Kathy Marks: The end of innocence at Bondi beach

Fear and ignorance have bred hatred of people on the other side of a cultural divide
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The golden sweep of sand at Bondi was carpeted with people enjoying a traditional Christmas at the beach yesterday. There were backpackers, families, surfers, sunbathers - and police patrolling in cars and on foot.

The crowd can get a bit high-spirited at Bondi on Christmas Day, which is why an alcohol ban was introduced last year. But police were not stationed at Sydney's most iconic beach yesterday in case the revelry got out of hand. They were there, supposedly, to step in if rival ethnic gangs decided to go on the rampage again.

Almost overnight, Sydney has changed. Australia's most beautiful, laid-back city is effectively under martial law. Emergency legislation has given police draconian new powers to "lock down" entire neighbourhoods, stop and search, and confiscate cars and mobile phones.

A week after mob violence by white surfers and young Lebanese-Australian men, the new powers were used to dramatic effect. Claiming "credible intelligence" that more trouble was brewing, police mounted a massive operation, putting an extra 2,000 officers on the streets.

After living in Sydney for six years, I know the tourist brochure images mask a different reality, which includes crime, deprivation and simmering racial tensions. Sydney is not paradise, except for a privileged few, and certain beaches have long been battlegrounds where tribal groups have played out their territorial conflicts.

Even so, I pinched myself as surreal scenes unfolded not far from where I live. Armed police stopped cars full of beachgoers, searching their boots for weapons and checking their identity papers. Buses, too, were halted at roadblocks, with passengers meekly handing over their mobile phones to officers who scrutinised them for inflammatory text messages.

At popular beaches, swimmers dodged police patrol boats in the surf, while mounted officers stood guard on dry land and helicopters swooped overhead. In the event, there were no disturbances and it was hard not to conclude that the operation was monumental overkill - a show of strength by a police force caught on the back foot by the riots.

The seaside has now been declared safe and people have been urged to return. But the beach, the ultimate symbol of white Australia at play, has lost its aura of innocence, however superficial that was. And Sydney will have to get used to a heavy police presence.

Few locals seem perturbed by that, nor by the way that the repressive police powers - which for reasons unclear will remain in force for two years - have eroded their civil liberties. Despite their reputation for irreverence, most Australians appear to take the view that the authorities know best. Tough new anti-terrorism laws passed through federal parliament last month with barely a whisper of public dissent.

That attitude of trust has been reinforced by the climate of fear that has taken hold here following events such as the 2002 Bali bombing - a climate that suits John Howard's right-wing government, and one that it has been careful to cultivate.

Mr Howard has repeatedly denied that Australia faces a heightened terrorist threat because of its involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq. But he often speaks out of both sides of his mouth and has also emphasised the danger posed by home-grown Islamic extremists.

The warnings have helped to demonise Australian Muslims, already the target of suspicion - not least because of the government's depiction of Middle Eastern asylum-seekers as potential terrorists.

Such notions fall on fertile ground, for many Anglo-Australians - the descendants of transplanted British and Irish - are intimidated by difference. And, unlike in Britain or the US, where hostility towards other races is rarely voiced because of political correctness, they do not feel the need to disguise it. Disparaging comments and pejorative terms are frequently heard in casual conversation. While these white Australians have (sometimes grudgingly) accepted waves of post-war immigrants from Italy, Greece, Vietnam and Cambodia, they have found it harder to stomach the Muslims who have arrived more recently, mainly from the Middle East.

The Lebanese, despite being well established, are the most vilified migrant group. And while most Australians were horrified by the white mob at Cronulla Beach that attacked anyone resembling a "Leb", the scenes of retaliation - Lebanese-Australian youths smashing up cars in Maroubra, another coastal neighbourhood - confirmed their prejudices.

Mr Howard, of course, has refused to accept that the trouble was in any way racially inspired. For while he would never condone violence, those white rioters - and the millions of people who revile such behaviour but sympathise, even fleetingly, with the sentiments behind it - are his natural constituency.

The Prime Minister is only really comfortable with his own kind, and Cronulla, an overwhelmingly "white bread" suburb with scarcely a foreigner in sight, is his kind of place. In a speech before the 2001 election - which he won after reviving his political fortunes by turning away the Tampa, a freighter carrying Afghan asylum-seekers - he described that area as "a part of Sydney which has always represented to me what Middle Australia is all about".

Mr Howard always plays the race card with brilliant cunning. When addressing racially charged issues, he makes a few anodyne remarks, while conveying a subliminal message - such as disdain for Lebanese youth - through a throwaway line or a smirk.

According to him, the riots are basically a law and order problem, and Australians should not waste time on pointless self-analysis. While steps had to be taken to prevent more disturbances, little attention has been paid to the root causes: the fear and ignorance that have bred hatred of people on the other side of a cultural divide.

If some Lebanese-Australian men have failed to acclimatise to a culture where it is acceptable for women to wear bikinis, then that is not altogether surprising. Since Mr Howard came to power 10 years ago, English language provision for migrants has been cut, as has the number of resource centres that help them to settle.

And if some Anglo-Australians believe they own the beach and have a right to keep out anyone "of Middle Eastern appearance", as the police absurdly describe people of Lebanese descent, then a share of the blame must be laid at the door of a government that has yet to demonstrate real commitment to multiculturalism.

If Mr Howard wants to restore the country's international reputation for decency and tolerance, he must acknowledge the running sore of racism in Australia, condemn it unambiguously, and ensure that funding is directed towards meaningful programmes to foster community harmony.