Cronulla riots: Our diversity is an indivisible part of our national identity

Race riots aren't a common feature of Australian life.

That is why we still look back at what happened on the streets of Cronulla in 2005 with dismay and disbelief.  How did it ever get to that? How was it that things descended into racist mob violence? And could such a shameful episode happen again?

Ten years on, there remain troubling echoes of Cronulla. Now, as then, our harmony as a society is being tested. In our public debate, there are voices intent on promoting fear, hatred and division. 

Back in 2005, it was panic about "reclaiming" the beach in Cronulla from Middle Eastern young men. Today, similar language infects anti-Muslim protests that have occurred in numerous cities. There is no question our community cohesion is currently under strain. 

Even so, the state of Australian multiculturalism remains strong. Those in 2005 who predicted the demise of the multicultural project have been proven wrong. In each of the past three years, the Scanlon Foundation has found that about 85 per cent of Australians agree that multiculturalism is good for the country.

Our diversity is an indivisible part of our national identity. 

This is the perspective we should bring to the rise of anti-Islam protest movements. The voices of far-right nationalists aren't the voices of mainstream Australia. Many who have confronted extremists through counter-protests have gifted them unnecessary oxygen. 

Of course, we can't afford to be complacent. Majorities aren't required for disruptions to our peace. A strong yet measured response remains our best insurance.

Some failures from 2005 must not be repeated. A decade ago, leadership on race was sadly lacking. While sections of the media fuelled racial tensions, many of our politicians remained indifferent. Even after the Cronulla riot, the prime minister of the day stopped short of condemning racist violence, insisting that 'there is no underlying racism in Australian society'.

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Today's political leadership seems more sure-footed. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has already reiterated the importance of mutual respect. He is right to remind us we are the most successful multicultural society in the world. 

Fair-minded Australians also shouldn't repeat the mistake of surrendering patriotism. Unfortunately since Cronulla, some have appropriated our national symbols with jingoistic enthusiasm. Loving your country has become associated with expressions of "F--- off, we're full" or "Australia – love it or leave it". 

However, patriotism isn't the last refuge of the racist scoundrel. National pride doesn't have to involve hostility towards cultural difference. The truest patriotism is about civic virtue. To be patriotic doesn't have to mean a tribal belief in the superiority of one's country and race. Rather it is about the bond of citizenship. It is about having a desire to improve one's country – to ensure that one's country lives up to the best of its tradition.

The Cronulla riot represented not the best, but the worst of national pride. It was caused by a lapse, from which we are not immune. Because where there is fear and hate, prejudice and intolerance, something like it could happen again.

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner. His most recent book is I'm Not Racist But … (NewSouth).

This article Cronulla riots: Our diversity is an indivisible part of our national identity was originally published in Brisbane Times.

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