Andrews claimed many of those at Tuesday’s protest in Melbourne were agitators, rather than real construction workers, and said their “appalling” and “unlawful” conduct didn’t represent the many “fine people” he had met in the building trade. “They’re not there to protest – they’re there for a fight,” he told reporters on Wednesday. “They’re there to pretend to be protesting.”
The ‘F**k the jab’ protest brought traffic on Melbourne’s West Gate Bridge to a standstill, and riot police fired rubber bullets and deployed tear gas to control the crowd. Police said 62 people were arrested, some for assaulting officers, three of whom were injured as multiple objects were thrown by protesters.
Demonstrations were held on Monday outside the offices of the Construction, Forestry, Maritime, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU), after Victoria ordered construction workers to get vaccinated against Covid-19. The intensity of the clashes led some on social media to question whether Australia was starting to see a revolt akin to the “yellow vest” protest movement in France.
CFMEU National Construction Secretary Dave Noonan was quick to try to delegitimize the protests, blaming “right-wing extremists” for hijacking the conflict. Citizen journalist Avi Yemini, of far-right outlet Rebel News, denied the claim, saying most of the protesters were “100% CFMEU members.”
The state premier said the vaccine mandate for builders was justified because the construction industry already had a relatively high rate of Covid-19 infections. Rather than being swayed by the protests, he said the program of forced inoculations would be expanded.
“Other groups of workers in our community are going to have to get the jab to keep our state safe,” he said. “Vaccination works. Vaccination is our pathway out of this.”
Victoria’s chief police commissioner, Shane Patton, urged people not to take part in further anti-mandate demonstrations on Wednesday. “I certainly understand that people are fatigued, they’re tired, they have got grievances and they’re frustrated, but now is not the time for protest,” he said.
While Patton went further than Andrews and other officials in acknowledging that at least some protesters had sincere concerns, he suggested that anyone who tried to demonstrate on Wednesday would be met with force. “You’re not going to be welcomed with open arms, I can assure you of that,” he said.