'Home of the cobra' spawns assassination: Gangland shooting of MP shocks Australia

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The Independent Online
IT RAINED on Cabramatta when they buried John Newman on Friday. More than 1,000 mourners, led by Paul Keating, the Australian Prime Minister, paid tribute to the MP who last week became the country's first politician to be assassinated.

Gough Whitlam, a former Labor prime minister, read to a congregation containing many politicians from all sides. It was as if they were showing their defiance of a crime that has shaken Australia's image of itself.

Even six days after Mr Newman, 47, was gunned down in a drive-by murder outside his home in Cabramatta, assassination is a word that Australians are still struggling to come to terms with.

Mr Newman himself had summed up the prevailing mood when a political colleague warned him just three days before his murder that his life could be in danger because of his high-profile campaign against Asian gangs and organised crime.

'Don't worry,' Mr Newman replied, 'that sort of thing doesn't happen in Australia.'

But it did. And that it happened first in Cabramatta could be seen as an omen. Cabramatta - adapted from the Aboriginal cobramatta, home of the cobra - has been a mecca for immigrants since it evolved as part of Sydney's western suburban sprawl after the Second World War. Yugoslavs and Russians came first, followed by Italians and Greeks in the 1950s and 1960s. Although the area now boasts 122 ethnic groups, outward signs of European influence are hard to find.

Since 1983, Cabramatta has been transformed by an influx of Asian immigrants, predominantly Chinese and Vietnamese, who comprise 55 per cent of its population and whose shops, restaurants, jewellery stores and food markets dominate the scene.

People come from all over Sydney to see what they call 'Vietnamatta'.

The town centre is Freedom Plaza, marked by a large pagoda bearing the words 'Freedom' and 'Democracy'. When the plaza was opened four years ago, Mr Newman described it as 'the gateway to Australia'. As I walked through it on Friday, hard-faced youths loitered on corners, flaunting wads of cash.

It was easy to see what made Cabramatta different compared with 30 years ago when the economy was booming and almost every new settler walked straight into a job.

Many Asian immigrants of the 1980s arrived alone as child refugees. With jobs drying up during the recession, and few welfare support systems available to help, street and gang life was their only option. At 36 per cent, the town's unemployment rate is the highest in Australia, and its murder, robbery and assault rates are well above the national average.

The suburb has also become Sydney's leading distribution point for heroin, taking over from inner-city King's Cross, once Sydney's criminal nerve-centre. Police tests have shown that Cabramatta's heroin is five times more pure, and sells more cheaply, than that in King's Cross. Police believe that the Vietnamese gangs are behind the increasing amounts of heroin entering the country.

These gangs also specialise in extortion and 'home invasion' in which gang members burst into other Vietnamese homes, tie up and torture the occupants before robbing them and threatening to murder them if they contact the police. These are the gangs on which John Newman concentrated his anti-crime campaign since he became the Labor MP for the Cabramatta area in the New South Wales state parliament eight years ago. He told parliament last March it was 'deplorable' that police in Cabramatta were outnumbered by gangs. And he identified six such groups, besides the 200-strong 5T, whose members sport five tattoos on their fingers, representing money, sex, a police charge, prison and death.

Mr Newman himself fitted in with Cabramatta's vibrant ethnic mix. He was born in Hungary, emigrated with his parents as a boy and later Anglicised his name. As an MP, he made enemies as easily as he made friends in the Labor Party and Asian community.

Some local officials were exasperated by what they saw as his 'grandstanding' approach to fighting crime - particularly when he took out newspaper advertisements in Vietnamese and Chinese, announcing that he would demand the deportation of convicted gang members. 'It was like a declaration of war,' one official said.

Brett Stevens, a Sydney policeman who has worked in Cabramatta, was not surprised by Mr Newman's murder. 'Cabramatta has become a mirror image of California,' he said. 'These kids are in gangs to get money, pure and simple. High unemployment feeds their life. They're ruthless, and have no respect for authority and a low regard for human life.'

Asked why he thought Mr Newman had been murdered, Mr Stevens said: 'I read it as a big message: 'Pull your head in. If we can kill this guy, we can kill anyone.' '

Such notions disturb those who fear an anti-Asian backlash among white Australians even before police come up with a suspect or a motive for a crime. Criminal gangs in Australia are not confined to Asian immigrants. A government report recently identified entrenched crime among Lebanese, Romanians and Italians as well as Chinese and Japanese groups.

If an Asian gang did murder Mr Newman, it would be uncharacteristic. Up to now, Asian crime has been perpetrated against fellow Asians.

Despite the tragedy, some still hold Cabramatta up as a successful multiracial community, remarkably free of racially motivated crimes. Chief Inspector Alan Leek, the town's police patrol commander, dismisses notions that Australia has imported a new wave of crime with its Asian settlers.

'Crime is crime,' he says. 'If we've imported Asian crime, we have also imported British and Irish crime. Don't forget the notorious Sydney razor gangs of the 1920s - Anglo- Celts who slashed people who wouldn't give up their money. We tend to get a white holier- than-thou attitude towards crime.'

Nevertheless, Mr Newman's murder has already become a watershed that is likely to test the attitudes of Australians to crime and immigration for years to come.