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It is the middle of the afternoon on a brilliant spring day and Tim, a self-employed tradie and father of two, is sitting with a friend on the grassy slope that leads up to Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance. In a quiet voice, he explains the frustration and despair he feels at seeing what is happening to a city where, until recently, he planned to raise his family.
“We’ve sat idle for 18 months and watched this state deteriorate; people losing their jobs and kids not going to school,” he says. “I’m a parent, I’m a husband, I’m a veteran and I have completely lost faith in this government.″
Police move in on protesters at the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.Credit:Eddie Jim
These are not radical thoughts. If you live in Melbourne or Sydney or any place subjected to prolonged lockdown, you might have had conversations like this with people dismayed that, this far into the pandemic, the virus and public health response still has us trapped in our homes. Normally, though, you don’t have the conversation metres away from dozens of armoured police bristling with batons and riot shields.
As the police step forward in unison to tighten their containment lines around the Shrine, Tim gets to his feet and with a sigh of resignation, prepares to leave. “I am not here for violence,” he says. “I couldn’t think of anything worse.”
CFMEU officials fend off protesters with fire extinguishers on Monday.Credit:Justin McManus
What could be worse? Pissing on the Shrine. Spitting at people working at a vaccination centre. Frightening people stuck in their cars on the top of the West Gate Bridge while you block traffic, set off flares and belt out a drunken version of The Horses. We’ve seen plenty of violence, from protesters and the police, in a week of ugly skirmishes in central Melbourne. And there is no certainty things will calm down from here.
The Melbourne protests, triggered by an abrupt shutdown of the building industry and public health orders requiring construction workers to be vaccinated, were condemned by everyone from Prime Minister Scott Morrison to Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews and CFMEU state secretary John Setka, a hulking union boss forced to retreat from an angry mob outside his own headquarters.
Nurses facing surging COVID-19 hospital admissions, teachers who this week received their own mandatory vaccination orders and anyone who has suffered in lockdown while obeying the public health orders couldn’t help but feel contempt for a leaderless band of miscreants marching through the city.
Condemning the violence is the easy bit. A more difficult task is understanding who these protesters are, what drove them to this point and whether there is more to come as the NSW and Victorian governments pursue their two-speed exits out of lockdown for the vaccinated and unjabbed.
The moment construction workers lost any public sympathy they might have had was lunchtime last Friday, when they set up trestle tables and barbecues on city and suburban streets to protest against the government decision to shut crib rooms, the places where they eat and rest on building sites during shift breaks. It was widely seen as a tin-eared display of petulance from a group of men — 90 per cent of construction workers are men — who had kept their jobs through a pandemic that has stripped so many others of their livelihoods. As the Victorian government’s COVID-19 Commander, Jeroen Weimar, put it: “If it means you can’t sit with your mates while you have a sandwich that doesn’t seem to be a huge burden.”
Victorian COVID-19 response commander Jeroen Weimar.Credit:Eddie Jim
The mistake the Victorian government made was closing crib rooms without consultation. Since a significant COVID-19 outbreak at a large construction site in Box Hill in Melbourne’s east, Victoria’s public health officials had grown increasingly concerned at the spread of cases within the building industry. At the start of last week, Treasurer Tim Pallas declared the construction industry a “major source of transmission” and Weimar described “tea rooms” as the most dangerous places at work.
That Weimar would refer to crib sheds as tea rooms — an archaic descriptor rarely used in the construction industry — reveals the government’s failure to seriously engage with building companies and unions about this.
Construction worker and union concerns about not having a place for “smoko” was roundly mocked by people outside the industry. But CFMEU national secretary Dave Noonan says this misunderstands the importance of crib rooms in maintaining workplace safety.
“There has been a failure to appreciate the fact that the majority of construction sites are high-risk areas,” he tells this masthead. “It is not safe or appropriate for people to be eating meals where you have tower cranes and heavy plant equipment and concrete pumps operating. The alternative is you will see 400 or 500 workers taking their meal breaks on the streets, which is not a good idea either. I think there is some trivialising of this, particularly by some elements on social media.”
Crib rooms on large building sites are subject to strict COVID-19 protocols including staggered meal breaks, social distancing, cleaning and ventilation. When the government conducted a compliance blitz on the construction industry, the problems it found related to technical breaches on smaller suburban sites. John Davies, the chief executive of the Australian Constructors Association, which represents large contracting companies, says that within the industry, crib rooms are seen as carrying a low risk of infection due to the measures in place.
