By the Socialist Equality Party
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The racist violence that exploded in the Sydney suburb of Cronulla
on December 11 has exposed the ugly face of Australian society. Intense social
pressures generated by the prolonged assault by the Howard government and its
Labor predecessors on living standards have erupted in a malignant and reactionary
form. A violent and drunken mob—draped in Australian flags, singing the
national anthem and chanting nationalist and racist slogans—sought out,
abused and physically assaulted anyone who appeared to be of Middle Eastern
Ordinary working people need to recognise the dangers contained in the situation.
Processes have been consciously set in train with direct parallels in the communal
violence that has plagued countries like Sri Lanka and the former Yugoslavia
for decades. Unscrupulous leaders, incapable of offering any progressive solution
to the social crisis they have helped create, have whipped up ethnic and religious
differences and fomented pogroms to divert attention from the devastation caused
by their own policies. The result has been a descent into conflict and civil
Whatever the national peculiarities, communal politics in Australia is no less
poisonous than in the Balkans or on the Indian subcontinent. The racialist violence
at North Cronulla beach erupted under conditions where the Howard government
has confronted widespread opposition to an avalanche of regressive legislation—from
the imposition of draconian anti-terror legislation to the full-privatisation
of Telstra and far-reaching changes to industrial relations legislation. The
cultivation of racialist tensions is aimed at cutting directly across the class
solidarity between workers of all backgrounds that has characterised recent
mass rallies and protests against the Iraq war, the IR laws and in defence of
There was nothing spontaneous or accidental about the 5,000-strong racist rally
on December 11. For an entire week following the alleged assault on a North
Cronulla beach lifeguard by a young Lebanese man, right-wing radio and newspaper
outlets whipped up a racialist campaign to “reclaim our beaches”
from “Lebanese gangs”. In particular, “shock jock” Alan
Jones, who has been prominent in creating a climate in which Muslims are the
target of continual abuse, called for a “community show of force”
against Lebanese youth and approvingly broadcast text messages calling for “a
Leb and wog bashing day”.
The beating of innocent individuals by a drunken mob screaming “Kill
the Leb b——ds” produced entirely predictable results. Attack
followed counter-attack, as rival gangs targetted people and property on the
basis of race. Churches were shot at and burned, while Australian neo-Nazi and
white supremacist outfits operated openly and were widely quoted in the media.
Racist incidents inspired by the Cronulla rally have now been reported in Western
Australia, Queensland, Victoria, and New Zealand.
The entire political establishment bears responsibility for the situation.
Ever since the September 11 terrorist attacks, Muslim Australians have been
the target of government scapegoating and fear mongering. The media has exploited
the so-called war on terror to portray Middle Eastern immigrants as a fifth
column for Al Qaeda. Muslim men, women, and children have been subjected to
countless racist assaults as well as extensive state surveillance and repeated
The Howard government has had the complete support of the Labor Party, at both
federal and state levels. In New South Wales (NSW), the state Labor government
has played an especially reactionary role in vilifying young people of Middle
Eastern descent. Under former premier Bob Carr, Labor has made “Lebanese
gangs” a focus of its “law-and-order” campaigns for over a
decade. In 2002, Carr used a high profile rape case to insinuate that all Lebanese
youth were potential gang rapists.
Having helped create a climate of fear, mistrust and tension, the Labor government
is exploiting the racial violence to advance its own right-wing agenda. The
NSW parliament held an emergency session on December 15 to ram through draconian
police powers that had long been in preparation. Every state politician, including
the Greens, backed what Premier Morris Iemma described as “extraordinary
powers for extraordinary times”. The laws allow police to declare “lockdown”
areas of unlimited size.
The legislation was immediately used in an unprecedented operation on December
17-18 involving thousands of police, including newly bolstered riot squads.
On the basis of unspecified “police intelligence”, Iemma called
on the public to stay away from beaches throughout Sydney and in Newcastle and
Wollongong. Police roadblocks searched and arbitrarily turned cars with young
people away from Cronulla and other beaches, impounded vehicles, confiscated
mobile phones and detained several people. A front-page headline in Murdoch’s
tabloid, the Daily Telegraph, on December 19 blared out the purpose of these
police-state measures: “Sydney, Get Used To This”.
The events in Sydney recall those in Paris, where the French ruling elites
have exploited the eruption of violent anti-police protests by African immigrant
youth to impose an extraordinary three-month state of emergency and to push
through new anti-terror legislation. Likewise in Australia, the entire spectrum
of official politics has reacted to the Sydney riot by supporting a ramping
up of police powers and blaming the violence on “alienated Lebanese youth”
who have failed “to fit into Australian society”. State Labor governments
around the country are already drawing up legislation similar to that in NSW.
No credence should be placed in claims that massive police mobilisations are
required to end racial violence and safeguard the rights of ordinary citizens.
New South Wales police are notorious for their entrenched racism and their persecution
of the most oppressed layers of the working class—particularly Aboriginal
and immigrant youth. They act on behalf of a ruling elite that will not and
cannot address the profound social crisis that lies behind such eruptions in
any way other than state repression.
