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Minorities behaving badly

By Peter van Vliet - posted Tuesday, 13 December 2005

The riots in Sydney are a timely reminder to all that peaceful relations between all people can never be assumed or taken for granted, even here in plentiful and abundant Australia. If world history tells us anything it is that successfully managing multicultural communities requires careful attention and leadership from all of us - and doesn’t just happen by accident.

As an Australian patriot, I felt ashamed to see young thugs wrapping themselves in Australian flags to justify racist violence. I equally condemn the anti-social and violent behaviour of some ethnic gangs, which sparked the riots. As a regular interstate visitor to Cronulla I feel saddened from a distance that such a glorious part of our pacific coastline, a celebrated Australian suburban icon of Puberty Blues fame, descended into such chaos and thuggery on Sunday.

At an immediate practical level, Bruce Baird, MP, is correct when he says we need a police presence on Sydney’s beaches. Thousands of people congregate on Australia’s beaches each summer but few of us can ever remember seeing a policeman there. A low-key police presence to guard against anti-social behaviour is a sensible idea. Ultimately governments must take some responsibility for ensuring the good behaviour of large crowds. This task should not be left to teenage lifeguards. The police and courts should also throw the full weight of the law at all the people of all backgrounds who behaved criminally last Sunday. In Australia, there should be zero tolerance for racial violence in any direction.


At the broader level, Australians need to reaffirm our commitment to the immigration project. Australia had always integrated generations of migrants successfully. My father was a Dutch immigrant who married an Australian and came to love this country more than his country of origin. After him came Greeks and then Vietnamese, who successfully integrated into the Australia milieu. Melbourne remains a city of mostly peaceful multiculturalism, yet Sydney seems to have stalled on the successful integration of its more recent immigrant communities.

What is needed now is goodwill on both sides. Goodwill from longer established Australians to again successfully negotiate our next wave of immigrants, and leadership from Sydney’s Middle Eastern community who need to tell a small minority of their young men that mindless violence and thuggery is unwanted. Equally the parents of the European-Australians who disgraced them selves on Sunday need to tell their children their actions also disgraced our nation.

Australia’s beaches are our sanctuaries. They are places where people go to relax and mingle. They are places of peace and enjoyment. They are quite possibly the best beaches in the world. They are not places for ethnic turf battles. Our beaches are for all of our citizens and indeed all our visitors to enjoy.

In more recent times Australia’s beaches have also developed a particular egalitarianism, which needs to be celebrated and respected. The great thing about Australia’s beaches is that anyone, at anytime and of any background, can find a place in the sun there. Private ownership of beaches has never taken hold in Australia and nor should we accept de facto group ownership of beaches, whether it be by local surfies in Byron Bay, European Australians in Cronulla, or by Melbourne’s establishment at Portsea back beach.

And sitting by, watching all this in slight bemusement, must be Australia’s Indigenous people, here since time immemorial. They were having violent turf battles with English immigrants on Sydney’s beaches over 200 years ago and in Victoria’s south-west 150 years ago. Seeing Anglo-Celtic Australians claim some of Australia’s beaches as their own (having “owned” them since about one minute to midnight) must seem slightly ironic to them.

The challenge for Sydney, its government and its various communities is to get the Australian immigration project back on track. Put simply Australia is a society of immigrants, successfully built on immigration. Our latest census data shows that nearly 30 per cent of Australians were born overseas and no single ancestral category lays claim to more than 30 per cent of our population. Like the United States, immigration is what makes us tick, even if some of the louts in southern Sydney haven’t quite worked this out yet.


Immigration in Australia has been about building trust and bonds between people of different ethnicity and culture over time. It requires recognition and respect in all directions. It’s about being good neighbours and accepting basic rules of decent behaviour and common Australian citizenship.

Australians come together at the beach and in some ways it’s not surprising that this is where some minor cracks in the immigrant project have begun to emerge. But before we end up like some European countries, characterised by racial tension and violence, let’s accept the need for respect and goodwill all round.

The small minority of people who have behaved so badly in Sydney over the last few weeks need to accept that ethnic violence, racism and intolerance of any kind, are deplorable and unwanted. Communal violence must have no place in 21st century Australia. Now is the time for all of us to pause, reflect and think about the small steps we can make in our own lives to keep Australia united and strong. The last few days should remind us this doesn’t happen by accident but requires constant effort and goodwill all round.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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