‘Cronulla: could it happen here?’
Managing racial conflict and building community

Speech by Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma at Local Government New Zealand conference, 17 – 19 July, 2006

Wellington, New Zealand

New Zealand
18 July, 2006

Tena ko to, tena ko to, tena ka to, kia ora ladies and gentlemen.

I would like to begin by acknowledging and paying my respects to the traditional owners of the land on which we stand today and I acknowledge Minister Chris Carter, Minister for Ethnic Affairs, Joris De Bres, Race Commissioner with the NZ Human Rights Commission, distinguished guest, Mayors, Councilors and friends.

I would also like to thank local government New Zealand for inviting me to speak at this very important conference.

As the acting Race Discrimination Commissioner my role is to promote and monitor compliance with the federal Racial Discrimination Act. This includes monitoring racism, conducting research and developing education programs to combat racism in all its forms. The recognition and protection of diversity, and cultural, and religious rights is an important part of what we do.

Late last year, about the time I and others were marking the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the national Racial Discrimination Act in Australia, race relations in the Cronulla area of Sydney were building into the melee that we all witnessed as national and international headlines on TV and in the print media.

Four days into the 2005 summer season in Sydney, on Sunday 4 December, two volunteer lifesavers were bashed on Cronulla beach after an altercation with young Australians believed to be of Lebanese background. This incident was labeled as a racial conflict and was followed by strong condemnation of the attack on an ‘Aussie icon’ - with many calling the act “un-Australian.”

This was followed by a week of disturbing mobile phone text messages urging all “Aussies” to gather at Cronulla the following Sunday, waging “war on lebs and wogs”, and protest against attacks on the “Australian way of life”. No appeal for calm from political and community leaders was made. On national radio, talk back radio hosts read out the full text messages being circulated.

Exactly one week later, on Sunday 11 December, over 5,000 Australians, mostly of Anglo Australian background, gathered at north Cronulla beach. Their protest was against Lebanese and Arab young people, whom they accuse of engaging in anti-social behaviour, including harassing locals and sexually intimidating women at the beach and taking up large spaces on the beach to play soccer or other games. They came together to “reclaim their beach” and take matters into their own hands.

What started off as a call for locals to show unity against violence at the beach, and a relatively peaceful gathering in the morning, turned into what is now known as the Cronulla riots or “Cronulla anti-social behaviour” as some people prefer to call it. As the video clips indicate, it turned ugly as the alcohol charged crowd, many of whom were draped in the Australian flag, occasionally singing the national anthem and chanting racist slogans aimed at “lebs”, “wogs” and “Muslims”, called on these people to ‘get off our beach’, that it was ‘their land’ and ‘to go back to their own country’.

People, who were perceived as being of ‘middle eastern background’ or simply of ‘ethnic origin’, were chased and brutally attacked. Moving from the beach to the main roads, shopping district and trains, rioters continued to violently attack ‘foreigners’, including two on the local train and cars with youths of middle eastern appearance being jumped on. Police and paramedics were also attacked as they protected and tried to rescue those being targeted. Right–wing white supremacists seized the day and used it as a platform for distributing anti-multiculturalism, anti-immigration and anti-Muslim literature.

Several days of reprisal attacks followed. The day after the riot over 2,000 people gathered outside Sydney’s largest mosque with religious and community leaders urging the community to keep the peace. This was largely ignored by many young men, who do not normally identify with such leaders nor consider themselves religious. These men drove to Cronulla and surrounding beachside suburbs seeking revenge. They smashed parked cars and shop windows, bashed locals and stabbed a man in the back outside the local golf club.

The violence continued for days as text messages were sent “in a call for Arabs and Muslims to protect themselves and seek revenge.” The violence and hatred from both sides spread across suburbs and states throughout Australia. A Christian church was burnt down, and an attack on a family of Middle Eastern descent in Perth in Western Australia and an Australian Lebanese taxi driver in Adelaide in South Australia were linked to the Cronulla riot. Victoria police successfully intercepted text messages calling for race riots in Melbourne. Queensland, western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania were also reported as having anti-Arab text messages being circulated, calling for a “show of force”. At the same time Lebanese youths were urging further reprisal attacks at Cronulla the following weekend - also through text messages. All leaders called for calm and no incidents of violence were reported at the beaches the following weekend.

Four days after the riot, legislation providing for new police powers was enacted in the NSW parliament to enable police to search all cars and check the ID of people entering the area.

In relation to both the riot and the reprisal attacks, police made 87 arrests and laid 239 charges. The most common charge was affray and riot. Other charges included assaulting police, threatening violence, malicious damage and resisting arrest. Of the 87 arrested, 19 were prosecuted leading to 14 convictions. Four have been jailed. Three were fined, one received a suspended sentence, and two received bond orders and four got community service orders. This means 73% of those accused of crimes related to the riot have not proceeded. The most recent arrest was of one man for inciting violence by sending the original text message and one man has been charged for the stabbing of the local Cronulla man. And because race hate is not a crime in NSW, none will face these charges.
That summer, numbers on Cronulla beach, indeed all Sydney beachers, were at a record low. Immediately following the riot, during the peak holiday season, only twenty people went to Cronulla beach on a hot summer’s day that would usually attract thousands.