On the day the government announced crib rooms would be shut, it also declared COVID-19 vaccinations mandatory in the construction industry. Workers were given six days to get a jab or lose their jobs. A decision to shut the industry for two weeks was taken three days later.
There is no precedent in Victoria, or anywhere in Australia, for an entire industry being given so little time to get vaccinated as a lawful requirement to work. When national cabinet agreed on June 28 that all residential aged care workers should be inoculated against the virus, it gave workers until September 17 — nearly three months — to get their first dose. Victoria’s Minister for Education James Merlino this week gave school teachers until October 19 to get their first jab.
Victoria is not the first state to order a shutdown of all construction or to mandate vaccinations for construction workers. On July 17, as Sydney was entering its lockdown, the NSW government shut the entire construction industry with little notice. Davies says he was blind sided by that decision. “We were engaging with government and we thought we were travelling reasonably well,” he says. “It was a real bolt from the blue.”
Once the initial shock subsided, consultations quickly began between the government, unions and industry associations about how to safely re-open. When NSW Health Minister Brad Hazzard decided that all construction workers living in local government areas with high case numbers needed to be vaccinated to return to work, everyone around the table could see the potential for things to get ugly.
The construction industry, like many of Sydney’s LGAs of concern, is ethnically diverse. The jab was only being forced on them; not workers or sole traders living in more affluent suburbs. But they were given some time to comply. The public health order requiring a first jab did not come into force until August 11.
In Victoria, the construction unions immediately saw the risk that mandatory vaccination could bleed into wider social discontent. On the night Chief Health Officer Brett Sutton made his order, a group of four building unions issued a joint statement warning the “heavy-handed mandate by the Chief Health Officer, which was implemented with no notice, has only served to drive people towards the anti-vax movement”. Sally McManus, the secretary of the ACTU, raised concern about an orchestrated campaign by right-wing agitators to sow discord among union members. She questions whether mandatory vaccination is the best way of achieving high vaccination rates.
Dave Noonan says his union’s reticence towards mandatory vaccination should not be confused with a lack of support for workers getting the jab. “One of our senior delegates, a person with a long history in the industry, spent two weeks in an induced coma with COVID,” he says. “We know how dangerous it is. We think vaccination provides the only real path out of the crisis that not only construction but the whole country is in. We think the best way to get people vaccinated is to have lots of education, lots of facts, lots of vaccine and choice of vaccine.”
Building companies are more supportive of the Victorian order. It has been repeatedly pointed out this week that workers in an industry that has been allowed to operate throughout the pandemic have no reason to be unhappy with their lot, much less march through the streets. This is true for some, but not all.
Master Builders Victoria CEO Rebecca Casson.Credit:Scott McNaughton
When construction resumed in NSW after their two-week shutdown, large commercial sites were allowed to roster on 50 per cent of their peak workforce. In Victoria until this week, similar sites were only allowed to roster on 25 per cent of their average workforces. The difference is potentially 500 people being able to work compared to 125. In the construction industry, the cost of this ultimately gets pushed down the chain to smaller contractors and family businesses. This is where the pain of lockdown has been felt in construction. “If you are talking about things leading up to this that build resentment in the industry, the 25 per cent cap was problematic,” Davies says.
In Melbourne, public health orders allowed up to five people to work on smaller jobs on unoccupied premises but prohibited any renovation work when people were at home. As a consequence, many of the thousands of sole traders and small businesses who make up the building industry have been out of work for much of the pandemic.
Before this week, the most pressing issue facing Victoria’s building industry was how and when it could resume operation at a level that would support more businesses and provide a pay cheque to more workers. The government told the industry that before it could expand from 25 per cent to 50 per cent capacity, 90 per cent of all workers needed to have received at least one jab. Rebecca Casson, the chief executive of Master Builders Victoria, says the only way to do that is mandatory vaccination.
“The government had given our industry some very specific targets for vaccination to continue to work and we wouldn’t have been able to reach those targets without mandatory vaccination,” she says. “It’s the tool employers needed. Our industry cannot last on a pilot light forever.”
