Former prime minister Tony Abbott has defended protesters who took over Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance to rally against compulsory workplace vaccinations.
Anti-vaxxer demonstrators and some tradies wearing fluoro work vests last week stormed the landmark built to honour those who had either served in war or taken part in peacekeeping missions.
Some rowdier elements urinated on the shrine as hundreds of protesters chanted ‘lest we forget’, appropriating a phrase associated with Anzac Day to protest against mandatory Covid vaccinations on construction sites.
Mr Abbott said the protesters were exercising their right to free speech and likened Victorian police with rubber bullets to storm troopers, despite the demonstrators taking over a sacred site in breach of lockdown rules.
‘Now look, I’m not an anti-vaxxer, although I think that people generally speaking have a right not to be vaccinated if that’s their choice,’ he told told the libertarian Institute of Public Affairs Australia’s Heartland podcast.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has defended protesters who took over Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance to rally against compulsory workplace vaccinations
‘Obviously, people shouldn’t break the law but you’ve got people there at the Shrine of Remembrance with flags, with placards, to the best of my observation they were simply there to make a point.
‘They weren’t being violent, they weren’t being vandalistic, they weren’t being destructive.’
Mr Abbott, a fierce critic of Victorian Labor Premier Daniel Andrews, likened the police standing at the ready with rubber bullets to wartime storm troopers.
‘Then you had the Victorian Police lined up like storm troopers eventually charging them with rubber bullets and tear gas,’ he said.
The former Liberal prime minister suggested elements of the media and the political class had derided the demonstrators as thugs when they were simply exercising their democratic right of expression.
‘Now, I don’t think you can say all the right was on one side there and yet there was near unanimity amongst the chattering classes, that there was a bunch of ‘ deplorables gathered around the Shrine of Remembrance,’ he said.
Mr Abbott, a fierce critic of Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews, likened the police standing at the ready with rubber bullets to storm troopers. Riot cops armed with rubber bullets, pepper balls and stinger grenades are pictured at the protest – with ‘new tactics’ to control the crowds
‘I saw a lot of people who maybe were a little misguided, maybe were a little over the top, but I saw a lot of people there who are sick and tired of restrictions which, frankly, are now becoming absolutely unreasonable.’
Mr Abbott, a former employment and workplace relations minister, slammed Construction Mining and Energy Union boss John Setka for suggesting the protesters were neo-Nazis and questioned how the protesters could have bought bright shirts during the lockdown to masquerade as tradies.
‘Well, I looked at the footage, and I saw a lot of people in high-vis, which they couldn’t have just gone out and bought because all the damn shops are shut,’ he said.
‘That was a crowd of working people.
‘They were ordinary working people which unions ignore at their peril.’
Mr Abbott was earlier this month fined $500 for failing to beach a face mask at Manly on Sydney’s Northern Beaches.
Ironically, this occurred after he had told the IPA’s Daniel Wild in another podcast ‘snitches’ who dobbed people in over trivial breaches of lockdown rules were like old East German Stasi secret police.
‘If you’re walking down the street and you see someone come out of his house without a mask and you call the police, well, frankly, that’s just Stasi-like behavior,’ he said.
‘Look, if you’re walking down the street and you see a burglary taking place or an assault taking place, it’s only right and proper that you should call the police.’
Victoria Police dispersed the huge crowd from the Shrine in the afternoon of September 22 – firing tear gas and rubber bullets.
Mr Abbott, a former employment and workplace relations minister, slammed Construction Mining and Energy Union boss John Setka for suggesting the protesters were neo-Nazis and questioned how the protesters could have bought bright shirts during the lockdown to masquerade as tradies
Hundreds of anti-vaccination protesters chanted ‘lest we forget’ on September 22 as they marched on Melbourne’s war memorial where they set up camp in the hope police wouldn’t fire on them out of respect for fallen Anzacs
Victoria’s construction industry shut down – explained
The shutdown was announced late on Monday following violent protests outside the CFMEU’s head office in Melbourne’s CBD over a vaccine mandate for the industry.
It applies to work sites across Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong, Mitchell Shire and the Surf Coast.
Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas said the shutdown was required to cut down movement, reduce COVID-19 transmission and give the industry time to adapt to the new requirements.
‘We put the industry on notice just a week ago, we have seen appalling behaviour on-site and on our streets, and now we’re acting decisively and without hesitation,’ he said in a statement.
An amnesty was in place on Monday so that a limited number of workers can attend construction sites to shut them down safely.
The government said all sites will need to demonstrate compliance with the chief health officer’s directions prior to reopening, including the requirement for workers to show evidence of having had one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine before they return to work on October 5.
The Property Council of Australia said the shutdown would cost the economy $1.1 billion a week.
‘The majority of construction sites and construction workers are doing everything required of them to meet the highest standards of COVID safety and have done so since the pandemic started,’ executive director Danni Hunter said in a statement.
‘Closing the industry will prevent them going to work and getting paid and it will stall projects causing immensely costly delays, putting projects and Victorian jobs at risk.’
Opposition industry spokeswoman Bridget Vallence said the Andrews government must immediately reverse its ‘panicked decision’.
‘The Liberal Nationals condemn the violent protests, but the actions of a few should not be used as an excuse to shut down an entire industry, putting tens of thousands of people out of work,’ she said in a statement.
Union officials say Monday’s protesters were not all CFMEU members and blamed ‘neo-Nazi’s and right-wing extremists’ for hijacking the event.
The protest escalated when two union officials, including Victorian construction branch secretary John Sekta, came outside the Elizabeth Street office to speak to protesters just before midday.
Mr Setka was met with boos and insults from the crowd, while some protesters hurled bottles.
Violence escalated even further on Tuesday, with 2,000 protesters storming the West Gate Bridge, bringing traffic to a standstill and evening attacking cars
Organisers have vowed to host protests ‘every day’ until the mandatory vaccine mandate for tradies is dropped
Construction sites have been a place of high spread in the latest outbreak, forcing health officials to close tearooms last week.
The state’s roadmap out of lockdown was released on Sunday, detailing small changes to restrictions when 80 per cent of Victorians aged over 16 have received a single vaccine dose.
Melbourne’s lockdown will remain in place until 70 per cent of Victorians are double-vaccinated, which is forecast for October 26.