Victorian construction union boss John Setka blames 'morons' for industry shutdown after violent protests

© Provided by ABC Health John Setka surrounded by protesters outside the CFMEU headquarters in Melbourne’s CBD on Monday. (ABC News)

Victoria’s construction industry is reeling after it was plunged into a two-week shutdown overnight following violent protests outside the CFMEU offices in Melbourne’s CBD.

Thousands of construction workers in metropolitan Melbourne and and some parts of regional Victoria have been stood down in the wake of the protests, which police responded to with rubber bullets and multiple arrests.

The action, which drew around 500 people to the CFMEU headquarters, was organised to oppose a Victorian government mandate requiring all construction workers to have had at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose by September 23.

An angry crowd threw bottles and a crate at Victorian CFMEU construction secretary John Setka when he tried to address the protest.

Treasurer and Industrial Relations Minister Tim Pallas said the decision to close construction sites in Melbourne, Ballarat, Geelong and the Mitchell and Surf Coast shires for a fortnight was in response to “widespread noncompliance” across the industry.

The government also cited “the appalling behaviour on site and on our streets” in making its decision.

This morning, Mr Setka said he believed only a small number of protesters who were at the union headquarters yesterday taking part in the violent protest were actually union members.

“There was some union members there but in the whole scheme of things, they weren’t the majority there,” he told ABC Radio National Breakfast.

Mr Setka said “professional protesters” who had been involved in violent clashes with police in Richmond over the weekend were part of the crowd outside the CFMEU offices on Monday.

He said the actions of people who were mostly not union members or construction workers had led to the industry shutdown.

“We’ve kept our industry going safely since COVID hit us and we’ve tried to keep our members all working and to now see because of a handful of drunken idiots there’s 300,000 plus workers sitting at home for at least the next two weeks, it’s very disappointing,” he said.

It is feared more protests are planned in Melbourne’s CBD today.

Victorian Opposition Leader Matthew Guy said the government should try to introduce rapid testing on building sites instead of shutting the industry down at a cost of billions of dollars a week.

“The situation now needs union leaders and the government to sit down and calm the situation down and more the point to bring rapid testing onto building sites so that we can see which ones are the problem and shut those sites down on a site-specific basis,” he said.

Support for shutdown despite ‘bitter blow’

Master Builders Association of Victoria chief executive officer Rebecca Casson described the shutdown as a “bitter blow” but said her organisation still supported it.

She said it was particularly frustrating for those in the industry who had been doing the right thing and the association supported compliance checks.

“It’s absolutely vital that all of those organisations that are not doing the right thing are held to account because they do risk our whole industry being completely shut down,” Ms Casson said.

“Obviously it’s bad enough that we’ve got only a few sections of our industry that are shut down this time with regard to those LGA areas but there are many others that can continue to work in some way, shape or form.”

The organisation supported the mandatory vaccination rule introduced by the government and Ms Casson said she was sure workers could all get at least one dose in the next fortnight before resuming work.

Protesters labelled ‘man-baby Nazis’

Labor MP Bill Shorten hit out at “man-baby Nazis” who he said helped orchestrate the Monday’s protest.

Mr Shorten told Channel Nine “people who call themselves Nazis” had used encrypted message systems to bring in a “rent-a-crowd”.

“Some of those people in the crowd were construction workers, but others I’m reliably informed, were fake tradies, they’d been down to the reject shop and got themselves a $2 hi-vis hoodie so they can pretend they were construction [workers],” he said.

Mr Shorten said while nobody wanted to see the industry shut down, there were a small number of people in construction who were making it “impossible and intolerably to function properly in the short-term”.

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