On Australia day, 26 January, around 800 police were at hand to deal with any racial violence. And while white supremacists were encouraging people to rally at Cronulla on that day, no incidents of violence were recorded.

The Cronulla riot was indeed a sad time in Australia’s history. While Sydney’s highest rating breakfast show host claimed that he “led the charge for a community show of force” in Cronulla, the initial response to the riot was one of regret by most Australians.

So what was the initial response to the riots?

Politicians and community and religious leaders alike condemned the riot. Prime Minister John Howard stopped short of calling it racism and declared “I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country.” In his national Australia Day speech, four weeks after the riot, he called for a renewal of the teaching of Australia’s history in schools. The NSW State Premier, only days earlier had announced that students of government public schools would be taught about Australian values as part of a revamp of Australian studies. The Australian Democrats’ multi-cultural affairs spokesman condemned the violence as “mindless racism cloaked as a distorted form of nationalism.” The NSW Premier described the behaviour as “disgraceful” and “cowardly” and the NSW Police Commissioner called it “un-Australian”.

The reprisal attacks drew even more comment and the focus quickly moved to criticizing the anti-social behaviour of Lebanese Muslim Australians. On the reprisal attacks the NSW premier criticised “violent gangs” that had “caused inconvenience by emptying many of Sydney’s beaches at the height of summer.” The State Opposition Leader called for them to be “locked up”. Following this, and with a state election just 12 months away, the state government set up a Middle Eastern Crime Taskforce to deal specifically with Middle Eastern crime in Sydney.

However, rather than taking sides, some people’s response was to seek unity between the communities involved in the riots. Actress Cate Blanchett, along with other prominent Australians, read a joint statement at Coogee beach in which they called for “all Australians, regardless of religion or ethnic origin, to work together to end violence on our streets'.

Anthony Mundine, a famous boxer in Australia, who is both Muslim and Aboriginal, and Hakim El Mazri, a rugby league player who has a Lebanese background, met at a local Sydney beach which was the scene of some of the violence, for a game of touch football. The match was organised by the local city council mayor in a bid to encourage people to go back to the suburb and its beaches.
Peace rallies took place celebrating multiculturalism, with Australian and international flags been waved, chanting “Muslims are welcome, racists are not.” In another rally, with the Australian flag wrapped like a Muslim burqa over their faces, silent protestors numbered more than 10,000.

So what are the local factors behind the Cronulla riots?

Following these immediate responses, local, state and federal governments as well as community based groups have developed and implemented (or are implementing) medium and long term strategies to address the issues underlying the Cronulla riots.

What then are these issues and how are they or should they be addressed? In answering this question I want to focus firstly on the local issues.

Cronulla is a predominantly middle-class, Anglo Australian community with the total population of almost 17,000, with half a percent indigenous and about 17% born overseas, mostly from English speaking countries such as New Zealand and the UK. It is a beautiful beachside suburb easily accessible by train from the south western suburbs of Sydney where most of Sydney’s Arabic speaking or Muslim Australians live. Many of these Australians are experiencing high levels of unemployment.

Cronulla also forms part of the Sutherland Shire Council, often referred to by the locals as “God’s country.” With a population of over 215,000, Sutherland shire is the second largest local government area in NSW, and one of the biggest in terms of the number of people it serves in Australia. Within its boundary is Kurnell, where James Cook first landed on Australian soil, marking the beginning of colonisation in Australia. The Shire and the south western suburbs of Sydney are connected by the Georges River and it is a common joke in the area that you need a passport just to get across it.

In discussions with local councilors and social planners within the Sutherland Shire Council it is clear that within the Cronulla area, there has been extensive investment by the community and the council in what is referred to as bonding capital. That is, mechanisms that bring the community together.

Cronulla is a close knit community. Members of the Sutherland Shire are relatively homogenous in their ethnic background, mainly Anglo Celtic, and this contributes to the community’s overall social cohesion. This in turn builds on the intimacy and ties that already exist within the community. Over the past ten years or so, Cronulla Shire Council and local community groups have developed mechanisms and projects to sustain the bonds within the community.

In contrast to this investment in bonding capital there has been relatively little investment in what is referred to as bridging capital. That is, mechanisms that bridge the community to other groups outside of their community. Very little has been done to establish links between communities and individuals on the basis of common interests rather than common identities.

At the local level it is important we bring these two forms of social capital, bonding and bridging capital, into balance. Outside communities who inevitably come into a local area, particularly a beach area, must be made to feel welcome. There must be a capacity within a local community to value diversity and difference. Many of the strategies and initiatives that have taken place within Cronulla in response to the riots can be seen as forms of investment in bridging capital aimed at long-term attitudinal change.

As part of the commonwealth government’s living in harmony initiative the ‘goodness and kindness campaign’ organised a successful event called ‘harmony on the beach’, which brought together hundreds of school children from both the Sutherland Shire area and the south western suburbs of Sydney to promote an understanding and appreciation of difference through forums and a range of fun activities.

