seen people from within the construction industry turning up in increasing numbers to anti lockdown protests in Melbourne.”
The protest came after the Victorian government announced everyone in the construction industry needs to be vaccinated with at least one dose by Thursday.
Following the attack on the CFMEU building, the state government has shut down the construction industry for two weeks, citing increasing transmission of the virus on work sites.
Over the weekend, violence erupted between police and protesters at an anti-lockdown rally attended by hundreds of people in Melbourne.
Victoria Police arrested 235 people and issued 193 fines on Saturday, with six police officers hospitalised in relation to the protest.
“It’s been really interesting over the past couple of months, watching how rapidly this has exploded, it's gotten bigger but it’s also gotten more extreme.”
“Protests are inherently performative, and the way you see performance these days is on your screen. And so, if the point of the protests, generate propaganda, then you need people that do the live streaming.”