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On the Beach: Racial Confrontation in Australia

On the Beach: Racial Confrontation in Australia

On the evening of Sunday, December, 11, 2005, at the height of summer, Australian television viewers saw on the nightly news a rampaging crowd of 5,000 youths bashing men whom the reporters described as "Middle Easterners." Many of those involved in the violence at Cronulla, one of Sydney's major surf beaches, were drunk. Some had draped themselves in large Australian flags, and the mob from time to time sang the national anthem or shouted the catch cry of Australian sporting events, "Ozzie, Ozzie, Ozzie, Oi, Oi, Oi" as they found new victims.

Accompanying these images were further stories. A veiled woman had been chased into sand dunes where her head scarf was ripped off. Anglo-Celtic youths had moved from the beach and into the surrounding shopping area, railway station, and trains, where they continued to attack "Middle Easterners" and "Lebs" (a derogatory term for people of Lebanese background), as well as police and paramedics.

Several days of retaliation followed. A large group of young men assembled outside a major Lebanese mosque before driving to the beachside. Scuffles, car burnings, and violence spread to other beaches such as Maroubra. An arson attack on a church hall in a distant suburb with a sizable population of Middle Eastern background also was alleged to be part of the tit-for-tat retaliations.

The Cronulla riots were very different from the October 2005 riots in Paris, which were widely reported in Australia and elsewhere. The initial mass rioting and violence was not started by disaffected minority youth as in France, but by young men from the dominant mainstream population whom right-wing supremacist groups and the conservative media encouraged to take action.

For most of Australia's history, assimilation has been the official Australian government policy guiding the integration of immigrants. In the 1970s, it was replaced by a multiculturalism policy that emphasizes the rights of immigrants to social justice and equality as well as immigrants' obligation to accept key Australian institutions and the importance of tolerance and equality of women.

However, conservative criticisms of multiculturalism have focused on the policy's acceptance of cultural diversity and interpreted it as a threat to traditional "Australian" values and national identity. The riots highlight the extensive sympathy for these criticisms within the mainstream population, including among young people who have grown up knowing only the policy of multiculturalism.

Government Response

After the riots, police in the state of New South Wales took advantage of newly enacted laws to cordon off access to Cronulla and other beaches. Cars were searched for weapons, and mobile phones were examined for text messages inciting violence. In the largest security exercise since the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, extra police patrols were assigned to major surf beaches stretching over 100 miles north to Newcastle and south to Wollongong.

Following the riots, the neighboring states of Victoria and Queensland initially placed police on alert, but, in the absence of similar incidents, they took no further action.

At the national level, the initial response was regret that the riots happened, with references to their racist nature. An exception was Prime Minister John Howard, who declared in December, "I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country."

As of January, the numbers of police assigned to the beaches were reduced as fears of further confrontation declined and normalcy returned. By January 11, over 600 people had been charged in connection with the violence. The acting State Premier, John Watkins, told a radio news program that those arrested represented "both sides of the ethnic divide."

But only 17 of these 600 individuals were charged for offences such as rioting, causing disturbances, causing malicious damage by fire, and sending inflammatory/incendiary text messages inciting violence and retaliation. The majority were charged for traffic-related offences, including drunk driving and driving without a licence.

At the same time, the police offered protection to potential witnesses as local Cronulla residents were allegedly afraid to come forward because of fears of retaliation. Lack of photographic evidence was said to be slowing down efforts to bring to trial those involved in the retaliations after December 11.

Although extra police were deployed at Cronulla Beach on Australia Day (January 26), fears that new violence might erupt were not realized. However, members of the nationalist party Australia First used Cronulla as a platform for spreading their anti-immigration, antimulticulturalism message and passing out fliers that accused the media and politicians of spreading misinformation about white Australians involved in the December unrest.

During Prime Minister Howard's national speech on January 26, he called for a "root and branch renewal of the teaching of Australian history in schools" and talked about a coalition of the willing to undertake this task. His concerns related to the limited time devoted to history in the curriculum and a focus on themes and issues at the expense of chronology and narrative.

Underlying his emphasis on teaching history he continued, "Our social cohesion and national unity is pivotal in enabling Australia to contribute effectively to the international effort to combat terrorism, and to safeguard Australia domestically. This means finding the right balance between the legitimate interests of the community on the one hand and individual civil rights on the other."

Educators in New South Wales very quickly pointed out that these criticisms were not applicable to their primary and secondary curricula, which they said are extremely strong in the teaching of Australian and other histories.

Background to the Riots

The immediate cause of the violence was that two volunteer lifesavers, responsible for ensuring the safety of swimmers, were physically attacked at North Cronulla Beach by Arabic-speaking men the weekend before the riots. Volunteer lifesavers have an iconic status in Australian culture. They provide an important community service on the beaches, which symbolize a distinctive Australian lifestyle based on surfing and enjoyment of the outdoors.

Following the attacks, sections of the popular press and conservative talk-back radio presenters denounced those involved in the attacks and their "un-Australian" behavior. Mobile-phone text messages sent to Australian youth urged them to protest the next weekend against these attacks on the Australian way of life. Police began to patrol the beaches, and the state premier called for calm, but to no avail.

