If you’ve checked the news or done a bit of doom-scrolling over the last few days, there’s a good chance you’ve seen ~something~ about construction workers protesting in Melbourne this week and footage of it turning violent.

Yesterday morning, footage emerged of tradies chanting for freedom outside The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU)’s Victoria office in Melbourne before throwing bottles at CFMEU staff and clashing with police.

Later that afternoon, as the protests developed into a riot, a so-called peaceful protester was seen allegedly kicking a dog. Today, a 7News journo was allegedly attacked and had urine thrown on him.

It’s all quite awful and there’s been a lot of confusion as to who’s behind it, why they’re protesting, and how things escalated so violently. So, let’s break it all down.

First, why are construction workers protesting in Melbourne this week?

In case you’ve missed it, construction workers took to the streets of Melbourne from Monday after the Victorian government announced both a two-week shutdown of their industry and mandatory vaccinations as of 23rd September from 11:59pm.

After Victoria Health found more than 400 cases were linked to the construction sector, the state government announced a two-week shutdown of the industry from 11:59pm last night. In addition, the Andrews government revealed that when tradies returned to work on October 5th, they would be required to show their employer proof that they had taken at least their first dose of the COVID vaccine.

“The immediate shutdown action is being taken to reduce movement, minimise transmission and allow for the entire industry to appropriately adapt to the Chief Health Officer Directions, including increasing vaccination rates,” the Victorian government said.

Side note: according to the Victoria roadmap, October 5th is when the government expects we’ll see 70% of the state’s 16 and over population fully vaccinated.

The two-week shutdown, which Victorian Premier Dan Andrews first announced last Thursday, is estimated to cost more than $6 billion. But, as health experts clarified at that announcement, it was a decision that needed to be done for public health safety. According to Victorian Treasurer Tim Pallas, up to half of the construction sites inspected failed to meet COVID compliance checks.

It’s worth mentioning here that construction in NSW is resuming next week with all construction workers required to be fully vaccinated. And, remember this bit because it’ll be important for later: no one seems to be organising a large-scale riot or protesting against the Berejiklian government for the decision.

So, what went down?

Yesterday morning at around 9am, construction workers gathered outside of the CFMEU’s Victoria office in Melbourne to protest these new changes.

At first, it was a peaceful protest with a fairly small turnout. Then at 10am, things turned ugly as hundreds more arrived. From there, protesters were seen yelling at CFMEU staff and throwing bottles and milk crates at them.

CFMEU Victorian state secretary John Setka came out of the building and tried to calm down the crowd from a speakerphone ,but that only upset protesters even more.

Today, hundreds marched through Melbourne’s CBD with some seen running in the direction of police vehicles and allegedly throwing things at them. The protesters started outside the CFMEU office before making their way to Parliament House. Victoria’s riot squad met them at Elizabeth St and established a line of defence, warning protesters. Things then escalated violently.

Shortly after that, protesters cut through the West Gate Freeway and West Gate Bridge, forcing officers to divert traffic. There, protesters, some with flares in hand, were seen singing Darryl Braithwaite’s cover of “The Horses”. Ironically, it’s a song about a man dying of an illness who tells his daughter about heaven so she isn’t scared after he dies.

As the group began to turn back and headed towards the city, riot police established another line of defence. The two groups clashed, which is where officers reportedly fired rubber pellets. According to The Guardian, Victoria Police arrested 44 people who attended today’s protest.

In a statement this evening, Premier Andrews said “there is no excuse for the terrible behaviour we have seen in our city over the last two days.

“Acts of violence and disruption won’t result in one less case of COVID – in fact it only helps the virus to spread.”

The Victorian Ambulance Union also condemned the violent protesters, saying in a statement: “To those who attended and took part in violent protests in Melbourne, you are not in the real fight.

“You are not on the side of health workers or the vulnerable patients they protect. You are thinking of yourself only.”

Wait, so are construction workers really behind all this?

While the Victorian tradie community is undeniably angry, it’s kinda hard to imagine that these insane acts were performed by them. In fact, while genuine tradesmen make up a large sum of these crowds, politicians and union leaders claim that far-right extremists were involved in the protest and allegedly co-ordinated it, weaponising construction workers’ frustrations for their own gain.

Former Labor leader Bill Shorten told The Today Show that while tradies were involved in these protests, there was “also a network of hard-right man-baby Nazis, people who just want to cause trouble.”

Sally McManus, national secretary of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, said that extremist groups had been appropriating people’s hesitations of mandatory vaccines and lockdowns and mask-wearing and targeting it at unions across the country for “a couple of months”.

“The union movement in this country will not be intimidated by them,” she said.

“We will put safety first, we support people getting vaccinated.”

Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, Luke Hilakari, also pointed out the difference between these protests and the peaceful union ones he’s taken part in.

“I’ve led union protests of 200,000 workers,” he said.

“Our rallies [are] diverse, beautiful, passionate and peaceful.

“That’s not what is happening in the city right now. This is a mob looking for a fight. It’s not solidarity, it’s selfishness and it’s definitely not union.”

In photos shared on Twitter, some members of the crowd have been reportedly seen holding Trump flags and wearing Proud Boys t-shirts. Others were holding signs with derogatory language aimed at Andrews—one sign read “Fuck U Andrews”, another “Andrews is the virus”. Over on Twitter, people questioned how many of today’s crowds were actual tradies with the trending “#FakeTradies” hashtag.

melbourne construction protests explained
(Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)
melbourne construction protests explained
(Photo by Asanka Ratnayake/Getty Images)

Now, remember when I said that we aren’t seeing the same level of protest against the Liberal Gladys Berejiklian government? The Daniel Andrews government is a Labor one and Andrews has a strong union background. So, the fact that we’re seeing a large response like this towards his government when NSW has proposed the same thing, is, to me, mighty suspicious.

However, while many believe that the protests have been hijacked by extremists, experts in the fields of conspiracies and extremism reckon there’s not enough evidence yet to conclusively say it was a far right issue.

“That speaks to a broader issue that we’re seeing at the moment where the label of far-right is used to describe other people they don’t like,” Elise Thomas, an analyst at the London-based extremism think tank The Strategic Dialogue, told SBS’s The Feed.

While conspiracy groups across the world have been attaching themselves to “legitimate concerns of people who are dealing with significant workplace relations issues” and claiming they represent the “true voice of the people”, there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that they completely organised what we’ve seen over the last few days.

“From my observation, like a lot of protests, there’s a mix of people there with a mix of concerns,” added conspiracy theory expert Dr. Kaz Ross.

TLDR: there definitely seems to be something far-right and extremist in the protests we’ve seen in Melbourne over the last few days. And, it speaks to a larger issue we’re seeing in the way these anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine protests are orchestrated and play out.

However, there isn’t enough to say exactly that it’s straight up a far-right movement. For now, watch this space. It doesn’t look like it’ll be over any time soon.

Image: Getty / Asanka Ratnayake / Striker