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There are echoes of the Cronulla riots on our streets today

Race Discrimination

Ten years after the Cronulla riots our harmony as a society is again being tested. But where the leadership of 2005 sadly fell short, we now have a PM who is more sure-footed on these matters, writes Tim Soutphommasane.

Race riots aren't a common feature of Australian life. That is one reason why we still look back at what happened on the streets of Cronulla in 2005 with dismay and disbelief.

How did it ever get to that? How was it that things descended into racist mob violence? And could such a shameful episode happen again?

Ten years on, there remain troubling echoes of Cronulla. Now, as then, our harmony as a society is being tested. In our public debate, there are voices intent on promoting fear, hatred and division.

Back in 2005, it was panic about "reclaiming" the beach in Cronulla from Middle Eastern young men. Today, similar language infects anti-Muslim protests that have occurred in numerous cities. Our community cohesion is currently under strain.

This isn't mere speculation. A recent survey of Muslim people in Sydney indicated that 57 per cent had experienced racism - a rate about three times higher than the national average. As documented in the Australian Human Rights Commission's Freedom from Discrimination report, published in November, many communities believe there has been a marked increase in anti-Muslim abuse and vilification.

Even so, the overall state of Australian multiculturalism remains strong. Those in 2005 who predicted the demise of the multicultural project have been proven wrong. In each of the past three years, the Scanlon Foundation has found that about 85 per cent of Australians agree that multiculturalism is good for the country. In contrast to many European countries, the majority of Australians support current levels of immigration. Our diversity is an indivisible part of our national identity.

This is the perspective we should bring to the rise of anti-Islam protest movements. The voices of far-right nationalists aren't the voices of mainstream Australia. Many who have confronted extremists through counter-protests have gifted them unnecessary oxygen.

Patriotism isn't the last refuge of the racist scoundrel. National pride doesn't have to involve hostility towards cultural difference.
Of course, we can't afford to be complacent. Majorities aren't required for disruptions to our peace. A strong yet measured response remains our best insurance.

Some failures from 2005 must not be repeated. A decade ago, leadership on race was sadly lacking. While sections of the media fuelled racial tensions, many of our politicians remained indifferent. On the day after the Cronulla riot, the prime minister of the day qualified his condemnation of mob violence, insisting that "there is no underlying racism in Australian society". The statement fell short of what was required by the occasion.

There continues to be some of this hesitancy whenever racism emerges in public. Too often, people fear that calling something racist can hurt people's feelings or alienate communities. It is wrongly assumed that a denunciation of racism must amount to a wholesale denunciation of Australian society - as though any one incident should be judged as an authoritative reflection of our national character.

Today's political leadership seems more sure-footed on these matters. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has already reiterated the importance of mutual respect. He is right to remind us we are the most successful multicultural society in the world.

Fair-minded Australians should also be reminded that they mustn't repeat the mistake of surrendering patriotism. Unfortunately since Cronulla, some have appropriated our national symbols with jingoistic enthusiasm. Loving your country has become associated with expressions of "F*** off, we're full" or "Australia - love it or leave it".

However, patriotism isn't the last refuge of the racist scoundrel. National pride doesn't have to involve hostility towards cultural difference.

The truest patriotism is about civic virtue. To be patriotic doesn't have to mean a tribal belief in the superiority of one's country and race. Rather it is about the bond of citizenship. It is about having a desire to improve one's country - to ensure that one's country lives up to the best of its tradition.

The Cronulla riot represented not the best, but the worst of national pride. It was caused by a lapse, from which we are not immune - not then, and not now. Because where there is fear and hate, prejudice and intolerance, something like it could happen again.

Published in The Drum