Constructing a narrative: the CFMEU protest and the far right

The attack by several hundred nominal construction workers against the Melbourne offices of the CFMEU on Monday has generated much discussion. Many asked: ‘Who were these men, and why did they attempt to ransack the headquarters of their own union?’

At first glance, most were angered by a recent Victorian state government announcement that Covid-19 vaccinations would be made mandatory for the construction industry. At the time of the incident, Construction division leader John Setka attempted to reassure the crowd that his union did not, in fact, support a policy of mandatory vaccination. This message, though, fell on deaf ears, with Setka eventually forced to retreat behind the union office’s doors, under a hail of debris. During later stages of the event, a more concerted effort to break into the office resulted in damage to its frontage and, inevitably, intense media scrutiny.

‘Right wing extremists’ were identified by pundits as the main culprits. The CFMEU later issued a media statement, claiming that ‘[t]he crowd was heavily infiltrated by neo-Nazis and other right wing extremist groups and it is clear that a minority of those who participated were actual union members.’ Claims about both the preponderance of extreme right-wing elements and CFMEU members at the protest are contested. According to Ben Schneiders, senior figures in the union ‘estimated that about 80 to 90 per cent of the protesters were construction workers’, many of whom were said to be members and/or union delegates. I suspect the reality is a little more complicated.

In any case, an announcement by the Victorian state government that same evening ruled that, on public-health grounds, construction in Melbourne would halt for two weeks, adding yet more fuel to the fire. On the heels of this decision, on Tuesday another, larger rally of thousands of angry workers took place in the city. A number of clashes between protesters and police took place, and participants have vowed to return until their alleged demands—for the resignations of hated public officials, resumption of construction industry work and the mass distribution of Ivermectin—are met. On Wednesday, protesters occupied The Shrine of Remembrance and were violently dispersed by police. The RSL issued a media release condemning the occupation, stating ‘[t]hose involved in this lawless mob not only dishonour the men and women who fought and died for our country, they shame themselves, their families and all those involved in the protest’.

Determining the exact political, let alone industrial, composition of the rally-goers is not straightforward. A small number of known fascist agitators, along with their allies in social media, were certainly present. (One megaphone-wielding man on Monday used the opportunity to denounce Setka, praising ‘those boys [who] fought against Communism’—referring to the Ustaša—in Croatia.) At least according to representatives of the union movement and other sources, only a small proportion of participants were ‘card-carrying’ CFMEU members. Given that there are an estimated 250,000 or more workers employed in the construction industry in Victoria, that only a fraction (about 30,000) are CFMEU members, and that all and sundry were being encouraged to attend the rally, this would seem to lend credence to the CFMEU’s claim.

The influence of far-right actors on such events is typically more indirect than it was alleged in this case. Whatever the exact number of ‘right-wing extremists‘ were on the streets this week, their influence was chiefly expressed via social media platforms such as Telegram, where they have the capacity to reach larger and highly-receptive audiences. The ‘Melbourne Freedom Rally’ (MFR) channel, a key node in the promotion of anti-lockdown protest and anti-vaccination sentiment that actively encouraged attendance at the week’s events, is managed by a former competitive cheerleader and IT programmer called Harrison McLean. Writing for The Guardian and utilising research by the anti-fascist White Rose Society, Michael McGowan exposed McLean in March, revealing his ‘engagement with a number of far-right groups online, including one used by the far-right Proud Boys group to vet new members and another made up of white supremacists including neo-Nazi Tom Sewell’ of the National Socialist Network (NSN).

The MFR channel remains awash with propaganda from the NSN and its followers. Others, with little or no explicit neo-Nazi or White supremacist incentives, have won massive—and presumably, eventually—lucrative Facebook audiences through livestreaming anti-lockdown events: jobless wedding-photographer turned protest-documentarian Rukshan Fernando (aka ‘Real Rukshan’) is one prominent example. Fernando was later rewarded by being invited to appear on Laura Ingraham’s show, The Ingraham Angle, on Fox News in the United States. Describing an incident on the previous weekend in which an elderly protester was pushed over and pepper sprayed by police, Fernando stated: ‘These are tactics that are being used against everyday Australians, and it’s, like you said, it’s from communist China.’

