Rattling multicultural myths

The 2005 Cronulla riots expose official multicultarism as a broken edifice

Marcus Strom looks at the background to the riots, the response of the establishment, and critiques the response of the Marxist left, that continues to tail official (i.e. bourgeois) multicultarist ideology.

On December 11, 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 hodge-podge of Anglo-Celtic Australians, boozed-up local youth from Sydney's Sutherland Shire, racist ring-ins looking for a stoush, chauvinist flag-wavers looking for 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. While establishment politicians, Labor and conservative, have tried to treat the riots as a mere law-and-order issue, of a matter for the police to deal with "yobbos", it is clear to anyone with sense that such events do not appear out of thin air.

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, outdoors lifestyle, sun-and-sand culture are a somewhat exaggerated and partial reflection of that part of Sydney. In a largely 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. And Cronulla is the only Sydney beach accessible by train by "westies" from the poorer western suburbs.

Commentary has touched on many such sociological aspects that led to these disturbances: gang violence among a minority of Lebanese-Australian youth; gangs at the beach; urban tribalism; testosterone; sexism; alcohol; drugs; alienation. It is not a new problem. I grew up in a Sydney beach suburb; the mantra of the surfies and the clubbies [surf lifesavers] (who despise each other) was the same: no wogs and no westies. In the 1960s, the beaches were the scene of gang violence between the westies and the surfies; Anglo tribes of a different age.

Further there are the matters of incitement by the state and the political elite. In desperation to win the 2001 federal election, prime minister John Howard claimed that asylum seekers on the Tampa were threatening to throw their children overboard. 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." (Campaign launch, October 28, 2001)

The corollary of this was picked up by more than one newspaper cartoonist; they depicted rioter's T-shirts with the slogan "We will decide who comes to this beach and the circumstances in which they come".

The NSW Labor government unveiled a "zero-tolerance policy" 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. (SMH, January 18)

There were gang-rapes in western Sydney around 2000 where the accused or convicted were young Muslim men. The racial tension this caused, beaten up by premier Carr and various shockjocks, added to the fuel that exploded on December 11 last year. 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 also allow for the lockdown and search of entire suburbs. The accused have also 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 usually organised in gangs. I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of someone found guilty of "Leb-bashing" in a 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 backward ideas towards women exist throughout society, especially 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 the Cronulla events goes to the heart of one of the central political contradictions in modern Australia. There is a crisis in what I will call "official muliticulturalism". The bigoted and chauvinist right has announced the ignominious collapse of muliticulturalism. 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 shockjock 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 whip up the December 11 riot by reading out text messages inciting people to attend Cronulla on the day of the affray.

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 said: "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) The week before he said: "For the most part, multiculturalism in Australia has worked well. The violence of last weekend was not evidence of the breakdown of multiculturalism but, rather, its absence."

Responding to a question from a journalist, Labor's opposition leader Kim Beazley said: "This is criminal behaviour, both at Cronulla and at Maroubra, just criminal behaviour. Australian multiculturalism is alive and well. Just take a look a few weeks ago - same city - the response to Australia's World Cup [football] 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) Beazley makes an explicit link between multiculturalism, stability and unity around the bourgeois nation through multiculturalism, identity and sport.

The socialist left outside the Labor Party is largely uncritical in its support for multiculturalism. This displays a very shallow understanding of these matters. They take it all on face value. Who could be against a society of tolerance for all cultures? Isn't it a good thing that the racist White Australia policy is finished with? For the socialist left, the main problem is "capitalism" and "racism". But here they are in a quandry. How can the state be racist and in favour 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.

Much 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. However, while identifying capitalism as the problem is true to varying degrees of abstraction, all left organisations have missed 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 muliticulturalism as a gain for the working class against a racist ruling class. The program of Democratic Socialist Perspective says: "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 gushing in his uncritical praise for multiculturalism. And while he points out many of the positive features of migration, assimilation and cultural tolerance, he merely sees it as a victory (which it partially is) but fails to see the role played by multiculturalism in cohering various waves of migration around the capitalist state. (Multiculturalism and Australian national identity, 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 said: "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)

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 and free buses 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 the origins of capital are steeped in blood and empire and racism, it has globalised and changed. It seeks top-down integration of various national and ethnic groups. It wants control of the labour force on a world scale. It seeks to incorporate around the nation-state the various waves of migration that an increasingly globalised capital has dispersed. It seeks, invents, co-opts or adapts to ideology that can achieve that. In Australia, 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 slightly altered his tone; no doubt after some focus group results came through on the matter.) Yet, in an AC Nielsen survey of 1423 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?


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