As the only Sydney beach easily accessible by train, Cronulla, a middle-class, predominantly Anglo-Celtic beach suburb, has long been popular with young people from the working-class western suburbs of Sydney. Different youth cultures and "tribes" have contested "ownership" of the beach since the 1950s. The 1979 novel and the subsequent 1981 film, Puberty Blues, captured Cronulla's distinctive subcultures.

More recently, an ethnic dimension has been added to this mix since many of those coming to Cronulla by train are of non-English speaking background. Among these diverse groups have been a few, often of Lebanese background, whose behavior —verbal abuse and harassment of women and intrusion on peaceful use of the beach — annoys and offends other beachgoers. These types of incidents rarely involved the police before the December riots.

After the attack on the lifesavers, locals and beachgoers became more vocal about the harassment and disturbances. The initial attack on the lifesavers followed a request (possibly involving verbal abuse on both sides) that the Middle Easterners stop playing soccer in a way that was disturbing other beach users. As Gabrielle Carey, one of the authors of Puberty Blues, commented following the violence, women never received much respect on Cronulla beach. To Carey, the December riots appeared to involve macho groups of men on each side, with racism running both ways.

Social distance surveys undertaken by public opinion pollsters, academics, and the government ask individuals to rank their preference for different groups of people as marriage partners, neighbors, colleagues, etc. These have long shown that groups with Middle Eastern backgrounds — including people with origins in Lebanon — are among those least popular with the mainstream Australian population because they are perceived as most "culturally different."

However, unlike those of Asian background, they were not the major target of the anti-immigration debates of the early 1980s or the more recent campaigns by the now-defunct Pauline Hansen One Nation Party, which targeted Asians and the indigenous population in an effort to preserve Australia's Anglo-Celtic heritage. In contrast to Asians, the numbers of immigrants from the Middle East were far smaller, and they almost all had legal status.

Since the events of September 11, 2001, the national government of Prime Minister Howard has actively supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the "War on Terrorism." It also has adopted a controversial, hard-line policy towards asylum seekers, particularly those from Iran, Iraq, and Afghanistan, including the detention of those without documentation who arrive in flimsy boats. The rhetoric surrounding these policies is that the government is protecting Australians from undesirable and dangerous people and events.

The politics of fear associated with these campaigns have had particularly negative effects on Muslims, not just those of Middle Eastern background, who increasingly report experiencing hostility, abuse, and lack of respect, especially toward women wearing head scarves or veils.

Not helping community relations have been recent, notorious cases of vicious gang rapes by youths of Middle Eastern and Islamic backgrounds who targeted young "Australian" (meaning Anglo-Celtic) women. The popular media's responses have contributed to increasingly negative stereotypes that affect all those labeled, often indiscriminately and interchangeably, as Middle Eastern, Muslim, or Lebanese.

Lebanese in Australia

Those born in Lebanon and those of Lebanese background have become the focus of concern since the December riots. People of Lebanese origin are now the largest Muslim and Arabic-speaking population in Australia. Three-quarters live in New South Wales and Sydney, where Arabic has become the third-most commonly spoken language after English and Chinese.

However, the Lebanese in Australia are a very diverse population. The first wave were mostly Christian and arrived in the last quarter of the 19th century from what was then part of the Ottoman empire. In 1901, there were fewer than 1,500 Lebanese in the whole of Australia. These early arrivals were predominantly hawkers and shopkeepers in Sydney and rural areas. Descendants of these first arrivals include the current governor of New South Wales, Professor Marie Bashir, who is highly respected for her work in mental and indigenous health, and her husband, Sir Nicholas Shehadie, a former Lord Mayor of Sydney who also played rugby union football for Australia.

After World War II, the numbers of Lebanese migrants increased steadily but fairly slowly until the 1967 Arab-Israel war and the 1975 civil war in Lebanon. The civil war affected large numbers of rural Lebanese Muslims, who were devastated by the breakdown in the economy and the education system.

Those most disadvantaged by the civil war were prominent among those migrating to Australia. The Australian government granted special humanitarian status to Lebanese sponsored by relatives already residing in the country, and, consequently, the size of the Lebanese population quickly grew.

According to the 2001 census, over 71,000 people, or about 1.34 percent of Australia's total foreign-born population, had been born in Lebanon (see Table 1), and about 91,000 were born in Australia to Lebanese parents, for a total of 162,000 people claiming Lebanese ancestry. Not surprisingly, many of these more recent arrivals are Muslim, and Muslims make up 41 percent of the Lebanese-born population.

Table 1. Australian Population Born in Lebanon ( 1954-2001)
Year Number
1954 3,861
1961 7,253
1966 10,668
1971 24,218
1976 33,424
1981 49,625
1986 56,467
1991 68,995
1996 70,224
2001 71,349
Source: Australian Census

During the 1970s, the newly arrived Lebanese, together with those from Vietnam and Turkey, were seen as exemplifying the difficulties confronting immigrants, especially those whose educational, economic, and cultural resources or "capital" did not match those of Australian society.

