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Blind eye to racism

Blind eye to racism

Author: Greg Sheridan
Publication: The Australian
Date: June 4, 2009
URL: http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,25197,25583278-7583,00.html

The recent spate of bashings of Indian students in Melbourne is an appalling episode in this nation's history. It is a serious social, educational, diplomatic and probably economic crisis that no one is taking seriously enough. The performance of John Brumby's Victorian Government has been pathetic. It has stumbled from bland denial to belated symbolism, never acknowledging the gravity of the problem or its own culpability and not taking any serious action to confront it.

The Rudd Government's response also has been belated, but there is a better sense in Canberra of the problem's dimensions.

It seems astonishing that you would have to argue with anybody that a big outbreak of racist violence in an Australian capital city is a first-order problem.

Last financial year nearly 1500 assaults and robberies were committed on people of Indian origin in Victoria, up by nearly one-third from the year before. But what has rightly gained international attention is the many assaults on Indian students.

Brumby and his Police Commissioner Simon Overland at first were inclined to deny the problem was racial at all. Eventually they came to admit that some attacks were racial, but still cling to the idiotic defence that most of the crimes are opportunistic, as if it's impossible to be opportunistic and racist.

In making these assertions, Brumby and co must be the only people who believe them. Certainly the victims of the crimes don't.

Brumby and his Government have conveyed a kind of insane, Sir Humphrey Appleby, genial imperturbability. You can imagine the Sir Humphrey response: "Yes, Mr Banerjee, we do acknowledge that you have been beaten to within an inch of your life and the Government finds that wholly regrettable. However we can assure you that the perpetrator, whose identity we do not know, had no racial animosity towards you. We would further remind you that you are lucky to live in the world's most livable city and we hope that next time you are bashed your response will bear this more fully in mind."

A young Indian-Australian friend of mine walked into a Melbourne garage and saw a young Indian attendant, a student working part time, being subjected to the most vile, scatological, racist abuse by a man of Caucasian background who was covered in tattoos and wearing long hair. When my young friend made the abuser aware of his presence the abuse stopped.

Too many Indian students report incidents such as this, ranging up to full-scale assault, for anyone seriously to deny the problem.

Kevin Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull made useful statements deploring the attacks. But, as usual, the greatest moral clarity came from Michael Danby, the federal Labor member for Melbourne Ports. He wasn't obliged to play the Sir Humphrey tricks and instead spoke straightforwardly: "These attacks are a disgrace to Australia. As an MP from Melbourne I am angry and ashamed that these things are happening in my city."

These bashings also have developed into a foreign policy crisis. This is because of the blanket, at times hysterical, coverage in the Indian media. But before we get too high and mighty condemning the Indian media, just imagine our response if dozens of Australian tourists had been racially selected for bashing in, say, Fiji or Malaysia. Just think of the talkback radio and tabloid reaction we would create.

These bashings have been reported all across the world. Al-Jazeera rang me this week to get the phone number of the Indian Students Federation. They have been widely reported in Britain. And in India the Australian Government could not have got a worse result if it had spent a billion dollars on a negative publicity campaign.

This column has always believed that racism is such a serious charge that it should be levelled very carefully and that a lot that is called racism is something else. But there is no doubt that Melbourne has witnessed serious, vicious, violent racism in recent months.

It is infinitely more important to deal with the problem than to try to deal with the perception. Solve the problem and the spin will look after itself. Similarly, there is nothing more lame than an Australian defence that points out that racism and policing problems exist in India, too.

So what?

This is not a point-scoring game. Further, however unjustified or out of date it is, Australia has throughout Asia a longstanding reputation for racism. We may chafe under the unfairness of this reputation, but if we want to deal with reality in Asia we have to understand that it is there. Stories that fit into this stereotype run very strongly.

There is little evidence that the Victorian Government has responded effectively. The Indians I have spoken to have noticed no increased police presence on Melbourne trains, with the exception of the Sydenham line. Certainly you can travel Melbourne's trains day and night for years and never see a police officer.

The Brumby Government seems to think announcements are a substitute for action. Remember all the fuss a year ago about the bashings of Melbourne taxi drivers? And the decisions on installing driver screens? Yesterday I walked along one of Melbourne's busiest taxi ranks and counted 18 cabs, not one with a driver screen.

This should be an elementary health and safety requirement.

Wretched Australian greed is in danger of killing our $15 billion education export industry.

At every point foreign students are mercilessly ripped off financially and given mediocre services at best. I would be hard-pressed in good conscience to recommend an Asian student come to an Australian university if they could afford an American one instead.

But of course our universities, at least the better ones, are not the heart of the problem. It is the vocational colleges run out of a couple of rooms in a city building that are the worst exploiters of foreign students.

Australia has done so well in attracting 400,000 students from Asia for several reasons, none of which has to do with the quality of the education. We are cheaper than the US or Britain, we are in a more sympathetic time zone and, until recently, we had the reputation for being safer. Most importantly, Australian higher education leads to a track for a permanent residency visa.

I've got no problem with that. It attracts a lot of students and gives us citizens down the track with Australian qualifications who can fill skills gaps and have long experience of Australia. But the system has become ramshackle and exploitative. We do not give value for money.

There's a lot we could do much better. How about a home visits scheme, where ordinary Australians invite foreign students for a weekend meal? After all, foreign students are not only dollars and cents, they're also human beings.

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