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.