Economic disadvantage has continued to be a major problem for the Lebanese born and their children. A study by sociologists Christine Inglis and Suzanne Model, based on 2001 census data, shows that, whereas by the second generation, the Australian-born children from other large immigrant communities are performing as well, if not better, in school and the labor market than those born in Australia to Australian-born parents, this was not true for second-generation Lebanese men or women. Their relatively poor performance existed even after accounting for their generally lower educational levels, marital status, and age.

Indeed, there is a bipolar distribution. While 30.7 percent of second-generation Lebanese men are employed in professional and other high-status, well-paid occupations, others are more likely to be unemployed (15.8 percent) or working in unskilled and semi-skilled occupations (35.1 percent). The comparable figures for second-generation "Australian" men are 27.8 percent, 10.3 percent, and 44 percent, respectively. More detailed explanations of the causes are necessary, but widely held stereotypes about Lebanese men can negatively affect their search for work.

The rapid counter-response by some groups of young Lebanese men to the Cronulla violence indicates the depths of social and material alienation they feel toward the mainstream society, which they believe excludes them.

While community leaders, including those from the Lebanese-Muslim community, have joined in seeking a more peaceful response, their influence is limited as many of the young men are not actively involved with religious groups.

Responses and the Future

The Cronulla violence was a major shock to the majority of Australians. That calls for peaceful protest could rapidly turn into violence under the influence of alcohol and rabble-rousing by neo-Nazi and white-supremacist groups led to concerns about the ease with which acceptance and tolerance can give way to stereotypes and prejudice. Likewise, the responses by targeted groups have highlighted the problems confronting those seeking harmonious community relations.

In the aftermath of the rioting, 75 percent of people surveyed for the Sydney Morning Herald by the pollsters ACNielsen agreed there was an underlying racism in Australian society. The most notable denial of racism came from Prime Minister Howard. His denial indicates the difficulties confronting the many sections of the community that are asking political leaders to actively address and overcome this racism.

As commentators pointed out, it was not until the middle of 2005, after the London bombings, that the Australian government heeded calls to work actively with Muslim community leaders to avoid the the type of alienation seen as a factor in the July 2005 bombings in London and the October 2005 riots in France.

Commenting on the violence, a Sydney assistant police commissioner said, "What occurred on December 11 is the likes of what this country has never seen before." Indeed, while there have been race riots in the past targeting Chinese on the goldfields in the 19th century and Italian and Slav workers in Western Australia in the 1930s, as well as numerous incidents involving the indigenous population, these riots have always strongly reflected competition for economic resources such as jobs and land.

In contrast, as the use of the Australian flag, the national anthem, and rioters' appeals to other national icons and the Australian way of life indicate, the contemporary challenge involves ownership and access to membership in the nation and its culture. The same opinion poll that showed 75 percent believing in racism's existence also reported that 80 percent support the official government policy of multiculturalism.

Educators are already questioning the adequacy of educational programs and other community initiatives to address racism, stereotypes, and prejudice. Surf Life Saving Australia, the organization responsible for Australia's life saving clubs, already has a program to train lifesavers from diverse ethnic backgrounds and suburbs distant from the surf beaches. This program will now be expanded.

The media and its power for good or ill in promoting social cohesion is also being questioned. Given the cultural dimension of racism, the political challenge is to translate the acceptance of cultural diversity, implied in the public's support for multiculturalism, into a belief that this diversity can coexist with a commitment to shared political institutions and values.

However, at the New South Wales level of government, the leader of the Liberal-National Party Coalition, Peter Debnam, is pursuing a strategy that attacks the state government and police for being "soft" on ethnic crime and gangs. He has also claimed that at least 200 more people of Middle Eastern origin should be incarcerated based on their alleged involvement in the post-riot retaliations and other criminal/gang-related activities.

Since many key members of the state government, including Premier Maurice Iemma, are themselves from non-English-speaking migrant backgrounds, this strategy could disrupt Australian politics and affect political unity on multiculturalism. Already the state government has responded by increasing the number of police assigned to the task force investigating the Cronulla riots and their aftermath. Taskforce Gain, an existing police group devoted to dealing with violent crime in southwest Sydney, has been renamed the Middle Eastern Organized Crime Squad to reflect its new, specific focus on crimes committed by people of Middle Eastern origin.

Whether the government will develop policies to redress the damage caused by the politics of fear regarding Australia's ethnic minorities remains to be seen. Six weeks after the riots it appears that much of the focus of political debate and reaction has shifted from the youths involved in the December 11 riots to their Middle Eastern victims.


Clennell, Andrew. "Lock up more thugs, urges Debnam." The Sydney Morning Herald, Jan. 17, 2006. Available online.

Dunn, Kevin et al. "Constructing Racism in Australia." Australian Journal of Social Issues 2004, vol. 39 pp. 409-430.

Inglis, Christine and Suzanne Model. "Diversity and Mobility in Australia" in A. Heath & S. Y Cheung eds Ethnic Minority Disadvantage in the Labour Market: Comparative Perspectives, Oxford: Oxford University Press, in press.

Lette, Kathy & Carey, Gabrielle. Puberty Blue Melbourne: Mc Phee Gribble, 1979.