“This shutdown of our whole industry is a bitter blow. We are very disappointed because the vast majority of our industry has been doing the right thing. It is particularly disheartening that those who have taken the time to get vaccinated now find themselves out of work. But we understand the position the government is in.″
Noonan says there was genuine anger when Sydney construction workers living in some suburbs were told they needed to get vaccinated or find another job. “It seemed that working class areas with high migrant populations were being treated unfairly by the government and they did feel angry about that,” he says. “But a lot of people ended up getting vaccinated as a path to come back to work.” They weren’t happy but they didn’t block traffic on the Sydney Harbour Bridge or lay siege to the ANZAC Memorial in Hyde Park.
At Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, the police after a long, patient stand-off finally move in with rubber bullets and pepper rounds. Throughout the afternoon, the Shrine’s chief executive, Dean Lee, has watched on from behind the police lines with growing disgust. When he later inspects the century-old war memorial for damage, he finds broken glass and rubbish and a urine stain on a sandstone wall.
He says he understands why the protesters came to the Shrine, which was built to honour soldiers who died in World War I. “Protesters have obviously chosen it because some of them believe that the values they are seeking to protect are actually enshrined in this place through the efforts of defence personnel,” he tells Radio 3AW. “I am here to tell them they are wrong. You do not honour them and you do not respect their service by coming here to pursue your own selfish interests.“
Despite the chaotic scenes on Melbourne’s streets and COVID-19 case numbers spiking to record levels in Victoria, Daniel Andrews tried to offer an encouraging message. “We are so close. We are so close to meeting those vaccination targets … ending the lockdown, getting past this thing.” It will take more than this to convince those who see the government, the media and the public health advice as part of a bigger problem. On the frayed edges of this protest movement, a cabal of online activists are fuelling a conspiratorial malaise. To them, vaccine hesitancy is just another social fracture to exploit, like same sex marriage or transgender rights.
Most of them agitate anonymously by circulating misinformation about vaccines and COVID-19 on social media apps like Telegram, Gab and the aptly named Discord. Some, like self-styled libertarian Topher Field, operate openly. He was at the Shrine protest and later posted a two-hour monologue in which he argued, between puffs of cigar smoke and sips of Dimple whiskey, that the sit-in was a success and the protesters are winning. He warned of what will happen if police stop people marching. “Do not take away the last option that people feel they have for peaceful change,” he said. “Take that away and someone is going to choose to go the other way.”
The thread that connects every protester spoken to by this masthead is opposition to mandatory vaccination. Tim, the builder with the young family, says he would rather lose his job than get the jab and is now planning to shift to Queensland. ”You can cop a shutdown for two weeks. Other industries have copped that. I’m not here for that. I’m here for mandatory vaccination.”
Jake, a CFMEU member, is standing to the side of the Shrine protests. He was out the front of the CFMEU office when things turned ugly on Monday. He marched through the streets on Tuesday, when police were unprepared to respond to thousands of protesters on the streets. Like Tim, he refuses to get vaccinated and doesn’t understand why this isn’t a valid choice. “It’s a shame what Melbourne and Australia has come to,” he says.
The protests at the Shrine of Remembrance were widely condemned.Credit:Jason South
After the protesters scatter from the Shrine, Ben Harris, a 41-year-old landscape gardener, sits on a park bench and tries to explain why a seemingly gentle, thoughtful man finds himself dressed like a Hong Kong protester, with protective goggles, an umbrella and a knapsack full of first aid treatments for pepper spray and tear gas.
He says he became depressed during last year’s lockdown and for a time, lost his creative energy to work. The thing he feels most strongly now is a sense of disempowerment, layered over so many months of being told what he can’t do and where he can’t go. “I got on Twitter and started pushing back against the narrative,” he says. “That’s how I found the contacts for the rallies. I thought, that is something I can do: I can stand up for something and feel human again.”
When Harris talks about freedom, he doesn’t mean freedom from tyranny or injustice, but something more fundamental. “It is freedom to hug somebody. It is freedom to talk over the phone to someone and they are in a bad place and you just go over and have a beer with them or a coffee. It is these little things and it shits me that in Victoria, all those little acts of love have got this barrier in front of them. It is cutting away at the foundations.”
He says he is not opposed to getting a vaccine but is waiting for Novavax, a more traditional flu-style vaccine the federal government has on order, and doesn’t like feeling pushed. “I’m just a middle-class bloke who has never gotten in trouble before and now I have to feel fear in this city, this beautiful country.”
Within the Melbourne protests, there is mischief and mayhem at work. There is also, at its heart, an overwhelmingly sad group of men who have been shown a way out and will not take the first step.
Additional reporting Chris Vedelago
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