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Friday essay: a response to the Cronulla riots, ten years on

The cultural context in which class, ethnic and racial tensions explode into open violence must be analysed honestly. AAP Image/Paul Miller

Friday essay: a response to the Cronulla riots, ten years on

In mid-December 2005, politicians of all persuasions branded the violent clashes that had just occurred on Sydney’s southern suburbs as “un-Australian”. Whether the term was being applied to the racist white thugs who attacked Lebanese beach-goers or to the Chardonnay sippers who defended the “new Australians” right to be there was sometimes not clear.

“Un-Australian” was a zeitgeisty linguistic shield a decade ago, successfully wielded by then Prime Minister Howard to fend off accusations that his government insidiously bred divisiveness and enmity among the populace.

(Ousted former Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently tried the same tactics with “Team Australia” but found the nation’s love of a sporting metaphor had hit a sticky wicket.)

Following the Cronulla riots, Howard looked us straight in the eye and told us that, “I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country”. Howard insisted that people would not “make judgements about Australia on incidents that occur over a period of a few days”. Cronulla was simply an isolated spot fire, a matter of law and temporarily disturbed order.

Former Australian Prime Minister John Howard holds a press conference in Sydney, following the 2005 Cronulla riots. AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Since 2005, the emergence of the Reclaim Australia movement and The Party for Freedom (tagline: “Sydney is fun: Cronulla is a riot”), among other outbursts of brute bigotry and unalloyed stupidity, suggests otherwise.

But, of course, violent civilian conflict is not a recent trend. You don’t have to dig very deep into Australia’s past to reveal multiple episodes of riotous behaviour. Some might say that the peasants have always been revolting.

In fact, Australia’s key foundation stories have a narrative arc based on the slow simmering of social tension and anxiety culminating in an explosive release of group hostility. Similarly, some of our most iconic spaces are written over by the language and logic of territorialism, resistance and cruelty.

These events and places are not footnotes to our history; not graffiti on a pristine landscape of harmonious national growth and development. The frontier violence that lies at the dark heart of our colonial beginnings is the first clue that Australians have always drawn lines in the sand with blood.

Chairman of the Party for Freedom Nicholas Folkes (centre) is confronted by Shayne Hunter (left) as he arrives at the Supreme Court in Sydney, Friday, Dec 4, 2015. AAP Image/Joel Carrett

Perhaps the armed defence of homeland from an invading force is not strictly riotous behaviour. (The Australian War Memorial doesn’t think it’s military behaviour either, for the record.) It is certainly unlikely that any redcoat or man in blue read the Riot Act before condemning Indigenous Australians to massacre.

But there are plenty of bona fides riots. In March 1804 at Castle Hill, 300 convicts rioted against their captors in the Vinegar Hill uprising, otherwise known as the Irish Convict Rebellion. Troops killed nine insurgents and the ringleaders were hanged.

In June 1861 at Lambing Flat, NSW, 3,000 miners attacked a Chinese camp on the diggings after months of mass protest meetings “for the purpose of taking into consideration whether [the district] is an European gold-field or a Chinese territory”. Tents were burned and the Chinese diggers fled for their lives. The NSW government considered the issue finally settled and restricted Chinese immigration.

The early-closing legislation that ushered in Australia’s infamous “six o’clock swill” had its origins during the first world war, as a response to a riot among soldiers.

The Liverpool Riot of 1916, otherwise known as the Battle of Central Station, saw 15,000 returned Australian soldiers (otherwise known as Anzacs) rampage drunkenly through the streets of Sydney. The soldiers looted shops, commandeered pubs and smashed the windows of stores with foreign sounding names.

Kalgoorlie after the race riots in 1934. Wikimedia Commons

In 1934, on Australia Day no less, simmering undercurrents in the Western Australian mining districts erupted in open conflict after a bar room brawl. The Kalgoorlie Boulder race riots, as the episode is conventionally known, began after a young, popular local footballer was knocked down and killed by an Italian barman at the Italian-owned Home from Home Hotel.