White Australia racism
Prime Minister Howard immediately sided with the instigators of the December
11 violence. Refusing to brand the attacks on Muslims as racist, he declared:
“I think it’s important that we do not rush to judgement about these
events. I think [racism] is a term that is flung around sometimes carelessly
and I’m simply not going to do so.” He later expressed his approval
of the thugs who wrapped themselves in the national flag, saying: “Look,
I would never condemn people for being proud of the Australian flag.”
Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley took a similar tack. Deliberately passing
over the racist character of the violence, he declared: “This is simply
criminal behaviour and that’s all there is to it. Two areas of it—Cronulla
and Maroubra [beach]—that is what has to be cracked down on, and that
it what I would urge the police forces to do.”
This bipartisan reaction raises critical political issues. Since the formation
of the Australian nation in 1901, the entire political establishment has advocated
a form of nationalism that has always been deeply rooted in racist conceptions.
For the founding fathers, including those of the newly established Labor Party,
advocating a “White Australia” became the ideological cement for
welding together the six British colonies in the face of a powerful and combative
working class. Fear of “Asian hordes”, intent upon invading the
great southern continent and who threatened to “pollute” the “superior
white race” was used as a means of promoting a sense of “national
identity” and an “Australian way of life”.
In every political crisis since the beginning of the twentieth century, the
government of the day has invariably played the race card to undermine working
class solidarity and to prevent the development of socialist consciousness.
Right up until the late 1960s, Labor and conservative governments maintained
an openly racist immigration policy that barred Asians and blacks from entering
the country. Only in the 1970s, as North East Asia became Australia’s
largest trading partner, was the policy modified and a new form of nationalism
based on “multi-culturalism” advanced in its place.
While multiculturalism met the requirements of the more globally oriented sections
of capital, and was hailed as a more enlightened and tolerant perspective, it
actually served the same class function: to promote different cultural, religious
and ethnic “identities” as a counterweight to the unity of the working
class. The new policy did not challenge White Australia racism in any fundamental
way. Indeed, by encouraging identification on the basis of ethnicity, “multiculturalism”
has directly contributed to the present communal tensions.
In the 1980s, as the Labor government’s market reforms led to growing
social inequities, politicians of all stripes increasingly attempted to divert
the resulting frustration and discontent of masses of people in racialist directions.
By the early 1990s, the Hawke Labor government was fomenting anti-immigrant
sentiment, imposing mandatory detention on “boat people”, stripping
refugees of basic legal rights and, with the backing of the trade unions, carrying
out police dragnets of factories and suburbs to detain and deport so-called
In the Liberal Party, John Howard, a committed advocate of economic restructuring,
sought to cultivate a social base for his policies among the most backward social
layers. As early as 1985, he began utilising his “dog whistle” politics,
encouraging anti-Asian prejudice by calling for cutbacks to immigration from
Asia. While not an open advocate of White Australia racism, Howard has championed
the revival of the old symbols of Australian nationalism and pandered to those
who blame the most oppressed layers of the working class—immigrants, Aborigines
and welfare recipients—for unemployment, crime and poverty.
Throughout the past decade, in the face of widespread opposition to his free
market program, Howard has openly resorted to the politics of manipulating ignorance
and fear. He won the 1996 election, not by advancing his policies, but by appealing
to the “Aussie battlers” who had been savaged by Labor’s policies
of privatisation, spending cuts and economic restructuring.
Once in office, Howard immediately launched a far-reaching assault on workers’
rights along with vicious cutbacks to public education, health and welfare.
Amid growing opposition, Howard embraced the reactionary nostrums of right-wing
populist Pauline Hanson as legitimate topics for public debate. The media followed
suit, promoting her attacks on immigrants and Aborigines as a convenient safety
valve for mounting popular frustration and anger. Once Hanson’s One Nation
Party began threatening the stability of the two-party system, the political
establishment pulled the plug, launching a witchhunt involving police raids,
legal attacks and the jailing of Hanson herself on trumped up charges.
Howard quickly moved to capture Hanson’s right-wing constituency. In
the lead-up to the 2001 election, facing almost certain defeat, Howard adopted
many of One Nation’s policies, provoking the infamous Tampa crisis, and
then deploying the navy to prevent “boat people” landing in Australia.
He then set about slandering a group of Asian refugees, and creating a climate
of hysteria over possible Asian “invaders”. With the complete support
of Labor, Howard exploited the 2001 terror attacks to further poison the atmosphere,
branding asylum seekers as potential terrorists.
For the unity of the working class
In February 2003, the largest protests in Australian history took place as
part of a global movement against militarism and war. The demonstrations involved
millions of people determined to take a unified, international stand against
the criminal invasion of Iraq and the governments responsible for it.
Similar anti-capitalist sentiments were expressed in the global outpouring
of sympathy and support for the victims of the Asian tsunami one year ago and
again in a series of protests and strikes in different parts of the world against
the impact of free-market policies. The more pronounced the groundswell of opposition,
the more the political and media establishment has come together, under the
banner of “the war on terror” to advocate reaction all down the
line: militarism abroad and an ever-expanding onslaught on basic democratic
rights and living standards at home.
