A perspective from Perth, Western Australia

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Cronulla riots - a Canadian perspective

From Daniel's LJ, which I'll simply quote as I can't better it.

I've been following the Cronulla Beach riots in Sydney with some interest, but also the smugness that seems to have entered the Canadian dialogue on this event. I even read a guy on Globe and Mail Online saying that Australia's the only place that has riots! So I have put my virtual pen to paper - just my thoughts, but let me know what you think.

I am concerned at the reaction of some of my fellow Canadians to the race riots in Sydney. I think we have a tendency to brush our own problems under the carpet while focusing on those of others, and our own problems do exist. An Australian landing in Vancouver, for example, would find the extent of homelessness in this city beyond belief and actually confronting, yet we take it for granted. Could it be that no Australian city has the same problems? Could it be that an Australian worker at the lower levels earns 50% more than a Canadian worker doing the same job? Canada has problems, and saying nothing and ignoring them only perpetuates those problems rather than creating a constructive dialogue to solve them.

Also, for people of a country so easily misunderstood and stereotyped ourselves, I think we are too willing to stereotype Australia based on either the actions of the few or of fictitious characters like 'Crocodile Dundee' and, well, 'Crocodile Hunter', while cringing at overseas questions about Mounties and 'Northern Exposure'. Most Australians in fact live in large cities and live much like us. Like Canada, people hold different opinions about race, some of them quite reactionary, many of them more liberal, but regardless, tend to be peaceful in action.

I'd like to put two powerful words on the table - economics and fear. They appear in every major drama on the world stage from the late 19th century onward. From lynching colonial outsiders in West Africa, to labelling and gassing them in Auschwitz, to shutting the disadvantaged majority out of modern life in South Africa to protect the wealthy (but scared) minority, and then the Cold War - which was all about First World fears and threats, but affected the rest of the world to such an extent that the need for the term "developing countries" was impossible to ignore - followed by the Balkan wars, where just like Northern Ireland, the other side was evil from birth, you would think we as a world would have learned that economic disparities that affect groups and policies that directly or indirectly target those groups at the same time combine to unleash anger, fear and chaos. I find it ironic that while Cronulla burns, the world's leaders are in Hong Kong discussing the West's complete intransigence on, of all things, agricultural subsidies. Why should we pay our farmers to be unproductive while half the world starves to death because they can't sell their produce on our supposedly open market?

Australia has not been spared. They have disadvantaged groups, and groups who fear change to their society or lifestyle. This sentiment has been egged on by cynical electioneering politics by both of the major political parties, in part to take votes from populist right-wing parties advocating simplistic racial solutions. Echoes of election campaigns past can be found in the very words of some of those at Cronulla as published in recent newspapers around the world. "We decide who come into our country/beaches". Who's us? Who's we? Australia has only aggressively pursued multiculturalism for about 20-30 years. In that time there have been many other changes in society - social, economic, religious - that in many cases are quite unrelated to immigration. But those changes shift people's comfort zones and some who have trouble coping with that need someone to target.


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