Aussie diversity a 'white lie'

Australia has long cherished its image as a tolerant, diverse and relaxed nation—a haven for those seeking a safe and secure life away from the world’s trouble spots.

That image has taken a battering as the world watches and reads about hordes of drunken young white Australians who descended on Sydney’s beaches and suburbs and assaulted their fellow Australians of Middle Eastern descent, many of them Lebanese. Sydney’s orgy of violence is now threatening to spread to other cities such as Melbourne, Perth and the Gold Coast.

The question now reverberating around this nation of 20-million is: How did it come to this?

The attacks began last Sunday, when a crowd of about 5 000, many wrapped in Australian flags, descended on Sydney’s Cronulla and Maroubra beaches to seek what has been described as revenge for assaults a week earlier on surf lifesavers.
The ringleaders of Sydney’s beach riots accuse Lebanese Australian youths of committing the assaults on the lifesavers.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard has tried to play down the significance of these events. “Violence, thuggery, loutish behaviour, smashing people’s property, intimidating people—all of those things are breaches of the law. I don’t think the actions should be given some kind of special status because they occur against the background of this or that,” he said. 

But the opposition Australian Labour Party’s (ALP) foreign affairs spokesperson, Kevin Rudd, said the riots are “having an impact on Australia’s international standing” and that anyone “who says it’s not the truth is burying their head in the sand”.

Despite the fact that one in four Australians was born overseas, this is a nation where intolerance and xenophobia often lurk just beneath the surface.

It is only 40 years since the Australian government ended the White Australia Policy, which prevented non-European migrants from entering the country. Despite a commitment by governments since the 1970s to a policy of multiculturalism, which, in contrast to the French insistence on integration, allows for immigrants to maintain their traditions and values, many Australians of Anglo-European heritage remain uncomfortable with this policy.

Hostility towards Muslim and Middle Eastern Australians has been fuelled in part by the media and the major political parties, particularly since the events of 9/11 and the Howard government’s adoption that year of a tough stance on border protection, designed to curtail asylum seekers from Iraq and Iran.

The New South Wales government’s Anti-Discrimination Board, in February 2003, released a report on media prejudice against Muslim and Middle Eastern Australians. This report cited numerous examples from the print and electronic media castigating Muslims for their dress and religious practices.

One high-profile example was the reporting by some Sydney media, of the cases of four young Lebanese men convicted of raping white women in Sydney in 2001. A number of media outlets characterised these cases as being those of Middle Eastern gangs terrorising Caucasian Australian women.

Talk-back radio, a popular media format, has also been a particularly prevalent source of anti-Muslim and Middle Eastern sentiment. Peter Maher, a commentator who analyses talk-back radio trends, said as far back as 2001, there was a prevailing attitude among many Australians of “the more Muslims we have in this country, the more problems we’re going to get”.

The focus of Howard’s conservative government and the opposition ALP on enacting tough new anti-terror laws this year has not helped matters. Nor have regular front-page news reports of alleged Middle Eastern and Muslim links to terror cells in Sydney and Melbourne. And last month Australian politicians and law enforcement chiefs clamoured to take credit for the arrests of 17 Muslim and Middle Eastern Australians, who are alleged to have been plotting terrorist attacks in Sydney and Melbourne.

Given the global context of linkages between terrorism and Islam, such actions are inevitably reinforcing community suspicion and hostility towards the 360 000 Muslim Australians and the almost one million Australian migrants from countries such as Lebanon. Its impact could have been mitigated if, as one ethnic community leader put it recently, Australian political leaders had “run a national anti-racist campaign alongside the anti-terror campaign to make it clear that Australia and its government do not seek to stigmatise a whole group of people because of the actions of a few”.

Australia is not alone in experiencing racial disharmony, but many are wondering whether more could have been done to prevent it from reaching boiling point.

Greg Barns

Greg Barns

Greg Barns graduated BA LLB from Monash University in 1984. He was a member of the Victorian Bar where he practiced in criminal law from 1986-89 and has been a member of the Tasmanian Bar since 2003. Greg was chief of staff and senior adviser to a number of federal and state Liberal Party leaders and ministers from 1989-99. He is also the former National Chair of the Australian Republican Movement and a director of human rights group, Rights Australia. Greg has written three books on Australian politics, is a Director of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, and a member of the Australian Defence Lawyers Alliance. Read more from Greg Barns

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