It has already been a long hot summer in Sydney, Australia, where I am writing this article, and the season still has at least two months to go.
Rioting and racist violence began on the second weekend in December on a beach in Cronulla, a suburb in the city’s south. Disturbances — primarily between Australians of Lebanese descent and their white Australian attackers — spread to other beaches, forcing the state of New South Wales to impose curfews and crack down on rioters. Virtually all social commentators and a host of politicians admitted that the violence, which left many injured, was fueled by racism.
But Australia’s arch-conservative prime minister, John Howard, has consistently denied there is any racist undertone to the incidents. He views them as “primarily a law-and-order issue.”
In fact, the blame for Australia’s worst race riots since the country abandoned its heinous White Australia policy more than 30 years ago can be laid squarely at the feet of Mr. Howard. Over his past nine years in office, Howard and his coterie of yes-ministers have effectively re-embraced an image of Australia as an Anglo-Celtic outpost in faraway Asia. While the United States and the United Kingdom have continued to integrate non-Anglo-Celtic minorities into their societies, Australia’s enthusiasm for multiculturalism has been largely a colorful lifestyle veneer pasted over a structure of ingrained provincialism.
Thanks to Howard and his cohorts in power, however, even that veneer is being stripped away and the true color of the Australian ethos is resurfacing.
With its inhumane detention of refugees and asylum seekers, among them many children, its gung-ho participation in the American and British incursion into Iraq, its lack of a Bill of Rights guaranteeing freedom of expression, and its newly reinforced sedition laws, Australia is now arguably the Western world’s least democratic democracy.
Laid-back and easygoing
And yet Australia prides itself on being a tolerant nation, whose citizens see themselves as being laid-back and easygoing. But being laid-back and easygoing doesn’t necessarily make for tolerance. In this case, it simply means that the populace will not interfere in the customs and social practices of their ethnic minorities so long as the members of those minorities do not set foot into the corridors of power controlled by the embedded white majority.
Australia’s lawmakers and opinion formers in the media are overwhelmingly of white European stock. Though Australia is a parliamentary democracy modeled on the political system in the United Kingdom, Australians have, by and large, seen themselves as enjoying a social democracy in the American grain. Australians share with Americans a disdain for stern authority and pomposity. They fancy themselves as people who give others a fair go in a fair society.
But there is one significant element distinguishing American society from Australian: the application of merit.
American social democracy is deep rooted and egalitarian. Though there are glaring inequities in areas of the South and Midwest, and similar pockets in the cities, Americans sincerely admire those who excel at what they do. A Japanese baseball player is judged by his batting average and not by his command of English. A Hispanic-American can become a member of the president’s cabinet, as can a black woman. Americans have created the world’s most democratic meritocracy — which is in part why so many emigrants wish to live in the United States.
Australians, by contrast, are famous for their desire to lop off the heads of taller-growing poppies. They are wary of non-mainstream “over-achievers.” Australia is a great country for immigrants who wish to hunker down placidly, to fashion a decent living for themselves and their families without stirring the ethnic, political, religious or social pot. Successful and tolerated Australian immigrants are those who want to blend in and be like everyone else. Americans, who generally think they are better than anyone else anyway, look up to immigrants who push the social and economic envelope.
The government of Prime Minister Howard has bent over backward to support the Bush administration in its post-9/11 war on perceived enemies. So much so that many people in Asia see Australia as a surrogate enforcer of the American will. In reality, however, Australia has been much more than a malleable partner-in-aggression.
Belligerent and persistent
During the Vietnam War, the Australian government not only wholeheartedly supported the U.S. invasion of Southeast Asia, it urged the Johnson and Nixon administrations to be belligerent and persistent long after public opinion in both the U.S. and Australia had turned against the war. Australians are wont to excuse themselves for the sins of their “superiors.” This feigned meekness can be no more than a mask for a narrowly programmed international bloody-mindedness.
Similarly, the Howard regime has instituted policies and passed laws that go far beyond the wildest dreams of a Bush or a Cheney. The government introduced a new anti-sedition bill into parliament on Nov. 3 last year. The bill passed into law on Dec. 6. It is now a crime punishable by up to seven years in jail “to urge others” to assist an enemy.
The failure of many Australians to give non-white immigrants a permanent, merit-based stake in society caused the rioting on the beaches. The beach is white Australia’s sacred site — a fitting place for non-European immigrants to vent frustration and anger.
No, Mr. Howard, this is not a law-and-order issue. This is an issue related to the fundamental practice of democracy in your country. Australia is failing to gain the trust of many immigrants or to give them a fair chance according to their abilities; Australia is demonizing a segment of its community on the basis of ill-conceived geopolitical strategies in the Islamic world; and Australia is over-extending its influence with reckless posturing as a postcolonial “peacekeeper.”
A few more years of this, and the result will be not only the marginalization of Australia in the Asia-Pacific region, but the destruction of the ethos of tolerance that acts as Australians’ flimsy guarantee of personal freedom.