THE ARENA: Dec 05, AU Edition

Get ready for a long, hot summer…
Anyone who has ever taken a holiday in a beach community knows that such places can be fairly insular places. When so much time is spent looking out to sea, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there’s a whole land-based world behind you. And with a little bit of paradise on their doorstep, it’s no wonder that locals get possessive and resentful when outsiders roll in and start violating all the little informal and unwritten rules that make a place where everyone enjoys a common piece of property – the beach – function properly. Just ask fish-kisser Rex Hunt, who was accosted with his teenage son by a group of toughs in Byron Bay recently.
But the riots which swept over Sydney’s eastern beaches recently in the wake of the bashing of a lifeguard by young “men of Middle Eastern appearance” (as the popular press so gingerly puts it; it’s amazing that they don’t use the abbreviation MoMA to save column inches, though perhaps a certain museum in New York might not be so happy about it) were something else entirely.
It is no secret, to anyone who has cared to look for it, that there have long been simmering tensions between packs of youthful “MoMAs” and not just beachside locals but about anyone else who is unfortunate enough to cross their path. In places like Cronulla, the only Sydney beach with its own train stop, this simmer has been on the verge of boiling over for months if not years, as locals share stories of disrespect, abuse and attacks by young Lebanese males pouring in from the western suburbs and causing trouble and charging around the place with a disrespectful swagger.

(Apparently one of the favourite lines of these thugs, cited by the Daily Telegraph’s Anita Quigley, to women and girls who reject their advances is to turn to their mates and say, “She’s not worth doing 55 years for” – a reference to the sentence handed down to gang rapist Bilal Skaf. Combine this with the statements of a Pakistani recently convicted of rape to the effect of “my culture made me do it”, and it’s not hard to see why people get nervous).
But the sad thing about the recent riots is that in many ways they were completely preventable. Although the popular press has been quick to cry “racism” and cite the riots as another example of just what an uncouth bunch of bogans we are in Australia, race ultimately had precious little to do with it. (Just ask the infamous Bra Boys gang of Maroubra, which had a starring role in the riots and which over the years has become a fairly multicultural operation, united in defence of former NSW Premier Bob Carr’s postcode). Instead, John Howard had it right when he said that the “behaviour was completely unacceptable but I’m not going to put a general tag (of) racism on the Australian community … I think it’s a term that is flung around sometimes carelessly and I’m simply not going to do so.”
The problem could have been headed off at the pass years ago had police in NSW – ironically enough, largely under the leadership of Bob Carr – not been systematically stripped of their powers to deal with trouble before it gets out of hand. And while in a free society the presumption of innocence lies with the individual, there’s also a noble tradition of what might be called informal “hidden law”, which says that cops know when a group of kids are up to no good, and should have the power to move them on, arrest them, or break them up accordingly.
Instead, Cronulla residents tell hair-raising stories of offensive and threatening conduct by Lebanese youth, and being told by the police that they can only do something if matters get violent – by which point, of course, the damage is already done.
Nature and criminals abhor a vacuum, and if criminals see that police have, by their absence, created a space where bad behaviour is permissible, they will rush in to fill the gap. That’s been happening for years at Cronulla, and locals finally got sick of it – and of trusting the police to deal fairly with their complaints (hence the violence). But unlike Macquarie Fields, where cops hung back after the riot began at the behest of a politically-timid leadership that kept front-line officers from doing their job, in Cronulla and at other beaches, the failing has been going on for ages, leading many to believe that there is one law for the testosterone-charged MoMAs and one for everyone else.
NSW Police could learn a lot from the example of New York, where an aggressive police campaign against the sort of anti-social behaviour committed regularly not just by ethnic gangs but all sorts of people ended years of “long hot summers” of riots and slashed the crime rate to previously-unimaginable levels.
Or, closer to home, they could look at New Zealand, where a few years back Auckland cops employed a change in the unlawful assembly laws to tackle similar problems of race riots and thuggery.
There’s an old cliché in politics that goes something along the lines of, “the first person to call their opponent ‘Hitler’ loses”. There’s something similar when gangs go at each other: the first group to pelt an ambulance with bottles loses, at least in the eyes of the media. And certainly the thugs of Cronulla who went on a rampage against anyone with too dark a tan are no better than the thugs of Bankstown or Lakemba who, fighting massive internal cultural conflicts, treat beachgoing women as objects of both desire and scorn. But it’s amazing to think how much of this could have been prevented if the provocation – community concern at the thuggery on the part of visiting gangs – was dealt with by the cops at a much earlier stage. It’s time to empower cops to crack down on yobbos and crims – no matter what their ethnicity.