Trouble on the beach

A month after race riots in Sydney, Marcus Ström points to a crisis in official multiculturalism in Australia

Anyone who has travelled to Australia will know the central role the beach plays in our national myths and identities. In A secret country John Pilger writes: "The beach is Australia's true democracy "¦ We have found our freedom by taking our clothes off and doing nothing of significance." He says the beach is a "link with our ancient continent" and points out that "there are no proprietorial rights on an Australian beach", where you will find "a shared assumption of tolerance for each other".

While it would be easy to dismiss these notions as the fond reminiscences of a long-time expatriate from Bondi, there is an aspect of truth in what he says. Like Pilger, I grew up in a Sydney beach suburb; and, while there was an aspect of the rose-tinted democracy he describes in A secret country, that was largely for the locals. Yet that truth has always been contested. And it was all blown away on December 11, when another, uglier side of Australia was on full display.

A chauvinist mob of 5,000 gathered at North Cronulla to deliver a stark message: "no wogs" and "no Lebs" (Lebanese-Australians) on "our" beaches; "leave our women alone"; "we grew here, you flew here"; and so on. They gathered in response to an alleged assault on two surf lifesavers by a "Lebanese gang". They randomly attacked anyone they thought had a Middle Eastern appearance (including an Aboriginal bloke). Those gathered were a hodgepodge of Anglo-Celtic Australians, boozed-up local youth from Sydney's Sutherland Shire, racist ring-ins looking for a stoush, chauvinist flag-wavers seeking scapegoats and a tiny smattering of ultra-right boneheads.

The following night, a convoy of about 50 cars containing young, mainly Lebanese-Australian men from Sydney's west drove through Maroubra and Cronulla, smashing cars, assaulting and threatening people in what was seen as a revenge attack.

While much of the hysteria of that day seems to have melted away in Sydney's summer sun and the haze of a scorching-hot Christmas and new year, the issues and politics that led to these events have not vanished. Although establishment politicians, Labor and conservative, have tried to treat the riots as a mere law-and-order issue, it is clear to anyone with sense that such events do not appear out of thin air. And the whole shebang was threatening to re-ignite on January 26, Australia's national day: the 218th anniversary of New South Wales being declared a colony on behalf of George III.

British readers may recall one of the first 'reality' TV shows, Sylvania Waters. While the name sounds made up, and the stereotype lifestyle it portrayed pandered to the prejudices of a British television audience, it is in fact a real suburb in Sydney's Sutherland Shire. The 'star', Noeline Baker, and her whitebread attitudes - xenophobia, relative affluence, an outdoors lifestyle and sun-and-sand culture - are a somewhat exaggerated and partial reflection of that Sydney region. In a large, multi-ethnic, cosmopolitan city, the 'Shire folk' are seen as a breed apart by the rest of Sydney. And many Shire folk like it that way.

However, Cronulla is the only Sydney beach accessible by train by 'westies' - people from the poorer, resource-deprived western suburbs. The mantra of the surfies and the clubbies (surf lifesavers, who, incidentally, despise each other) was the same: no wogs and no westies. In the 1960s, the beaches were the scene of gang violence between westies and surfies - Anglo tribes of a different age.

Commentary has touched on many such sociological aspects that led to the latest disturbances: gang violence among a minority of Lebanese-Australian youth; urban tribalism; testosterone; sexism; alcohol; drugs; alienation. It is not a new problem.

However, there is the little matter of incitement by the state and the political elite. Desperate to win the 2001 federal election, prime minister John Howard claimed that asylum-seekers on the Tampa were threatening to throw their children overboard. It was a complete fabrication. He refused to allow the ship to dock on Australia's mainland. Infamously he summed up his government's immigration policy: "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come." Following the December riots a newspaper cartoon depicted rioters' T-shirts with the slogan, "We will decide who comes to this beach and the circumstances in which they come."

The Australian Labor Party has offered no opposition to Howard's chauvinism. Indeed it has fallen behind the law-and-order rhetoric on this and previous matters. The NSW Labor government introduced its 'zero-tolerance policy' in relation to gang violence in 1998. Recently retired premier Bob Carr mentioned Lebanese gangs and urged police to target them. The current NSW Liberal opposition leader, Peter Debnam, has said that there are not enough Middle Eastern people in jail and that authorities should "lock up 200 Middle Eastern thugs" responsible for revenge attacks after the Cronulla riots.

