Ten years ago the Cronulla riots were a bad day at the beach. Now it's a popular movement.
People have generally treated the Cronulla riots as an aberration in Australian history—like a weird racist tornado that came out of the sky one day and left as quickly as it came. But as I watched images of the Cronulla riots unfold on TV 10 years ago, I remember an overwhelming feeling of inevitability. We had been waiting for this to happen. For myself—and most of the people I knew—this was the predictable and obvious outcome of the public racism and hysteria that had been building towards Arabs and Muslims since 9/11.
If we're going to reminisce, let's reminisce properly. The stage for Cronulla had actually been set much earlier, in the lead up to the 2001 Federal election. This was a turning point in Australian political history—a magical time when John Howard's stars aligned and a boat with 400 Afghan asylum seekers appeared in Australian waters just days before 9/11. Not only were Muslims terrorists—they were now invading us by the illegal boatload. Who could pass up a chance like this?
The Tampa sat out at sea while Howard refused to accept the asylum seekers on board. Finally, an armed SAS contingent was sent to board the ship, and they were transferred to a prison camp on Nauru. At his election launch a few weeks later, Howard dropped his most infamous catch-phrase: "We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come"—which, to be honest, should probably just be our national anthem. Arguably no politician has ever managed to sum up Australian history and culture so accurately and completely in just 15 words.
A day reclaiming the beach has become a movement convinced that it needs to reclaim the entire country.
Howard mixed a cocktail of every conceivable fear about Muslims, illegal immigrants and terrorism, but he can't be given all the credit. These events didn't just mark a shift in public rhetoric about Muslims—or anyone perceived to be vaguely Muslim—they also cemented the complete cowardice of the ALP for years to come. When those asylum seekers sat out at sea, Kim Beazley and the Labor Party said nothing. This calculated silence has become their official policy on all things race-related.
Fast forward to Cronulla 4 years later. Howard, predictably, refused to condemn the riots as racist. So did Beazley. In a Channel 9 interview with Ellen Fanning, Howard went a step further when questioned about white supremacists, replying that he would "…never condemn anyone for using an Australian flag." And there you had it—the prim, suited bureaucrat playing advocate for a lynch mob.
The far-right has traditionally been a convenient tool for mainstream parties around the world—white supremacists represent an extreme fringe that everyone can happily denounce. These are the cartoon racists that live on the edges of what we are told are otherwise harmonious, tolerant societies. It's an easy trick that distracts people from the power of mainstream parties to enact and enforce racist laws and policies around immigration, policing and foreign policy.
Howard wasn't keen on this formula. Why alienate a fringe when you could speak their language? Howard's strategy was to aggressively co-opt the most extreme rhetoric around race—a tactic that eventually put even Pauline Hanson and One Nation out of business. Howard understood Australia. This was a society built on racism. Why pretend to fight it when you can use it as fuel? There was nothing to lose by playing to the lowest common denominator—in fact, he revelled in it.
The results speak for themselves. Ten years on, what seemed to many like a freak event—crowds of violent racists assembling to intimidate a minority—is now a regular occurrence. A day reclaiming the beach has become a movement convinced that it needs to reclaim the entire country.
But it's not simply a case of the far-right growing by accident. Groups like Reclaim Australia and other white supremacists don't come out of the woodwork by magic—they flourish because real policy makers have given their views credibility. As my friend Shakira Hussein observed at a recent Reclaim Australia event, the rhetoric at these rallies is basically what we are now used to hearing from regular politicians. There's no longer an awkward dance between mainstream parties and the far-right; these ideas are mainstream.
The Muslim community has generally welcomed Malcolm Turnbull's shift in rhetoric about Islam, but members of his own party—Dutton, Morrison—are still happily carrying the torch that Howard passed to Abbott. After the recent Paris incidents, their attacks on Australia's most senior Muslim leader for apparently 'justifying' terrorism (he didn't) completely dominated the media and fuelled the consequent backlash against Muslims. In the following days, a major newspaper had the Mufti on the front page photoshopped as a Monkey, and Jaqui Lambie was on air publicly discussing the need for him and other Muslims to wear electronic tags. For all the pressure on Muslims to condemn terrorism, Turnbull's own Multicultural Affairs Minister refused to explicitly condemn Reclaim Australia.
A lasting misconception about the Cronulla riots is that it was gangs of racist locals who participated.
This ongoing hatred towards Muslims doesn't exist in a vacuum, of course. The recent end of Adam Goodes's career is a testament to the origins and pervasiveness of the cruel, bullying culture of racism here. A lasting misconception about the Cronulla riots is that it was gangs of racist locals who participated—that the Shire was an unfortunate, concentrated pocket of racism in an otherwise happy country. In reality, it was people from all across Sydney who came together that day for the chance to be part of a violent race riot, protected by the numbers and anonymity of a mob. Likewise, to pretend that the people booing and undermining Goodes were simply uneducated bogans is nonsense. It was open season in the stands as well as in the media.
In the weeks, and even months following Goodes's last few matches, the country went through the painfully familiar motions of asking "Is Australia Racist?" We all know that the answer has always been yes.
Aamer is an Australian standup comic who likes reading comics. Follow him on Twitter.