Australians have seen themselves as a benign nation that is comfortable with diversity and accepting of difference under the idea that everyone should get “a fair go”. Much of this has been symbolised in the lifestyle of the “beach culture” and surfing the big waves of the Pacific Ocean where an easy going and relaxed attitude to life is seen as part of being an Aussie.
Until a week ago last Sunday when a drunken mob rioted at Cronulla Beach this benign national self-image occupied an important part of the Australian psyche. This naive and complacent view of Australia has been a particularly enduring feature of the self-identity of many Anglo-ethnic Australians and has now been profoundly shaken.
The image of a mob chanting racist slogans and then roaming the streets to beat up what the press now refer to in “media code” as men and women of “middle-eastern” appearance has shattered this benign image. The fact the riotous mob, festooned in Australian flags, has stampeded uncontrolled through a beachside suburb, suggests an ugly, racist version of Australian nationalism is alive and well in the leafy and relatively well off suburbs of Australia’s biggest city.
Many Australians, including some Cronulla residents, are now genuinely shocked and revolted about what has happened and the alleged retaliation that has seen police patrolling suburban streets. Predictably the New South Wales State Government has vowed to take back control of the streets and promised crackdowns, tough legislation and more police to arrest “criminals, thugs and hooligans”.
But this misses fundamental changes in Australian society in the last ten years that has given a sense of freedom to groups to conduct racist campaigns. Part of the problem cannot be addressed by tough arrest and detention laws, because there is a new generation of Australians who have grown up in the ten years since John Howard was elected as Prime Minister who now think racism is OK. Howard stubbornly rejects the notion that there is underlying racism in Australian society, preferring to take a more positive view of Australians, but this ignores the bigoted, intolerant and selfish attitudes that the Howard years have spawned.
This astonishing observation by the Prime Minister, made against compelling evidence to the contrary, identifies the key reason why some Australians think they have the “green light” for racism. Howard’s statement conveys the ambivalence around race and diversity of the Australian Government and its leader that has typified the last ten years and can arguably be seen as the cause of the Cronulla debacle.
This ambivalence has seen a mixed reaction to issues of race that sends subtle messages of support to right wing reactionary racist groups and their sympathisers. This is referred to as John Howard’s “dog whistle” politics which sees statements by his Government act as coded messages designed to arouse and preserve the support of white working and middle class voters. These messages have reinforced the idea that foreigners (particularly Asians), migrants and Aborigines are a threat to the Australian way of life experienced by the group that have supported Howard since 1996. Some of these people were in the crowd at Cronulla beach last week.
This ambivalence can be seen in the claims that Australia is a welcoming country to migrants but has detained refugees, including small children, in prisons. It means the Government talks about welcoming Asian students in Australian universities but institutes a draconian visa and surveillance regime that assumes students will work illegally and seek to stay in Australia illegally. It is a climate that also sees the deportation of Australian citizens as OK because they are Asian, don’t have English as their first language, are disabled or unable to advocate for themselves.
This ambivalence also has given license to the vilification and marginalisation of Arabs and Muslims in Australia under the guise of fighting the global war against terrorism. The treatment of Muslims in Australia is shameful and the restraint that Australians of Islamic background have shown is admirable and living proof that there is hope for a multi-religious and multi-ethnic Australia despite persistent provocation. Ironically, the events on Cronulla beach now suggest the violent extremists in Australia will not be Muslim but are more likely to be white, young and Christian.
In the Asia Pacific region this ambivalence is evident in Australia’s initial refusal to sign the Treaty of Amity with the ASEAN nations and to preserve Australia’s “right” to pre-emptive strikes on its Asian neighbours if there is a suspicion of harbouring terrorists within their borders.
Now that Australia has been admitted into regional bodies such as the East Asia Summit this week, this ambivalence has resurfaced in the statement by John Howard, that although the summit is important the main peak body is really APEC. Howard justifies this because the United States is a member of APEC, a sentiment that suggests his Government really sees its priorities with George W. Bush and Washington rather than elsewhere in the region.
Ambivalence and denial have seen the importance of Asia as a source of study and scholarship slide in importance. The philistinism and failure of the Australian Government to fund universities and education properly has seen the study of Asian languages almost disappear from Australian universities and secondary schools after growth in the 1980s. Asian studies programs in universities are constantly under threat and enjoy no special support from the Australian Government and will find it hard to keep going in the face of a shrinking pool of specialists and linguists and funds to support their work.
Ambivalence has most alarmingly seen the trashing of the concept of multiculturalism and the idea that people with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds can preserve their heritage and still be Australian. Australia led the world for a period in shaping a nation that promoted tolerance, reciprocity and the sense that you could come from anywhere be any colour, believe in any God, speak any language, do anything within the law and be an Aussie.
That concept has disappeared temporarily in the wave of violence on Cronulla Beach and will require a turning of the tide against the ambivalence and racism. Australians will need the help of its Asian neighbours to remind the Australian Government of its responsibility to all its citizens of all racial and religious backgrounds for an unambiguously safe, secure and tolerant nation.