[A few weeks ago I wrote something for Overland titled Constructing a narrative: the CFMEU protest and the far right (September 23, 2021). Last week, Jeremy Salt offered some criticism of the piece and, because my reply is so long, I thought I’d publish it here instead of there. I don’t expect it to be of much interest to others but, having inflicted myself with the task of responding, I figure it’s okay if others are provided an opportunity to share in my distress.]
I obviously don’t know what Mr Salt’s experience of the last eighteen months in Melbourne has been like, but I certainly didn’t mean to infer that it’s been sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for the millions of Melbournians who’ve been subject, willingly or unwillingly, to what is now the world’s longest lockdown. As amply documented elsewhere, things have been especially difficult for the precariat, and for those who weren’t already paying attention, the pandemic has brought into sharp relief the consequences of growing economic and social inequality for public health management. Further, the longer lockdown has persisted, the more the limits of public endurance have been tested. When combined with a bungled vaccine rollout by the federal government on the one hand and an enormous fountain of dis- and mis-information about COVID-19 generated by social media on the other, I think it’s fair to say that the general conditions of life for many have degraded to the point that, notwithstanding the potentially disastrous consequences, protest of the sort witnessed recently was likely inevitable.
In examining these protests, however, I didn’t intend to provide a comprehensive or even partial account of the economic, political and social effects of the pandemic or to make an assessment of the adequacy of the policy responses implemented by the Australian federal and Victorian state governments. Nor did I intend to canvass media reportage of these matters, embark upon a comparative analysis of the global anti-lockdown movement, or explore in any detail the ethical and legal dimensions of mandatory vaccination. Rather, I was invited to offer some thoughts on a subject much more limited in scope: the protest outside the CFMEU office, unions, and the far-right.
For the record, then, I don’t believe that the response of the Andrews government to the pandemic or the policing of recent protests are beyond criticism. I also flatly reject Mr Salt’s assertion that the article is entirely shaped towards undermining the authentic nature of the street protests against mandatory vaccination, and I simply disagree that this is what it does.
Insofar as I have concerns about public assemblages, they’re informed by the potential of such events to help spread a deadly virus and the health impacts this would have on vulnerable segments of the population, including but not limited to the elderly, people with disabilities and the immunocompromised. The risks of such mobilisations are heightened when, as in this instance, they involve individuals who inter alia chant ‘Fuck the jab!’, sing ‘You can stick your fucking vaccine up your arse!’, shout ‘Come outside and fight you fucking dogs!’, hurl debris at and smash the windows of the John Cummins Building, and otherwise demonstrate a remarkable disregard for OH&S. In other words, what happened outside the CFMEU office was not merely that some workers directed a few naughty words (injuriosum retines verba) at Mr Setka, calling him a ‘dog’, a ‘rat’ and ‘Dan Andrews’ bitch’: as unpleasant as this experience may have been, I’m almost certain that Mr Setka’s been exposed to curse words before and — with the support of his colleagues — I’m confident he’ll survive this latest one.
Sadly, however, the fact that on September 29 the CFMEU Melbourne Office was declared a Tier 1 and 2 exposure site and [t]he union said four positive cases had been recorded to date and a number of staff and officials had been forced into two weeks’ quarantine, suggests that Mr Setka and other CFMEU staff and officials have more serious concerns. More recently (October 6), the union claimed ‘dozens’ of COVID-19 cases now linked to Melbourne construction protest.
In terms of semantics, I suppose ‘putative’ would be preferable to ‘nominal’ construction workers, but otherwise: when, over a century ago, Luigi Fabbri complained of bourgeois influences on anarchism, one key feature he identified was the tendency of the literati to celebrate its alleged sociopathy: The most curious thing is that the literary types had a propensity to most approve those acts of rebellion which anarchist militants least approved of because of their extremely obvious antisocial character.
The day after smashing the office windows of a building dedicated to his memory, the mob paid further tribute to Mr Cummins, once a member of The West Gate Bridge Memorial Committee, by dancing about and singing ‘Horses’ from the Bridge’s heights. The day after that, the vox populi didn’t sing ‘The Internationale’ but ‘Advance Australia Fair’, and if they chanted a name, it wasn’t ‘Cummo’ but ‘Avi’, a self-proclaimed former Israeli Army sniper and right-wing grifter. When parading through the streets, the Red Ensign was considerably more popular than the Red Flag, and MAGA hats were more numerous than those paying tribute to Mr Marx.
Are such actions ‘authentic’? If so, what do they authentically express? Probably, not a shared commitment to the realisation of communism (omnia sunt communia).
