Australia Protests: Why Are Australians Protesting Vaccine Mandates And Lockdowns?

Ongoing protests in Australia are testing authorities’ willingness to enforce vaccine mandates and restrictions on civil liberties in the country.

By Ethan Jacobs

October 8, 2021

Recent weeks have seen escalating protests in Melbourne, Australia in response to newly-imposed safety measures in the state of Victoria. Among those measures, the decision taken by Victoria’s premier, Daniel Andrews, to curtail all construction work in the state (citing “continued concern about case numbers, transmission risk, and reduced compliance”) involved a mandate imposed by the state government that all workers must receive their first round of vaccination before returning to work.

Those decisions seem to have rankled the CFMEU, a construction union that, while known for pushing the boundaries of on-site health and safety regulations, is also no stranger to fighting such strictures.

In some ways, taking an assertive approach to dealing with authorities has been a boon to the union: its’ members tend to earn high wages that have increased by roughly 5 percent annually in recent years. It has also seen the sector lean heavily on employment law to enjoy legal protections that enable its workers to push back on certain COVID-related regulations. Australia’s 1988 Privacy Act, for example, clearly stipulates that employers can only require an employee to provide evidence of their vaccination status under specific circumstances. However, the Act also states that an employer “may be able to require you to disclose information about your vaccination status without consent if… required or authorised by an Australian law… including public health orders or directions.” It isn’t clear if employees can be fired in cases in which they are determined to not be vaccinated.

The Fair Work Ombudsman, an independent Australian government agency that exists to monitor and enforce workplace law compliance, advises that employers try to find alternative work arrangements like working from home for staff who have a legitimate reason not to be vaccinated. Though these precedents have helped buttress the CFMEU to an extent, the union has struggled to gain a foothold in battling regulation on other fronts. The Australian Building and Construction Commission, an industrial organization that wields extensive regulatory power in the sector in which the CFMEU operates, has won millions of dollars in fines against the union and is among the most dogged in their efforts to counteract instances of the CFMEU’s safety compliance violations.

Despite this, the existing protections that the CFMEU enjoys, along with an ingrained culture of digging in its heels in the face of establishment-imposed regulations, serves as a useful backdrop when considering the construction sector’s response in the past few weeks.

CFMEU Protests

Prior to vaccine mandates and site closures, it was the suspension of workplace breakrooms, or ‘smokos,’ that precipitated a sit-in staged by the CFMEU’s construction wing. That peaceful protest carried over to an on-site gathering in front of the offices of the construction union the following week, a confrontation that saw projectiles thrown at the union building and gradually devolved into the violence observed later that day and the day after.

John Setka, the Victoria State Secretary of the CFMEU, was quick to speak out against the displays, referring to the protesters as “drunken morons” who did not represent the union movement. He attempted to further distance the union from the protests, bandying the possibility that many of the individuals responsible for the violence witnessed were actually far-right infiltrators who were not affiliated with the union.

Though these claims are, as yet, unsubstantiated, the data does support the notion that those protesting may not accurately reflect the views of the union or construction workers.

In Victoria alone, the construction sector is made up of some 300,000 workers, and the branch of the CFMEU that John Setka represents across Victoria and Tasmania, per its most recent report to the union regulator, is composed of 28,031 members. Those in attendance at the Melbourne protests, according to various accounts, were, at most, 2,000 in number and likely a good deal less than that.

Support From MPs

David Limbrick, a Liberal Democrat Member of Australia’s Parliament representing the South Eastern Metro region, has come out strongly in support of all protesters’ rights to demonstrate against Covid restrictions, not just union members.

Setka, who has been vocally pro-vaccine, has said that in regards to vaccine mandates, “It should be a choice of people… Because some people have a genuine fear of [the vaccine].” This position may not be strong enough to quell discontent, with many members of Setka’s union as well as others declaring their opposition to mandates handed down by employers.

All of this sets up what is likely to be a tense next few weeks. At the time of writing, Victoria has seen just north of 45,000 cases for the entire pandemic, a figure that, while impressive compared to other areas of similar population density, accounts for nearly half of the cases seen in Australia (116,000 at the time of writing/Oct. 5). That, paired with the fact that new daily cases in the state have more than doubled since the Sept. 20-21 protests makes it unlikely that union workers will see any major reprieve in work-related regulations until the 70-80% vaccination threshold among adults is reached. How quickly that happens, to quote John Setka, will likely be “a choice of the people.”

Video Of Protests

Independent journalist Rukshan Fernando has been documenting the protests in Australia and posting the raw footage to social platforms.