Harrison and Fernando are joined by ‘Rebel News’ propagandist Avi Yemini, who has been extremely vocal in support of the protests and in opposition to ‘Dictator Dan’, AKA Labor state premier Daniel Andrews. Yemini was previously a candidate for the defunct micro-party ‘Australian Liberty Alliance’ (ALA) at the Victorian state election in 2018, but in contrast with his considerable social media presence (he has over 500,000 subscribers on YouTube and 200,000 followers on Facebook) he gained only a tiny fraction of the vote (0.49%). Indicative of attempts by the far-right to capitalise upon worker discontent, in response to the gilets jaunes movement in France the ALA re-branded itself ‘Yellow Vest Australia’ but to little avail. (The party was deregistered in September 2020).

Some CFMEU members and other unionists have been active in the protests and have been joined by a much larger contingent of construction and other non-unionised workers, supplemented by partisans of the anti-vaccination movement, right-wing content providers like Yemini, ‘Proud Boys’ members and others from the right-wing fringes. Almost without exception, right-wing extremists look upon the movement in opposition to vaccinations and other public health measures as very fertile ground for leaving virtual ‘breadcrumbs’; essentially, memes intended to gently guide the angry and the gullible towards the adoption of a heartier and more solid diet of reactionary ideology. Indeed, NSN members such as David Hiscox, editor of the blog XYZ, has outlined this tactic as part of his political methodology, and XYZ’s anti-Semitic and pro-Nazi propaganda features regularly on the MFR Telegram channel.

Nevertheless, as ACTU Secretary Sally McManus noted on Tuesday: ‘An upper house member of the Victorian Parliament attended Monday’s protest and gave vocal support to the extremists, a federal Senator tweeted his approval of the violence.’ In other words, workers angered by lockdown are receptive to and informed by conspiracist and counterfactual ideas beyond the ‘extreme’ or extra-parliamentary right, that are, in fact, supported among the highest echelons of Australian public office. Just as opposition to public health measures, including vaccines and lockdowns, may be found among a much broader array of the population, Sky News Australia, which broadcasts reactionary propaganda to a massive YouTube audience, was recently forced to remove dozens of videos from the platform for promoting Covid-19 disinformation.

It’s into this toxic political environment that the far- and extreme-right attempt to insert themselves, simultaneously denouncing unions for their presumed complicity in the denial of the right of workers to sell their labour in the ‘free’ market and presenting themselves as the workers’ champions against tyrannical government control. Insofar as unions such as the CFMEU are understood to be in the pockets of a Labor government responsible for implementing some of the most severe and longest lockdowns in the world, they will become a lightning rod of dissent. In this context, appeals for solidarity from health workers in the ANMF, like Setka’s attempts to quash unfounded accusations that his union supports mandatory vaccinations, seem unlikely to bear much fruit.

Andy Fleming

Andy Fleming is a Melbourne-based anarchist and author of the slackbastard blog, featuring his political and social musings. He is a long time observer of the far Right in Australia and internationally. You can support his work on Patreon.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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  1. The best way to marginalise the fascists is for the union movement to acknowledge the concerns that many workers have about lockdowns, vaccination, police powers, paid pandemic leave, wages ppe, job security, and offer a fighting alternative on all these fronts. Instead the CFMEU and ACTU leadership started the pandemic with a no strike deal in Victoria and “Accord 2.0” with Morrison. Now they want to dismiss the understandable anger and frustration from workers as a right-wing plot. Politics abhors a vacuum.

  2. G’day Jimmy & Michael,

    @Jimmy: All Cats Are Beautiful.

    @Michael: Yes, I suppose it’s possible that, if the union movement as a whole were in a position to more fully address the legitimate grievances of workers, it may have (had) the effect of lessening the appeal of recent mobilisations. On the other hand, leaving aside the specific conditions of the construction industry in Melbourne and Victoria, I reckon one of the principal reasons that strikes and union memberships are at an historic low has more to do with the corrosive effects of “Accord 1.0”. Further, notwithstanding the above, it would be mistaken, I think, to under-estimate the effects of right-wing conspiracy nonsense on the perspectives and understanding of many workers who’ve participated.

  3. The union movement is supportive of vaccinations as it is a workplace health and safety issue and will protect their members and keep them alive. Ultra leftist nonsense about the accord which was 40 years ago and other fantasist nonsense about an ‘accord 2.0’ will not stop fascists from attacking unions. Fascist are on our streets and attacking all of us. Which side are you on? Time to decide and encourage people to join their unione because 10% of the workforce are union members. Get real.

  4. Dear Gabrielle The Accord and the class collaboration tactics adopted at that time and still being pursued by our Union leaders today is why only 10% of the workforce are union members.

