Prominent anti-lockdown and anti-vaxxer groups heavily promoted the violent CFMEU protests in Melbourne this week, but online misinformation experts say a core of legitimate construction workers at the centre meant it was wrong to rubbish all demonstrators as “fake tradies”.
Union leaders and Labor politicians distanced themselves from the bulk of the protesters, blaming the damage and disruption on far-right activists who promoted the rally online.
The federal Coalition laid blame on the Victorian state Labor government’s snap two-week construction shutdown for seething anger.
“It’s a conflagration of a bunch of different things. Like a lot of these COVID issues, it’s a lot of things all mixed together,” said Elise Thomas, an open source intelligence analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue.
“There are a lot of people trying to characterise it exclusively as a far-right protest, based on not very much in my opinion.”
Tuesday saw a day-long protest through Melbourne’s CBD, with as many as 3000 people – mostly men, many wearing high-vis gear – massing outside CFMEU headquarters and then state parliament, before blocking traffic on the West Gate Bridge.
The protest, while large and noisy, remained relatively peaceful until later in the day, when some demonstrators attacked cars and clashed with police in the late afternoon.
Many protesters carried “freedom” signs and chanted slogans critical of the Victorian state government.
Federal MP Craig Kelly shared numerous messages of support through the day, tweeting #IStandWithTradies and claiming “the people have come together at today’s Melbourne Freedom Walk to stand up for our Freedoms”.
Police made at least 44 arrests.
The protests were a continuation of a rally on Monday outside the CFMEU, over a Victorian government mandate for all construction workers to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
Tuesday’s rally was supercharged by the Victorian government’s snap decision to ban construction for two weeks, following hundreds of COVID-19 cases contracted at worksites.
The New Daily can confirm that, following Monday’s violent scenes, anti-lockdown activists in Melbourne called for further protests on Tuesday.
Many asked followers of their social media groups – some with tens of thousands of members – to “rally for freedom” against the vaccine mandate.
In messages seen by TND in encrypted social media groups, protesters were asked to “wear work gear” and bring friends and family to the rally.
“Everyone turn up to the freedom rallies in hi-vis and work boots,” one supporter wrote in a Facebook group linked to the protests.
“Everyone will be in high vis tomorrow you won’t be able to tell tradie from non-tradie,” wrote another.
It’s believed there was a far higher proportion of legitimate workers at Monday’s protest than Tuesday’s.
However, numerous attendees of the rally told media they were legitimate CFMEU members and tradespeople, many showing their union cards.
TND identified numerous prominent anti-lockdown ‘identities’ at Monday and Tuesday’s rallies, including several who live-streamed much of the rallies on their social media pages.
Numerous attendees carried far-right flags or insignia, while other far-right groups and identities promoted and supported Tuesday’s protest online.
Violent scenes were slammed by union officials and federal politicians including Bill Shorten, who claimed the workers’ event had been “infiltrated” by far-right and anti-lockdown groups, whom he called “fake tradies”.
Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus alleged there were “fringe interests attempting to infiltrate” the union movement, while CFMEU national construction secretary Dave Noonan claimed the protest had been heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other right-wing extremist groups”.
The hashtag #FakeTradies trended on Twitter on Tuesday.
Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas called out the protesters as a “concoction of anti-vaxxers” and an “anarchist rabble”.
Federal Housing Minister Michael Sukkar attacked the Victorian government’s decision to ban construction for two weeks, claiming the sector was being “punished by the Victorian government for the actions of a violent minority of CFMMEU protesters”.
Federal Coalition MP Fiona Martin blamed the violence on “lawless unions”.
But Ms Thomas, who lives in Melbourne and monitors far-right groups as part of her research, said the protests weren’t exclusively driven by anti-lockdown activists – but that such groups were just “free riding”.
“As far as I’m aware, the protests started offline with CFMEU groups. I didn’t see signs of any protests online on Sunday, and it only started popping up on anti-lockdown groups on Monday after the protest started,” she told TND.
“I’ve not seen anything to support claims that Monday was co-ordinated or orchestrated by these groups.”
Ms Thomas said Tuesday’s events were “a bit different”, noting they had been heavily promoted on prominent anti-lockdown and far-right channels online. However, she also stressed that there wasn’t a “binary” separation between these groups.
“It was a relatively more mixed crowd today. There were definitely a few people there in high-vis who don’t normally wear high-vis,” she said.
“What happened today was on the side of free riding. This protest was already happening.
“I think a lot of the numbers were legitimately tradespeople, but there’s also not a binary distinction between tradespeople and those believing in conspiracy theories.
“It’s not necessarily one or the other. There are some tradies who follow conspiracy theories.”