The recent spate of bashings of Indian students in Melbourne is an appalling episode. As a proud Australian, I am ashamed and horrified that this could happen.
The Victorian state government acted with pathetic incompetence in tackling the problem. At first, it tried to deny that the attacks were racially motivated and then finally admitted that some were indeed so. The attacks did include robbery as well as assault, but it is also possible to be both opportunistic and racist.
Australia has a racist past, which it is still coming to terms with. Australia became a nation when the six colonies joined together in 1901. For the next 65 years or so, the nation’s personality was defined in part by the White Australia policy. But the White Australia policy died in the mid-1960s.
Australia runs proportionately one of the largest immigration programmes in the world and it is racially non-discriminatory. For the last 30 years, at least something like 30 to 40 per cent of our immigrants have come from Asia. Today, more than 1 per cent of our population is of Indian background, probably 2 per cent from the sub-continent altogether. Nearly 10 per cent are of Asian background or have close Asian family members. One reason that the recent events in Melbourne are so shocking is that big Australian cities are so racially diverse. However, while I think there is a racial element in these recent attacks, there were also some non-racial elements.
The experience of Indian students varies a great deal. Those who attend big universities know good English, have financial resources and receive reasonable assistance in finding suitable accommodation. But a substantial number also attend small vocational colleges, many of which exist for foreign students, who are denied the opportunity to make Australian friends. Some also provide no assistance to their students in finding accomodation. So these students stay with certain disadvantages: they may have poor English, not much money and, therefore, need to work, often late at night, to support themselves. They may find accomodation in poorer, outer suburbs a long way from their colleges and their part-time jobs. As a result they are often travelling by themselves late at night.
All big cities around the world are struggling with a rise in urban violence, especially in the throes of the global recession. While I am sure there has been a racial element in these attacks, there has also been an element of robbery pure and simple, and of random, big city violence.
As Australians we need to regulate these colleges better and make a much stronger effort to look after the foreign students in our midst. I condemn with absolute vigour the horrible actions of some of my compatriots. But I would also ask my Indian friends to report the facts accurately, and not to demonise Australia or tar us all with the same brush on the basis of the monstrous actions and contemptible attitudes of what is a very, very small minority within Australia.
Greg Sheridan is foreign editor, The Australian.