Still, while mandatory vaccinations for construction workers was obviously a key concern of those who protested outside the CFMEU office, the Victorian government’s failure to provide a reasonable timeframe for workers to actually get vaccinated, along with the sudden closure of crib rooms, was also germane. So too, the longer-term effects of the pandemic on the construction industry and the consequent loss of jobs and incomes for many. With regards who attended, then, I repeat: the CFMEU claimed a minority were members, Ben Schneiders writes many were, and — from my perspective — whatever the exact proportion, many if not most are receptive to and informed by conspiracist and counterfactual ideas promoting Covid-19 disinformation.
Mr Salt writes: Mr Fleming refers to the occupation of the Shrine when no protestors appeared to be inside. They were sitting on the steps outside or strolling on the grass, peaceful until the police charged at them and almost all peaceful even after that except for the occasionally flung water bottle.
I’m not sure what Mr Salt’s point is. Yes, no protesters were literally inside the Shrine. It was closed, after all, and to enter the building would have required not only a little more ‘Freedom!’ but also a little B&E (as a treat). Obviously, then, the occupation was of the site surrounding the building. It’s possible, I suppose, that the RSL is simply unaware of the critical distinction between ‘occupying the Shrine’ and ‘holding a political rally on its steps’. In which case, if brought to its attention, the RSL might conclude that it was utterly wrong to claim that the ‘mob’ was being in any way disrespectful by merely assembling at (not occupying!) the Shrine. It’s also possible that the Shrine’s CEO, who claimed protesters pissed on it, would himself be massively relieved to discover that, according to Mr Salt at least, urine never touched it. That said, the many hundreds of thousands of people who’ve attended dawn services over the years would likely be surprised to discover that, having failed to be ‘inside’ it, they were never really at the Shrine in the first place.
Be that as it may, I didn’t attempt to give a fulsome account of what transpired on Wednesday any more than I did the events of Tuesday or Monday, but to summarise it as protesters occupied The Shrine of Remembrance and were violently dispersed by police is, I think, both concise and accurate. If I was to recommend an account, it would be that provided by Ben Hillier in Red Flag.
Mr Salt says both he and I have no idea how many fascist agitators were out and about at the recent protests, and that therefore such talk is simply a means by which the mainstream media, for its own reasons, can unfairly tar those who participated with the fascist brush.
By way of response, I’ll note the following:
• In April 2014, Martin McKenzie-Murray wrote a profile of me for The Saturday Paper. He quoted a hostile critic as follows: That guy’s anti-white. And there’s no Nazis in Australia. Get your fucking facts straight, mate. If you mean right-wing people who care about their culture and don’t want blacks turning it into a Third World shithole, then yeah.
• In October 2015, inre ‘Reclaim Australia’, I wrote in The Guardian about how it was important that others Don’t get sucked in by the hijinks of far-right activists: active neo-Nazis are welcome and hold leadership positions in a movement gaining in appeal.
• In August 2017, ‘United Patriots Front’ leader Blair Cottrell tweeted: I’ll never run around wearing the ‘nazi’ tag. It’s like diving into sewerage then wondering why the public is avoiding you.
• In December 2017, Chip Le Grand, writing about anti-fascism for The Australian, claimed: A problem for the Australian antifa, and indeed for anti-fascist groups in Europe and the US, is that few people and organisations they oppose here have much to do with Nazism.
• In November 2018, Barnaby Joyce initially expressed skepticism regarding the infiltration of the NSW Young Nationals by neo-Nazis, declaring: I’ve seen Prince Harry in a Nazi uniform, I’m pretty certain he’s not a Nazi. Joyce quickly changed his tune, and 22 individuals were eventually banned for life from the party.
• In January 2019, when Fraser Anning held a beach party in St Kilda, Alan Sunderland was moved to declare that it would be unfair to label a man photographed brandishing a motorcycle helmet with the SS flag on it a neo-Nazi. At the same time, Mr Sunderland failed to detect the presence of Tom Sewell and a dozen or so neo-Nazis belonging to ‘The Lads Society’, perhaps because none of them were wearing Nazi helmets or chanting ‘Heil Hitler’.
• In August 2021, following his public exposure, a member of the ‘National Socialist Network’ told The Standard in Warrnambool: I don’t hold any neo-Nazi or national socialist views, nor do I want to be part of any [K]lan activity. I just see myself as patriotic.