The goodness and kindness campaign with the support of the community relations commission also worked in partnership with the local city council and the Sutherland district trade union club, with the help of representatives from the community and agencies, including HREOC, to hold an event entitled ‘breaking the ice: respecting difference’ that culminated in a community forum on multiculturalism in Australia attended by hundreds of people.

Recently, the local Sutherland Shire Youth Council has met with the local Bankstown Youth Council, to create understanding between cultures and create opportunities for exchange.

There are many examples like this.

At the state level, the community relations commission for NSW, who are the state multi-cultural agency, implemented a short term initiative that employed community liaison officers to engage with the community at a local level. Their role was to promote harmony and effective communication between various groups in Cronulla, to dissuade anti-social behaviour and prevent misunderstandings between groups. The local council is now looking at taking over this project.

The community relations commission is also working on a number of community development projects directed to bringing together Sutherland shire residents and those in south western suburbs of Sydney. A ‘dry surf’ day, for instance, will feature cultural events as well as beach style activities will take place in an inner west location (away from the beach).

The federal government has also undertaken bridging projects in the local area, one of which is to fund the recruitment of lifesavers from diverse backgrounds to police the beach at Cronulla. Members of the Lebanese community are also looking closely at the behavior of their young men at the beach and the animosity that this behavior might provoke.

These then are the local issues and some of the governmental responses to them. However, these local issues should not be looked at in isolation from national and international factors. By understanding the way in which international and national factors impact and interact with local issues we come to understand how what start out as local conflicts around territory or anti - social ways of playing games on a beach, transform into ugly racially based conflicts between sectors of society.

It was the search for this understanding that led HREOC to undertake the Isma project in 2003 - 2004. (Isma is Arabic for listen). The consultations on which this project was based revealed a disturbing level of discrimination and vilification against Arab and Muslim Australians since the September attacks.

The Isma report concluded that international factors like September 11 and the bail bombings, and more recently the London attacks, increase the level of discrimination and vilification experienced by Arab and Muslim Australian. This in turn alienates the community from the rest of society, which in turn exacerbates the level of discrimination that they experience. This spiral of discrimination followed by marginalisation and alienation is fuelled by fear and prejudice and can manifest into hate and retaliation.

Neither Australia nor New Zealand live in isolation from the rest of the world and local government must recognize the impact that international events have on their community. Like the environmental movement, we must think globally and act locally.

What then can local government do in New Zealand to ensure that Cronulla does not happen here?

The following are in no order of priority, they are not silver bullets and you may already be doing some or all of them but they are worth reflecting on:

  • Adopt a human rights framework in developing local government policies. Respecting human rights builds stronger communities.
  • Nurture, develop, support and establish partnerships between faiths and ethnic minorities. The best progress made in Australia, particularly at a regional and rural level, was where local government representatives are actively engaged with each other in developing mechanisms to bridge their respective communities.
  • Ensure that respect for different cultures is promoted by local government as an integral part of their community. Positive contributions of all members of society should be promoted and encouraged and recognised publicly. Local regional media has a vital role to play in helping to ensure that the role and contributions of all members of the community are visible to the outside world.
  • Respectful dialogue with people of different cultures and religions needs to take place. It is a vital skill for individuals, communities and governments to learn. It is also one of the best investments we can make towards international, national and regional peace and stability.
  • Support ethnic media in eliminating the stereotypes which can be resurrected in response to national or international forces.
  • Ensure that local government staff participates in cross-cultural awareness training.
  • Ensure public safety and security so that all people can enjoy safe and secure lifestyles. This can be achieved by increasing awareness and participation of all ethnic minorities in community affairs and neighbourhood watches. Public safety will be of particular concern to children and young people, especially on public transport and other public places.
  • Social and human services will need to take into consideration the linguistic and cultural diversity of the community it is serving. These services need to be readily available and accessible to all communities and relevant to their needs.
  • Undertake broad-based public education and targeted education campaigns aimed at specific groups such as schools, employers and service providers to help dispel myths and negative stereotypes about particular community groups such as Arabs and Muslims.

Managing racial conflict is never easy, but there are very good reasons for local government to pursue the strategies outlined above. Eight months after the riot, business in Cronulla continues to suffer immensely as people living outside the area, including international tourists, see it as a place of danger. As a result of the downturn in trade following the riots, the NSW premier announced a publicity campaign to promote business in the Cronulla and neighbouring areas.

Only time will tell whether this publicity campaign has an effect but the message should always be that racially or religiously motivated violence must never be tolerated. It was a long summer last year in Cronulla and it has been an even longer winter. We only hope that this summer will illustrate a good measure of success and progress following the many projects that have been implemented in the intervening period.

Cronulla: could it happen in New Zealand? In my view, where local, national and international factors combine to create a climate of intolerance, prejudice and fear, Cronulla could happen anywhere. Strategies should be put in place to prevent this happening rather than taking refuge in the idea that ‘it could never happen here’.

Kia Ora

Tom Calma with photo of the LGNZ facilitator, Victoria Owen

Photo: Acting Race Discrimination Commissioner Tom Calma with the Local Government New Zealand facilitator, Victoria Owen.