Killing of MP stuns the Lucky Country

AUSTRALIA has been stunned by the first political assassination in its 200-year history. Commentators and police asked yesterday whether Monday's fatal shooting of a New South Wales MP was linked to a new form of violent crime which has accompanied an increase in immigrants from Asia.

Police in NSW have set up a task force of 50 officers to track down the killers of John Newman, 47, a Labour Party MP in the state parliament, who was shot dead outside his Sydney suburban home. They also stepped up security around all state MPs.

The killing of Mr Newman has shaken Australians, who have watched with mounting unease a rise in violent crime in their cities in recent years. But this is the first time such violence has been turned against a politician, apparently motivated by his work as a public figure.

Although the police stressed that they had no suspects and no motive for the assassination, speculation centres on Mr Newman's work among the large Asian immigrant population in his Sydney constituency. He lived in Cabramatta, once a white working-class suburb in western Sydney. Over the past decade the face of Cabramatta has been changed almost out of recognition by a wave of Vietnamese and Chinese immigrants. White Australians now call it 'Vietnamatta'. Even street advertisements for Foster's lager are in Vietnamese.

Cabramatta is an example of the dramatic changes in Australia's ethnic make-up over the past 15 years, since the country began to balance its immigrant intake from old sources in Europe with settlers from Asia. Immigrants from Hong Kong and Vietnam to the 'lucky country' now equal those from Britain and Ireland, formerly the biggest sources.

The suburb is also a focus for Asian crime. By day in Cabramatta's Vietnamese market drugs are sold on street corners. By night the streets are eerily deserted. There have been many killings among Vietnamese gangs in Sydney and Melbourne.

John Newman waged a campaign against the violence in his constituency, which included Cabramatta. He had called for an end to street violence and armed robberies and protested against the rise of criminal gangs, many of them associated with casinos.

Three years ago he took out newspaper advertisements in Vietnamese and Chinese, announcing that he would support the deportation of gang members who were found guilty of violent crime. After the ads appeared a bullet was fired through his office window. His car was paint-bombed three times. Three months ago Mr Newman reported receiving death threats.

On Monday night he returned home from a local Labour Party meeting and was putting a tarpaulin over his car. In what police believe was a drive-by shooting, three bullets were fired at Mr Newman, hitting him in the chest. Neighbours saw a car with its headlights out disappear up the street. Until now, warfare within some of Australia's Asian communities has been largely contained from the rest of the population. Most European Australians have learned to coexist, sometimes grudgingly, with the new settlers, whose most public manifestation is a plethora of Asian restaurants.

Most Australians first became aware of crime among Asian-Australians three years ago, when Victor Chang, an eminent heart surgeon, was shot dead in a Sydney street on his way to work. Dr Chang had been the driving force behind the heart transplant programme at St Vincent Hospital in Sydney. His killers were two Malaysian-Chinese. A Sydney court heard they were part of an extortion racket. They had planned to kidnap Dr Chang and demand money for his release. They chose him, they said, because he was a wealthy Chinese Australian.

Australia's ethnic community leaders are urging the police not to call Mr Newman's murder an Asian crime, but an Australian crime. The fact is that the murders of Mr Newman and Dr Chang may have opened a grim chapter to crime in Australia. Gang-inspired murders were the hallmark of the old Anglo-Irish Sydney underworld, and of the violent trade unions which ruled Melbourne's docks. Now gang warfare is moving into new territory.

(Photograph omitted)