This week, NSW Labor premier Morris Iemma has unveiled a breathtaking piece of political idiocy and short-term opportunism. Apparently the three Rs are not enough. Two more are needed: respect and responsibility. And the way to introduce these is to make it compulsory for school kids to sing the national anthem, Advance Australia fair (I'm reasonably sure that "fair" does not refer to the colour of your skin, though you can never be sure in Australia). Further there will be lessons on "Australian values" in NSW primary schools. No doubt this will make disaffected Lebanese-Australian youth feel right at home. And it's bound to stop Anglo yobs waving the flag while punching Arabs. Top idea, Morris.

In the wake of the violence, the head of the police task force has been stood down after failing to release a CCTV security tape of a revenge attack by dozens of youths of Middle Eastern appearance on a sole white man in Sydney's south. The right claimed that the footage was suppressed because the police are 'soft on ethnic crime' (if anything, the opposite is the case). The real motive for doing so seemed to be to prevent a reignition of the violence. But the tape was leaked and this led to the scapegoating of one police officer. The state government clearly has offered no coherent response other than more laws.

Further background. There were gang-rapes in western Sydney in the year 2000 where the accused or convicted were young muslim men. The racial tension this caused, whipped up by premier Carr and various shockjocks, helped fuel the December 11 explosion. Add to this the war on terrorism, 9/11, the Bali bombings and the recent anti-terror legislation and you have a heady cocktail.

Those arrested for assault and affray will face up to 15 years in jail under the state Labor government's new laws, which would make Jack Straw blush. The laws also allow for the lockdown and search of entire suburbs without recourse to a judge. The accused have been denied bail and they are panicking - with some justification. Lebanese-Australian youth suffer high levels of unemployment and discrimination. They are disproportionately represented in Sydney's jails. And, once inside, are often organised in gangs. I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of someone found guilty of 'Leb-bashing' in an NSW prison.

It is true that there are "Lebanese gangs" involved in organised crime. It is true that sexist attitudes exist among boys from Middle Eastern backgrounds, but organised crime exists across social and ethnic groups. Backward ideas towards women exist throughout society, including among Anglo boys at the beach (just read Kathy Lette's Puberty blues). A crisis in masculinity throughout society is no excuse for the widespread racist scapegoating and vilification.

What has been on display in Cronulla and after goes to the heart of one of the central political contradictions in modern Australia. There is a crisis in what I will call 'official multiculturalism'. The bigoted and chauvinistic right has announced the ignominious collapse of multiculturalism. There has been too much pandering to "the ethnics", they whine. Witness the frenzied voices of The Daily Telegraph's Piers Ackermann, 2GB's repulsive Alan Jones and The Sydney Morning Herald's mercurial Paul Sheehan.

Sheehan claims that the police pussyfoot around Lebanese gangs while they charge Anglos with riot and affray. Jones went so far as to read out text messages on his radio show that encouraged people to attend Cronulla on the day of the affray. The message read: "Come to Cronulla this weekend to take revenge. This Sunday every Aussie in the Shire get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and wog bashing day." He covered his arse by urging listeners not to take the law into their own hands.

Meanwhile, the establishment left, and some voices on the conservative right, have merely said that multiculturalism is just fine, thank you: the problem is either law and order or it is racism; or both. Rightwing commentator Gerard Henderson stated: "It is unwise to draw Australia-wide conclusions from the social disorder in parts of Sydney. What is at issue here is criminality - not the existence of wide-scale racism or the failure of multiculturalism" (The Sydney Morning Herald December 20 2005).

In similar vein, Labor's opposition leader, Kim Beazley, said: "Australian multiculturalism is alive and well. Just take a look a few weeks ago [at] the response to Australia's World Cup win. Take a look at the people who were in the crowd. Take a look at the Sydney Olympics. Same thing. Sydney is one of the great multicultural cities of the world" (ALP website, www.alp.org.au, December 12 2005). It is telling that Beazley makes an explicit link between multiculturalism and unity around the bourgeois nation, to be promoted through sport.

The socialist left outside the Labor Party is largely uncritical in its support for multiculturalism. This displays a superficial understanding of these matters. They take it all on face value. Who could be against a society of tolerance for all cultures? For the socialist left, the main problem is 'capitalism' and 'racism'. But here they are in a quandary. How can the state be racist and espouse an ideology of multiculturalism? Of course, these things are contested within the state, but what is remaining of the 20th century left cannot have it both ways.

