Phillip Knightley: The nasty side of the new Australia

The 'lucky country's' historic racism lingers, like a sun cancer, just below the skin
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The riots on Sydney's beaches - Anglo-Australians ("Aussies") vs Lebanese ("Lebs") - have repercussions far beyond a drink-fuelled punch-up on a sweltering summer weekend. They have revealed that the "lucky country's" historic racism lingers on, like a sun cancer, just below the skin. Given the right circumstances all the advances of recent years - the abolition of the White Australia policy, the encouragement of a multicultural, multiracial society with emphasis on tolerance and harmony - can apparently vanish overnight.

Two weekends ago, two surf lifesavers, icons in a leisure culture based on the beach, were assaulted by a group of Australians of Lebanese origin. The reasons for the assault are disputed, but remarks by one side or the other about women appear to have played a part.

Throughout last week the mobile telephone text network in Sydney ran hot as Anglo-Australians (they refer to themselves as "Aussies") called for protest action. The "shock jock" Alan Jones took up the cause. He said he "understood" the Aussies' attitude and read the most inflammatory of the messages to his listeners. "Come to Cronulla [beach] this weekend to take revenge. This Sunday every Aussie in the shire get down to North Cronulla to support the Leb and Wog bashing day."

So on Sunday, thousands of people arrived at Cronulla and began fighting. The Aussies attacked anyone of Middle Eastern appearance, frequently shouting "terrorists". The Lebanese retaliated. When police tried to restore order, both sides attacked them in turn. Racist epithets were exchanged, and an Australian flag was burnt.

Race riots are not new to Australia. At the outbreak of the First World War mobs of Aussies went looking for Germans to beat up. Unable to find groups of Germans worth attacking, they beat up Chinese instead. A popular slogan before the war had it "Rule Britannia, Britannia rules the waves. No more Chinamen in New South Wales."

But in the late Forties and Fifties hundreds of thousands of war-shattered Europeans seeking a new and better life flooded to Australia. True, the first ones were chosen for their "Anglo" appearance (fair hair and blue eyes were highly favoured), but the net spread. Soon Christian Lebanese were making homes in Australia, then Turks, Egyptians, North Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, and Afghans, all adding their colour and culture to a new land.

In 2001, the one hundreth anniversary of the founding of Australia, I wrote: "Out of the unpromising contrast of jailers and their prisoners, augmented later by waves of migrants seeking a new life and then - in a make-over the speed of which surprised the world - new settlers from all over Asia, had grown a multicultural society which calls itself Australia."

But while it is now clear that this is the picture any visitor to the heart of Sydney will see, out there in the suburbs are thousands of Aussies whose resentment of immigrants has been simmering away.

This became apparent during the asylum-seekers crisis. Aussies and even recently arrived migrants from Europe supported the government's hardline attitude to "boat people", labelling them "queue-jumpers". They contrasted their own often-lengthy and expensive efforts to get to Australia, and backed the government's harsh attitude to asylum-seekers and its cruel detention centres.

The Muslim community in Sydney is not entirely blameless. Pronouncements from various Muslim religious leaders, even making allowances for rhetorical exaggeration, have upset many Australians. And at the heart of the matter, especially in this case, are different cultural attitudes to women. Muslim men consider most Australian women immodest with lax sexual mores. Aussie men (and women) cannot understand how Muslim women allow their menfolk to dictate what they should wear and how little of their body they should be allowed to expose.

In a country where both climate and a sporting culture encourage the wearing of as little clothing as possible, these differences were bound to cause trouble sooner or later. But why did no one in authority see it coming? Why are there no laws in Australia to stop the provocative excesses of the media, especially the "shock jocks"?

Those Australians who are proud of their multicultural, "fair go" society - and I believe that they are still a big majority - now need to recognise that a nasty side to their fellow citizens is still there and fight to preserve the new Australia they thought they had already built.

The writer is the author of 'Australia: A Biography of a Nation' (Vintage)