  5. G’day Gabrielle,

    Yes, the union movement is supportive of vaccinations, but while it may be slightly OTT, criticism of the Accord and its effects upon the labour movement are not confined to the ‘ultra-left’. (FWIW, I think ‘How Labour Built Neoliberalism: Australia’s Accord, the Labour Movement and the Neoliberal Project’ by Elizabeth Humphrys is worth reading.) As to which side I’m on, I think I’ve made that pretty clear.

  6. Andy your work on anti fascism is excellent and very much appreciated. I have been a union member for and involved in many social movements for forty years. The book which you refer to is very much contested history. I have heard these arguments about the Accord for the last 40 years also and I have never agreed with them as they do not present anything except a fairly vulgar and essentialist analysis. If they are such valid arguments why have their constant repetition made no headway in changing the direction of the union movement? Where are the masses of people looking for a different kind of unionism? The point I was trying to make above was that we need to form alliances to counterract the current alliances which neofascists are forming with other right wing causes. Joining unions is a pathway to activism and participation in the political process. To watch from the sidelines and then to blame the victims of propaganda and neoliberalism which unions largely are seems churlish and self defeating.

    In fact I’m sure many unionists admire and are grateful for your work against fascism. This is a time for encouraging activism not for moaning about other parts of the left who are not pure enough. Collective action from the left would be of far greater benefit in these times than professing ideological purity. It wouldn’t hurt for you and the commenters here to also ask who are the fascists and misogynists attacking and murdering around the world? Is it anarchists and Trotskyists or is it gay people, Asian men and women, Muslims and social democrats? I am just tired of the current sectarianism in the face of overwhelming real world problems. Join your union.

  7. Hello again Gabrielle,

    I’m glad my electronic scribblings are useful to you — cheers.

    Inre the Accord and its effects, again, it’s not something that I think is very useful or appropriate to discuss here, but I agree that the analysis Humphrys provides in her book is contested and that it forms one (I would suggest important) dimension in the many debates and discussions around the Accord and that era of Labor rule. That said: I also agree with you that political alliances can be useful, both in the context of fighting fascism and the far right and in various other struggles; I’m not content to watch from the sidelines; the relationship between neoliberal ideology and the contemporary labour movement is complicated; a number of unionists (including CFMEU members) have expressed appreciation for and find my work useful, and have supported it.


    ‘It wouldn’t hurt for you and the commenters here to also ask who are the fascists and misogynists attacking and murdering around the world? Is it anarchists and Trotskyists or is it gay people, Asian men and women, Muslims and social democrats?’

    I do ask myself that question, and have attempted to provide some answers over the years. As a general rule, fascists (and/or misogynists) attack and murder a range of targets, including anarchists, Trotskyists and other leftists, gay people, Asian men and women, Muslims and social democrats (among others), according to their situation and their capabilities. So, leaving aside, say, Pavlos Fyssas, Clément Méric, Ivan Khutorskoy, Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov, Jan Kucera, Timur Kacharava, Alexander Ryukhin, Stanislav Korepanov, Ilya Borodaenko, Davide Cesare, Björn Söderberg, Lin Newborn, Daniel Shersty et. al., it’s not an either/or situation. (I suppose I could add that in November last year Phillip Galea was jailed for at least nine years after having been found guilty of planning attacks on venues including the Melbourne Anarchist Club.)

    As a matter of course, it’s appropriate to extend solidarity to all those subject to fascist and misogynist violence.

  8. Thanks for your answer Andy. It’s very informative. I will endeavour to make all my comrades understand the breadth of the problems we all face. Getting people to recognise the reality of fascists seems like an uphill battle at times. I personally believe during these times we need what used to be called ‘a broad front’ on the left to oppose fascism. It is hard to find people who are not too invested in sectarianism. Once again thanks for your work.

