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It’s unlikely we will ever know the true identities or sympathies of everyone involved in the violent protests that brought Melbourne to a standstill on Tuesday.
The first thing our elected officials should have done was to condemn the violence. Many did.
But there were others who used the riots to push a political agenda by framing the uprising as the fault of either the Labor-aligned unions or fringe elements of conservative politics.
If the presence of Trump flags and Nazi salutes wasn't enough evidence that this was more than a union picket line, the widespread condemnation by union leaders should have done the trick.
But that didn’t stop NSW federal MP Fiona Martin chiming in from Sydney, attributing the violence to “lawless unions”, or Attorney-General Michaelia Cash from using Monday’s attack on union headquarters to suggest federal Labor leader Anthony Albanese should stop accepting donations from the CFMEU.
Among the conservative politicians revising the narrative to suit their political persuasions was Education Minister Alan Tudge. He appeared to give some legitimacy to the protest by describing the construction industry shutdown as “random”, and his home state of Victoria as a place where “basic freedoms are denied”.
Police surround the protesters at the Shrine of Remembrance on Wednesday. Credit:Wayne Taylor
What was glaringly absent from his assessment was any condemnation of the violence on Melbourne streets.
As quickly as conservative MPs used the violence to call for a union crackdown or a change of leadership in Victoria, Labor MPs parroted a common refrain that the protests were taken over by the radical right.
It is an inconvenient truth for the union movement, but it’s clear the protest included tradies, many of them union members, as well as supporters of the so-called “Freedom movement” and those engaged in far-right ideologies.
Consider it a case of cross-pollination.
Protesters set off flares in the city on Tuesday in the second day of demonstrations.Credit:Eddie Jim
Union bosses may not have organised the protests, but that doesn’t mean their members – out-of-work tradies – weren’t there in numbers, demonstrating against mandatory vaccinations and the two-week shutdown of construction sites.
On Tuesday, union leaders and Labor MPs worked tirelessly to convince the public “professional troublemakers” were responsible for creating the chaos in the city, or as former Labor leader Bill Shorten put it, “a network of hard-right, man-baby Nazis”.
But construction union members were there too, driven by a fear of the COVID-19 vaccines and worried about how they would pay the bills when their industry was shut down for two weeks.
More than 1000 protesters gather on West Gate Bridge on Tuesday afternoon.Credit:Jason South
Such vaccine hesitancy may not be shared by union boss John Setka – who has said a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for the construction sector is “unfortunate” but a reality of living in a pandemic – but it’s a fury shared by many grassroots union members.
The violent protests may not have been sanctioned by union bosses, but they were fuelled by anger that has burned among members for months, and the lack of response to their concerns has left many disenfranchised workers feeling isolated and vulnerable.
The Andrews government shut down construction after what it described as “widespread non-compliance” with COVID-19 safety rules.
Vaccine hesitancy was also found to be more common in the construction sector than any other industry, according to new research from the Melbourne Institute. The survey found 35 per cent of construction workers were unwilling to be vaccinated or unsure about getting the jab, and 22 per cent opposed mandatory vaccines.
It is perhaps a case of union officials being out of step with the concerns of their members, however absurd they seem.
Framing the riot on purely partisan grounds and pretending to understand the precise motivations of all those involved is impossible. The truth is more complex.
Wherever they sit on the political spectrum, politicians should first condemn such violence, and not do anything to inflame or legitimise such actions for their own political gain.
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