A few weeks ago, when Rukshan Fernando interviewed former UPF member Linden Watson outside the CFMEU office, he didn’t ask Linden if he was a neo-Nazi, but if he had, I’d be surprised if Mr Watson answered in the affirmative.
In summary, while I confess to being unfamiliar with Mr Salt’s scholarship on the contemporary far-right in Australia, based on my own observations, I think it reasonable to claim that some, at least, have demonstrated a degree of political acumen. As a result, their tactical repertoire extends beyond having swastika tattoos, wearing jackboots and screaming racial abuse at strangers on a train. Given also the unavailability of detailed surveys into the exact political opinions of protest participants (perhaps of the sort undertaken by a formal workers’ inquiry), we must, for the time being at least, rely upon other sources of information. In the article I wrote: 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. Days later, an article by Plus 61j identified 24 groups, with nearly 100,000 followers, that espouse antisemitic or neo-Nazi views [and] pursue a political agenda with endorsements of right-wing politicians; on October 1, Nick Bonyhady in The Age wrote that A set of “fake unions” with links to current and former Liberal and National party figures are capitalising on anti-vaccination fears to recruit doctors, teachers and nurses and exploit dissent within the labour movement about mandatory vaccinations.
Mr Salt may be right to claim that the problem with ‘the left’ is as he describes it, but I would suggest that a broader perspective is necessary. In either case, a thorough diagnosis of the state of the left in Victoria is not something I intend to undertake here.
Like Mr Salt, I’m aware of the fact that there have been many protests in many cities in many countries about COVID-19, vaccines, lockdowns and related matters, and while rightwing participation may or may not be ‘convenient’ for the reason he claims, insofar as it’s real, I think it should be taken note of. As for quoting Sally McManus here, again, is what I quoted: 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. If I ‘approve’ of this quote, then, it’s because I agree with the ACTU head that 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. Mr Salt is of course at liberty to interpret it as meaning something other than 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, but I think a more reasonable interpretation is 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.
Along with the nature of the ideological and repressive state apparatus, Mr Salt obviously has much to discover about Mr Fleming. Pro-tip: Just as the ‘so-called liberal media’ have been engaged in propaganda for much longer than the past 18 months, so too have the police (including the Soldiers of God) been engaged in repression. If Mr Salt has nothing to say about this history, it would be wrong to assume on that basis that he neither knows nor cares. By the same token, if the use of the VKS Pepper Ball firearm makes an appearance in his statement of concerns, but the deployment of the BearCat does not, this should not be read as evidence of any underlying lack of concern over police brutality.
I’m unsure why Mr Salt believes that mismanagement of the government’s hotel quarantine program caused no outrage. When Health Minister Jenny Mikakos resigned in September 2020 it was following criticism from the state Opposition, health workers and unionists. While the December 2020 inquiry concluded the decision to hire private security guards was not made by an ‘individual’, it nonetheless identified a range of serious failures on the part of the state government.
Like the failings of the left and the allegedly devastating effects of Dictator Dan’s rule over Victoria (Mr Salt claims There is no longer a Victorian community. Family and friends have been turned against each other), I’m unsure why Mr Salt believes that most Victorians obey Andrews’ decrees without question providing that by doing so Dear Leader doesn’t render them penniless. I think such hyperbole is unhelpful and does little to engage with the issues he raises or, alternatively, the ones I chose to address.
I didn’t know Stephen Murray-Smith, and I confess to having limited familiarity with Melbourne’s literati (though I can boast of once having joined Christos Tsiolkas on a bus trip). But whatever reaction Murray-Smith may have had to recent events, I hope he wouldn’t join Mr Salt in deliberately conflating his production of ‘What Andrews Has Done To Victoria And Its People’ with my rather more modest attempt to analyse the protest outside the CFMEU office and the far-right. I should also add that while I didn’t consult with an editor or a writer, along with reading the accounts of other workers, I did take the opportunity to speak to a friend from the CFMEU before I wrote the article. He was in quarantine at the time, having worked at one of the growing number of construction sites at which there have been outbreaks. He had much to say on the subject of the protest outside his union’s office, labour organising, working-class solidarity in the face of far-right attacks, and more besides. It’s my hope that his will be one of many voices that take these matters seriously, and responds accordingly.
Finally(!), news of my excommunication from anarchism — on the basis of my being a Dan stan — will no doubt come as a shock to many comrades here in Melbourne. Perhaps, at some point in the future, Mr Salt will see fit to allow me re-admittance? Then again, his status within the anarchist community is not at all obvious, and neither is his role as gatekeeper. Certainly, comrades can respond to Mr Salt’s news as they see fit.