Many of the various socialist commentaries correctly identified the Howard government's scapegoating of refugees and asylum-seekers, alongside the vilification of 'Middle Eastern extremists' to justify its criminal invasion of Iraq, as factors behind the riots. However, most left organisations do not go much further than saying capitalism is the problem, and all are silent on the crisis in official multiculturalism.

They see only a racist capitalist state attempting to use old-fashioned, 19th-century-style racism to divide the working class. They defend multiculturalism as a gain for the working class against a racist ruling class. According to Democratic Socialist Perspective, "Insofar as the policy of multiculturalism reflects greater respect for the right of ethnic communities to maintain their cultural traditions, the party supports it" (DSP program p103).

Labor-Trotskyite Bob Gould is pretty uncritical in his gushing praise for multiculturalism. And, while he points out many of the positive features of migration, integration and cultural tolerance, he merely sees it as a victory (which it partially is), but fails to notice the role played by multiculturalism in cohering various waves of migration around the capitalist state (see members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Multiculturalism.html, June 3 1999).

At least the DSP and Bob Gould attempt to engage in the politics of multiculturalism. Others are less convincing. The International Socialist Organisation says: "Racism is one of the best tools governments have to divide ordinary people and attempt to distract attention from the real threats. We need to oppose racism wherever it rears its ugly head. But we also need to build the movements that can offer a political alternative to the mass of people. The hope lies with the huge union mobilisations against the Howard government's assault on workers' rights and the continuing majority opposition to the continuing war in Iraq" (ISO statement, December 13 2005).

Scraping the barrel of economism, the Socialist Party likewise identified the union movement and the anti-war movement as the place to unify people in opposition to racism: "Racial tensions have been deliberately stoked up "¦ to scapegoat ethnic groups and divert attention away from social equality and working class unity "¦ [T]he response must be to link the fight against racism to the need to end the system that breeds it "¦ The Socialist Party, like the militant unions, links the fight against racism to the fight for real and secure jobs for workers, for a 35-hour week without loss in pay to share out available work, for free education from childcare to university and for a massive expansion of public transport and free recreational facilities" (SP statement, December 2005).

There you have it: the fight for the 35-hour week helps end racism. The disaffected youth rioting in France last year must have been rebelling against the watering down of the 35-hour week legislation then. The lack of political vision in such statements is breathtaking.

While capitalism came into the world steeped in blood and empire and racism, it has globalised and changed. It seeks top-down integration of various national and ethnic groups. It seeks control of labour-power on a world scale, but must do this through various competing states. It seeks to incorporate around the nation-state the various waves of migration that an increasingly globalised capital has dispersed. It seeks, invents, coopts or adapts to ideology that can achieve that. In Australia, as in the UK, that ideology is official multiculturalism.

Opinion polls conducted a week after the events at Cronulla showed that most people agree that there is an underlying racism in Australian society. This was flatly denied by John Howard and Kim Beazley (Beazley subsequently moderated his tone - no doubt after some focus group results came through on the matter). Yet, in an AC Nielsen survey of 1,423 voters on December 20, 81% said they supported or strongly supported a policy of multiculturalism. So do people just agree with the socialist left? Australia is racist and multiculturalism is a good thing. Or is the socialist left merely repeating the surface impressions of the majority of people without thinking deeper?

One of the main problems is that multiculturalism views cultures as static. The dominant 'host culture' (Anzacs, the monarchy, Bradman, convicts, England, empire) must be welcoming and accommodating to the 'new Australians' (noodles, falafels, islam, funny languages, smelly food). The reality is far more complex and official multiculturalism seeks to stifle that reality and that debate.

The left has largely seen multiculturalism as a victory against the racist 'white Australia' policy that dominated right up to the 1970s. And the introduction of multiculturalism as government policy was a recognition of, and response to, the battles of the ethnic rights movement, the trade unions, even the Communist Party. But it has, in essence, come to serve the needs of the ruling class in an increasingly diverse country. It is fundamentally about stability around the state: compartmentalised 'ethnic' groups become mere supplicants for funding and resources.

Meanwhile, some working-class 'Anglo' Australians feel left out - "left without even a stall at the multicultural fair", as Sydney University academic Ghassan Hage has written. It has alienated some, driving them into the realm of the nationalist and sometimes racist right. Witness the brief rise and fall of Pauline Hanson's One Nation.

These are controversial issues. There are deeper questions that require a further article.