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Is Australia a Racist Country?

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • June 22, 2009

    Australia is not a racist country. The state has some of the toughest laws against racial discrimination. Though there is a history of discrimination against its aboriginal population today the country is sensitive to matters concerning race and ethnicity.

    Nevertheless, the recent violent attacks on Indian students in Australia especially Melbourne reflect at best ‘latent racism’ by a miniscule minority. The incidences could also be termed as “teenage violence” by youths high on drugs and alcohol and with nothing else to do. While there could be several explanations for these attacks at this juncture, the four most plausible ones are the following:-

    First, Melbourne’s poorer western suburbs like Sunshine and St. Albans had witnessed a rise in crime and teenage violence since the financial recession hit Australia late last year. Indian grocery stores have been attacked in Sunshine, and racial abuses regularly hurled at Indians in streets and the public transport system in these suburbs by white Australian youths aged between 14 and 18 years. Second, radio jockeys in Melbourne have aired ill informed programmes creating the perception that Asians especially Indians are crowding these suburbs and have taken over jobs otherwise meant for Australians. Third, unlike the Chinese students who tend to group together, Indian students working in KFCs and McDonalds return alone late at night to rented apartments in these areas and hence fall prey to miscreants high on drugs and alcohol. Fourth, despite repeated requests from the Indian community in Victoria to shore up security in the late night trams and trains as well as increase vigilance in the Western suburbs, the Victoria Police failed to respond in a timely manner to these requests. This lack of response on the part of the Victorian authorities to ensure the safety and security of Indian students has given the impression to the perpetrators that they can get away scot-free for such crimes.

    The Victoria police’s argument that Indian students provoked attacks from young Australians by brandishing their iPods and Laptops in public is not corroborated by facts on the ground. None of the Indian students assaulted were carrying iPods or Laptops at the time of the attacks. Moreover, it is not very helpful for the police to advice international students to refrain from speaking in their native languages in public transports. The message given by the authorities as a result is: the victim is more at fault for provoking attacks than the perpetrators who have a right to be aggressive because they feel threatened by a foreign culture. The Victoria authorities must realize that treating the cause is critical rather than skirting the issue in this manner if they truly hope to improve the security situation in the state for international students.

    Significantly, Victoria’s education sector is its highest export earner with a turnover of Aus $ 4.5 billion to the state economy in 2008 alone. Between 2007 and 2008, the total number of international student enrolments in Victoria increased from 132,000 to 161,000, including an additional 19,000 enrolments in vocational education and training courses. Of the 95, 000 Indian students in Australia, 47, 000 reside in Victoria alone. This increase in overseas student population has not only created jobs for Victorians in the education sector but the international student community has significantly filled critical gaps in the labour market and local economy. While Australia has worked hard to attract overseas students for these very obvious benefits to its education sector and local economy, it has neither prepared the Australian citizen for this huge influx nor has it upgraded its compliance mechanisms to keep up with this growth. As a result, there has been discernible ‘systemic’ failure on the part of the Australian government to address issues of basic security concerning its international students.

    Sadly, this systemic failure is now threatening to malign Melbourne’s multi-cultural image in the world. Melbourne’s impressive multi-cultural ethos is visible in its main streets like Lygon, Flinders, La Trobe, Elizabeth, Swanston and Brunswick through a rich mixture of artists, cuisines and artefacts from countries as varied as China, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, Japan, Mexico, Vietnam, Pakistan and Australia. Ironically, a day or two before the Indian student Shravan Kumar was attacked with a screwdriver, Flinders Street was vibrating with a rich symphony of music from India, China and Australia.

    A word of caution is however in order. While the protest rallies organized by the Federation of Indian Students in Australia (FISA) in Melbourne and Sydney are the right way to bring about pressure on the authorities to respond quickly to increasing violence against Indian students in particular and international students in general, it is not right to term all Australians as “racist” as was done by some of the Indians students participating in the rallies and by some sections of the Indian print and electronic media. Each country has its own record concerning discrimination and it is rather inappropriate for any single country to assume a “self righteous” attitude with regard to similar problems in another.

    Australian authorities have to ensure that their systems measure up to the challenge of law enforcement internally in the coming months if they hope to maintain Australia’s competitive edge in the international students market and safeguard the country’s image globally