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And the Mob Sang Waltzing Matilda

And the Mob Sang Waltzing Matilda

Cronulla and Howard's Wedge Politics
By Yasmine Ryan
Images courtesy of

In a quiet West Australian suburban town that I visited shortly before Christmas, residents were appalled by a particularly vicious and shocking incident. A local woman had returned to her home to find her Christmas lights savagely vandalised. Most had been stolen, and in a particularly callous act, her blow-up Santa had been brutally punctured. What kind of monster could do such a thing?, they asked.

Conversation was also dominated by anger at the growing 'politically-correct' aversion to Christmas. Fear of litigation, allegedly, meant that Santas can no longer give children lollies or have them on their laps without express permission from parents. Santas now can’t be photographed with children without their hands being fully visible. Even saying “Ho, ho, ho” has been forbidden.

The locals shook their heads at those who would replace “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays”, and purge Christmas of its overtly Christian elements. The drive for inclusiveness and a neurotic fear of offending minorities was viewed by these Aussie battlers as an onslaught on the “Australian way”. Now even Christmas was at stake. The PC brigade was out of control!


On 11 December 2005, on the other side of the country, 5,000 angry Australians converged on the Sydney suburb of Cronulla to “reclaim the beach”.

The gathering was triggered by an attack by Lebanese youths on a surf lifesaver the previous week. Many came in response to a text message which called on every “Aussie” to “support Leb and wog bashing day. Bring your mates and let's show them that this is our beach and they are never welcome ... let's kill these boys.” Booze-fuelled violence ensued.

Inhabitants of West Australia were less appalled by these antics than they were by the – admittedly ridiculous – antics surrounding vandalised Christmas lights and repressed Santas. It became increasingly clear that this has something to do with their particular world view. While the locals couldn’t understand the overly zealous “inclusive” rhetoric behind attacks on the institution of Christmas, they could comprehend what had led to the violence on Cronulla beach. More than that, they tended to identify with the perpetrators of the latter violence.

One man I spoke to took the view that the events in NSW, while regrettable, were a long time coming. He admitted that, yes, things had got out of control, what with the violence and all. But he attributed that largely to the alcohol and the sun, rather than malice or worse.

This subdued reaction to the Cronulla race riots was consistent with the racist comments that I heard from the mouths of many West Australians. Although racism is a global phenomenon, I was struck by the naivety of this particular branch of it. There appears to be a complete lack of self-awareness within, to use Don Brash’s term, “mainstream” Australian culture. They just do not seem to realise that what they are saying is racist. (I’m not racist, but…)

Thus an otherwise charming elderly woman could tell me matter-of-factly that she had to plant a tree in her garden to block the neighbour’s front door “because Aboriginals moved in”. And a government official at a dinner I attended announced in the presence of several of his Aboriginal employees, that currently Aborigines “are being bred out.”

Foreigners, I was told by another woman, just couldn’t understand what Australians are subjected to by their indigenous population. “I was so surprised when I went to New Zealand to see Maoris were driving buses and actually working”, she said.

Surfing the Wave

This xenophobic world view is not limited to small and isolated Australian towns, however. In the face of the disgraceful events of the previous day, Prime Minister John Howard said on 12 December that “I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country, I have always taken a more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people.”

Contrary to what many others feel, Howard argued that Australian society “remains tolerant”. In addition to this blind denial, Howard condemned “tribalism”, saying “Any emergence of so-called ethnic gangs is a manifestation of tribalism and something ... we should try to discourage.”

Yet when Howard referred to the bane of tribalism, he was not talking about those who had flaunted slogans such as “We Grew Here, You Flew Here”, “Wog Free Zone” and “Ethnic Cleansing Unit”. Those who rallied fascist-style around the Australian flag singing Waltzing Mathilda in an outburst of feverish nationalism did not, according to Howard, adhere to this “culture of tribalism”. He used Cronulla to condemn the very ethnic minorities that were its victims.

For while Howard did not wish to associate himself too closely with the skin-heads and their entourage, they represent his core constituency. And so it was not anything as sinister as racism, but rather “the always explosive combination of a large number of people at the weekend and a large amount of alcohol” that fuelled the chaos. Even more, he somewhat coyly suggested, there also was “an accumulated sense of grievance - the full extent of which I don't pretend to know.”

Having, in the very same statement, denied that there was racism involved, Howard therefore views this “sense of grievance” in the same way that many average Australians do – as legitimate.

Last Tuesday, Australia’s Federal Attorney-General Philip Ruddock placed further responsibility on the Muslim community for the pre-Christmas events. Speaking by invitation at Sydney’s Lakemba Mosque, Ruddock managed to offend the 10,000-strong crowd of Muslims, who were gathered to celebrate the first day of the Eid al-Adha. He chose one of the holiest days in the Islamic calendar to lecture that community that “when you are Australian, as all Australians, you have a responsibility to uphold the laws of this country”.

“Mainstream” Australians agreed with Howard when he refused to see racism in the mob violence of Cronulla Beach. Likewise, they empathise with his party’s emphasis on the need for Muslim minorities to integrate into Australian society. And he has been rewarded with a surge in the polls this week, thus recovering the losses incurred by the drastic industrial relations reforms of late last year.

Howard is an expert at exploiting Australians’ xenophobia for political gains. Aboriginals, asylum seekers and numerous other groups have fallen victim to his populist tendencies, the most infamous example being the Tampa refugees.

In the context of the “War On Terror”, Muslims living in Australia can expect an ongoing campaign of demonisation from the Howard Government – a campaign that was already in full flight pre-Cronulla. The Cronulla race riots did not happen in a vacuum, and with a government like this in power, are unlikely to be the last such out break of communal violence.

Hyped-up paranoia over terrorist threats has created the impression for many Australians that they are at risk from Australian Muslims. An “anti-terror alert” in June 2005 was followed by a totalitarian-style armed police raid on several Muslim households, manufacturing fodder for the media which it obligingly sensationalised.

Ethnic minorities in Australia haven’t heard the last from PM Howard. The confirmation that Howard will be delivering an important speech on “national identity” to the National Press Club on 25 January suggests that he is planning on surfing this particular nationalist wave for a while yet.

Many other politicians have used wedge politics throughout history. It is worth noting the fine tradition that Howard is following. Hitler blamed the Jews for not conforming to the German national ideal. More recently, Slobodan Milosovic cynically exploited his fellow Serbs’ distrust of the Croatians, Bosnian Muslims, and ethnic Albanians.

Some leaders unify their nation and represent all diverse groups. Others choose a particular religious or ethnic group as their constituency, while demonising others for political gain. Opportunist politicians almost invariably play a causal role in ethnic conflict.

The Australian Liberal-Country Government is not running a campaign of terror and violence on the same scale as some other regimes in modern history. But the difference is in shades of grey.


Yasmine Ryan is Scoop's international issues reporter.


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