A week has now passed since the events at Cronulla in Sydney. Where are we now?
First thing to mention is the large-scale police response. Two thousand police were assigned to guard the beaches today (Sunday), and six popular beaches were declared unsafe for public use.
Most remarkably, an entire suburb, Brighton-le-Sands, was placed in total lockdown under new laws, after five men (it’s not specified whether Australian or Lebanese) were arrested driving a car laden with a large drum of petrol, police scanners, and equipment for making molotov cocktails.
A police statement declared that there had been “an escalation in anti-social behaviour,” though newspaper reports have described the beaches themselves as quiet.
That, briefly, is the situation on the ground. But what of the political response?
There have been at least three major lines of thought circulating through the Australian media. The first is the one I have already described, namely, that Sydney is different and that the events at Cronulla couldn’t happen elsewhere in Australia.
After the course of the week I have further reason to doubt this claim. Listening to talkback radio in Melbourne during the week, there were many calls from young working-class Australian men aggrieved by bashings at the hands of Lebanese, or at the mistreatment of local women. One man rang in to explain why he and twenty of his mates were planning to go to Sydney “in solidarity”. A work colleague, too, told me that his son wanted to go to Sydney to support the Australians, and some of my students indicated the same thing.
The second political response has been a debate within the political class about whether or not Australians are racist. This debate is significant because it touches on important ideological differences between left-wing and right-wing liberals in this country – but I’ll go into this in a future post.
Which leaves the third political response. Increasingly the media is blaming Cronulla on the activities of what they call neo-nazis or white supremacists. There is a mood in the media and among the police to attack these “far-right” groups.
For instance, a story in today’s Herald Sun is headlined “Neo-Nazi link in race riots” and begins by informing us that “Australia’s intelligence services are investigating the role of neo-Nazi groups in Sydney’s race riots”. Another recent story in The Age was headlined “White supremacists hide in quiet suburbs” and began by claiming “The shadowy far-right may be behind Sydney’s race riots”. Academic James Jupp has written an article for The Australian in which he declares that multiculturalism won’t work unless “poisonous racist groups are crushed with the force of laws”.
Which is all very odd. The groups being talked about here are minuscule, poorly organised and are probably best described as white nationalist groups rather than white supremacist or neo-nazi. They themselves claimed to have fifteen people at Cronulla, which is probably a fair assessment of their numerical strength.
The Age article I cited above, in which two intrepid reporters tried to track down white supremacists in Melbourne, is particularly revealing. The journalists found a defunct post office box, a woman living in the country town of Shepparton and a man rumoured to be living in a Melbourne suburb. Not exactly a revolutionary force.
And yet we are supposed to take seriously the idea that such forces were responsible for an unprecedented rally of 5000 people at Cronulla and that the might of the Australian state should be mobilised to counter the challenge of the “far-right”?
It’s absurd – so much so that it poses the question of why the liberal political class should arrive at such an irrational response.