In the sphere of ideology, all the muck of the past is being dredged up. Right-wing
academics and commentators in Australia have launched an offensive to rewrite
what they disparagingly term the “black armband” view of history
and eliminate the genocide of Aborigines from the textbooks. Efforts are being
made to breathe life back into Anzac Day—the anniversary of the ignominious
allied campaign during World War I to defeat Turkey—as a celebration of
Australian military prowess. A government campaign is underway to compel all
public schools to conduct flag raising ceremonies.
In the wake of the Sydney riot, Murdoch’s Australian featured an op-ed
piece by Con George Kotzabasis reviving the discredited pseudo-scientific theory
of Social Darwinism. “Like most things in life, cultures are in a perennial
state of competition,” he declared. “No dynamic culture in its acceleration
to achieve its goals will stop to pick up a culture that lags behind, or treat
it equally. It’s the latter that has to catch up with the former. In our
case, the adherents of Islamic culture must be willing to cast off all the parts
that are incompatible with Western culture, if they are going to be successful
in achieving their ambitions in the modern world and not teeter on the precipice
of hopelessness and despair. This is an elemental law of biology. Species that
cannot adapt to their new environment wither away.”
In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, the so-called biological law
of the “survival of the fittest” was the underpinning of many racist
theories. Kotzabasis’s assertion that Muslims must adapt or perish echoes
the Australian colonial administrators who presided over the slaughter of Aborigines
declaring that the eventual destruction of the “backward race” was
inevitable. Social Darwinism was also the basis for the anti-Semitism advanced
by the German Nazis to justify the annihilation of the Jewish people and culture.
Even a decade ago, Kotzabasis’s comment would have been denounced as racist
drivel. Today it is promoted in the mainstream press as a legitimate topic for
Many people are genuinely disgusted and concerned by the racist violence at
Cronulla beach, and by the reaction of Howard and official political and media
circles. Letter writers to newspapers—one of the few avenues for any expression
of dissent—have been quick to draw the comparison between Howard’s
2001 election campaign slogan “We will decide who comes to this country,
and the circumstances under which they come” and the violent mob determined
to drive “Lebs” and “Wogs” off Cronulla beach. Various
priests, ethnic leaders and small ‘l’ liberal commentators have
sought to appeal to the sentiments expressed by these letter writers, calling
for greater community understanding and the promotion of multiculturalism.
The roots of the Cronulla riot, however, are not to be found in the “breakdown”
of multiculturalism. Rather, the eruption of racist violence on Sydney’s
beaches is the cancerous expression of the extreme tensions being generated
in Australian society by the deepening gulf between rich and poor. Lebanese
immigrants and youth, who are among the most oppressed layers of the working
class, are deliberately being vilified to divert attention from the failings
of the profit system, which has no future for the vast majority of the younger
generation. The youth of Sydney’s beach suburbs, who are being egged on
by right-wing commentators, are also the victims of two decades of economic
restructuring that has destroyed apprenticeships and permanent jobs and sent
Howard constantly refers to “the Australian way of life”, but there
are two Australias. There is the Australia of the rich, who have accumulated
unprecedented wealth over the last two decades through the incessant drive for
greater productivity at the direct expense of jobs and conditions, and the outright
plunder of the public purse. The combined wealth of the richest 200 individuals
reached a staggering $71.5 billion in 2004. Then there is the Australia of working
people, the majority of whom are struggling from day to day to make ends meet
and finding it increasingly difficult. At the bottom end of the scale, more
than four million people live below the poverty line. The ruling class has only
one solution to this burgeoning social disaster: the stepping up of police state
measures side by side with the diversion of social tensions in politically reactionary
Moral outrage against racism and its political purveyors is not enough. The
only genuine antidote to the poison of communalism is an independent political
movement of the working class based on the rejection of all forms of racism,
communalism and nationalism, and the abolition of social inequality and want
through the refashioning of society along socialist lines. The profit system,
based on the unrestrained accumulation of corporate and personal wealth, is
simply incompatible with the complex social demands of modern society.
Such a struggle necessarily transcends national borders. The allies of workers
in Australia are not to be found in the company boardrooms and parliamentary
corridors of the nation’s capitals, but among working people around the
world who confront the same oppressive conditions and the same corporate exploiters.
In fighting for their own independent class interests, all workers have the
elementary duty to champion the democratic right of immigrants and refugees
to live and work in any country of their choosing.
The events of the past week highlight the urgent need for a genuine political
alternative to capitalist politics and the two-party system. Without this, the
mounting tensions lying just beneath the surface of social life will continue
to fester, finding expression in increasingly malignant and destructive forms.
The Socialist Equality Party calls on all those opposed to racism to probe its
deeper social causes and to join the struggle to create a genuinely egalitarian
and democratic society, based on the needs of the vast majority, not the wealth
and profits of the few.