  9. Andy Fleming is a contradiction in terms, as a self-proclaimed anarchist who ends up justifying government suppression of dissent; His rhetoric in ‘Constructing a narrative: the CFMEU protest and the far right’ (Overland, September 23) is entirely shaped towards undermining the authentic nature of the street protests against mandatory vaccination. He refers to ‘nominal’ members of the CFMEU, members at ‘‘first glance’’. Where does he get this from ? Setka’s people. he says. Setka did not support mandatory vaccination but he did not oppose it. Noone needs to be a Latin scholar to know that silence indicates consent (tacendo consentire or qui tacet consentit). That was why Setka was cursed when he appeared outside the union office. Mr Fleming refers to the occupation of the Shrine when no protestors appeared to be inside. They were sitting on the steps outside or strolling on the grass, peaceful until the police charged at them and almost all peaceful even after that except for the occasionally flung water bottle. Mr Fleming says a small number of fascist agitators were present at the demonstration outside the CFMEU office. Out of hundreds that day, out of thousands on the West Gate bridge the following day, how many agitators were present? Two, three, four, five ten? I have no idea and neither would Mr Fleming but the accusation, made by the mainstream media as well, was a convenient means of smearing everyone. If the right is capitalising on the dire situation in Victoria it is because the left (what is left of the left) has dropped its bundle in the most cowardly and shameful fashion. It has bought into everything Daniel Andrews has said and done to the state of Victoria and its people over the past 18 months.

    Melbourne is only one of many cities where protests against lockdowns, and mandatory vaccination have brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest against lockdowns, mandatory vaccination, government by decree and the undermining of parental rights. No doubt rightwing ‘agitators’ are always there. Their presence is a convenient tool for a media bent on misrepresentation. Mr Fleming, approvingly, quotes ACTU head Sally McManus, who dissed her own workers and supports mandatory vaccination, without her or Mr Fleming mentioning that mandatory vaccination is a violation of medical ethics in Australia and around the world and is safeguarded in instruments of international law. Who is in the right here, the workers and demonstrators on the streets or Daniel Andrews, Sally McManus and their enablers in the mainstream media?

    Mr Fleming refers to Sky News propaganda but has nothing to say about the propaganda poured into the minds of Victorians over the past 18 months by the so-called liberal media. Neither does he have anything to say about the swarms of police (including an unknown number from the anti-terrorist Special Operations Group) sent into the streets of Melbourne and about the rubber bullets being fired at protestors, at least one wounding a man on the head (these bullets have killed and blinded on the occupied West Bank of Palestine). Among other injuries a man was pitched head first on to the tiled floor of Flinders St. station by a policeman and a woman in her 70s thrown to the ground and pepper sprayed as she lay there, helpless. The man was knocked unconscious and could have been killed yet what outraged the ‘Age’ was a vaccination nurse being spat on.

    The damage done by Daniel Andrews to Victoria and its people over the past 18 months, at every level, is unprecedented in Victorian and Australian history. More than 650 elderly people have died in aged care homes, responsibility for the running of which is shared by the federal and Victorian state governments and management of the homes. Mismanagement of the government’s hotel quarantine program was clearly a significant element in the spreading of infections across the state and into the aged care homes. Thousands of elderly Victorians have been stranded in NSW for three months because Andrews has stopped them from crossing the border. What could be more callous, yet none of this causes outrage.

    Most people comply with whatever Andrews decrees, without question, and are indifferent to the consequences as long as they are not financially affected. Those who resist are abused, with Andrews, his ministers and the police taking the lead. There is no longer a Victorian community. Family and friends have been turned against each other.

    I knew Stephen Murray-Smith, the founding editor of Overland, He was a friend of a good friend of mine and it was through her that i met him a number of times. What Andrews has done to Victoria and its people – the trampling on human rights, the deliberately generated fear, the bullying, the threats, the intimidation, the massing of police on the streets, the use of rubber bullets against demonstrators, the destruction of jobs and businesses and the transformation of ‘dobbing’ into a value – would surely have sickened this individual of strong liberal conscience. To support any of this is not something any genuine leftist, let alone an anarchist, would do. The question is obvious and readers can answer it as they see fit.

  10. One should be concerned, not just about Covid or the CFMEU, but how supposedly organic or grass roots protests are accessed and leveraged by others for media content and agitprop; not just legacy media reporting but also Sky AD, Rebel Media etc. (whose Lauren ‘It’s ok to be white’ Southern immigrated to Australia….) gaining global digital audiences.

    Much of this is imported US radical right libertarian tactics and strategy e.g. the Koch inspired Tea Party movement, carried by likes of Bannon, confected grass roots agitation that is then picked up by both legacy and niche online media; modus operandi for Brexit and Trump.

    Also observed round climate science denial and same for Covid, to avoid any constraints upon related corporate power and their ‘freedom & liberty’.

    According to Jane Mayer of New Yorker (and ‘Dark Money’ fame), radical right libertarians rely upon building voter coalitions of conservatives and also joined at the hip with alt or far right promoting e.g. the ‘great replacement’, to maintain the status quo by blocking enlightened science and education based progress.

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