What followed, in apparent revenge for a mate’s death, was three days of riotous destruction and looting of hotels, shops and businesses belonging to the Italian and Slav communities. Witnesses reported that the mob “just got out of hand”. At the core of the conflagration lurked the politics of envy (imported European miners earned better wages than their local co-workers) and sensitivity to cultural difference.

One bystander reported that,“our women had to step out of the way when an Italian man walked down the street”. (The Cronulla rioters would use similar logic, claiming to be protecting clean Aussie sheilas from the Lebanese men who said “filthy things” to them at the beach.)

Burning down pubs is so common to the history of Australian political expression that it can almost be called a national pastime. Our most emblematic act of rebellion, the Eureka Stockade, also has its antecedents in the mob attack on a hotel.

In October 1854, a popular young miner was killed by a blow to the head outside Bentley’s Eureka Hotel, on the predominantly Irish-Catholic Eureka lead.

Battle of the Eureka Stockade (1834). JB Henderson. Watercolour. J. B. Henderson – State Library of NSW. Wikimedia Commons

The people suspected Bentley, the newly wealthy and well-connected, Irish-Protestant ex-convict publican. When local authorities exonerated Bentley, 5,000 miners converged on the hotel and burnt it to the ground. A subsequent parliamentary inquiry into “the Ballarat riots” found that the incendiary mob included men and women, frustrated at the arbitrary exercise of local justice and the dying hope that the newly appointed Governor Hotham would address miners’ hatred of the iniquitous license fee and lack of access to farming land.

Two months later, Hotham’s law-and-order response to the escalating grievances of the Ballarat population ended in carnage.

In 2004, in the same week as the 150th anniversary of the Eureka rebellion was being commemorated, residents of Palm Island rioted after the death in custody of a young Aboriginal man, with chilling echoes of the Redfern riots only ten months earlier.

Both incidents highlighted the “two tribes” mentality that existed between local residents and police in these areas. Informed commentators pointed to the underlying social problems of poverty, unemployment and alcoholism in both communities, problems that successive administrations repeatedly failed to address despite warning signs that intense aggravation was mounting. Blind Freddy, they said, could see it coming.

Riots are not like tsunamis. They do not rise out of nowhere, capriciously assailing all who stand in their way. Riots conform more to the laws of physics than acts of God: pour another teaspoon of liquid into a bowl that has reached its maximum surface tension and the bowl will overflow, no matter whether the last spoonful contained any more bitter medicine than the critical mass below.

A man is chased by an angry crowd at Cronulla beach in Sydney, Sunday, Dec. 11, 2005. AAP Image/Paul Miller

We might not be able to predict exactly when grievance will spill over into riot, but there are some striking parallels in the episodes here briefly recounted.

Young men. Alcohol. Revenge. Contest over shared terrain, whether between autocrats and democrats, insiders and outsiders, gaolers and inmates. A liminal space – the goldfields, the beach, an island – seemingly ungoverned by the rules of everyday life. The oppressive heat of an Australian summer. The peculiar allure and entertainment of mob activity. A sense of entitlement unfulfilled: golden opportunities, the lucky country, we were here first.

Of course, there are points of difference too. Miners at Eureka were responding to the myriad economic and social cleavages wrought by the rapid change of a gold rush, where convicts would be overnight kings. Residents of Cronulla – the “insular peninsula” – demonstrate a resistance to change, defending their long-held monoculture against a feared invader.

Either way, the lesson is that governments would do better to listen to the word on the street, and act with due diligence and a duty of care to all its citizens, rather than to resort to meaningless jingoism and finger-wagging.

The cultural context in which class, ethnic and racial tensions explode into open violence must be analysed honestly and intelligently, alert to (and alarmed by) the gap between rhetoric and reality, between expectation and delivery.

Australia was never terra nullius. Its streets were never lined with enough gold for all. Boys do not have to be boys.

And clearly, not everyone is relaxed and comfortable, or even optimistic and agile, in our sunny suburbs.