Nine race riots that made Australia, for better, for worse…

The aftermath of the 1934 Kalgoorlie riots, with their death toll of an “Aussie” and a “Slav”, the mass destruction of the homes of the Dings at Dingbat Flat, and the rising horror in the town at how the alcohol-fuelled attack on foreigners had turned into sustained mayhem, pointed to an ambiguous anxiety that lurks at the heart of every Australian race riot. For those caught up by a rising wash of righteous vengeance against the outsider, the emotion of indignant self-justification has to confront the wider awareness in the community of the fragility of civilisation, and the importance of building bridges rather than moats between Australia’s many ethnic groups.

The TV documentary series The Great Australian Race Riot, programmed by SBS for the first three weeks of January when everyone else is showing cricket or tennis, captures nine of the many dozen race riots that helped form Australia’s public culture. Episode One explores the nineteenth century, Two the first half of the twentieth, and Three from the Second World War until the present. Producers Essential Media have Peter FitzSimons, bandana-ed and black hat popular iconoclast and author marching across the Australian landscape, turning over rocks to find the remnants of the riots. Aided by a back-up team of historians, psychologists, and a sociologist (I cannot, lie, ‘tis I), Fitzi begins at one of the least known but perhaps most critical confrontations. To read his version go here, but take it with a sprinkle of salt – he seems to have forgotten the impact on the Chinese, the Russians and the asylum seekers in his enthusiasm for a “good news” story.

Half a century after the British invasion, a mere decade after Batman treatied with local Wurundjeri elders for rights to pay for the use of what would become Melbourne, the first re-organisation of the White power structure began. The English and Scots had imported into the new settlement the hierarchy of exploitation and suppression of the Irish that had characterised the home islands. However in the colony the numbers of the ethno-religious groups were more equal, and in 1846 during an attempt to reassert the dominance of the Orange Order, the Irish Catholics revolted. The authorities of the day already recognised that the social order could not be tested here in the same way it had been back in Ireland. The resolution to the violence saw the outlawing of discrimination against Catholics, a first step unique to the colony that would inexorably lead nearly 170 years later, after some enormous challenges, to the popular election of the first conservative party Catholic Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, the Rt Hon Tony Abbott. Prior to Abbott, every Liberal leader had been a member of the Protestant ascendancy.

The series works from a basic proposition, that outbreaks of significant and violent social conflict point to a misalignment of power. What the government sees as the pathway forward sits out of kilter with deeper social inequalities. The late nineteenth century was a time of increasing racialization of Australia, with the multiracial population facing unequal opportunities, with very different skills, resources and perceptions of possible futures. The two major anti-Chinese riots at Buckland River in Victoria in 1857 and a few years later at Lambing Flat in NSW in 1861, act as punctuation marks in the way “White Australia” would be inscribed on the landscape. The land would be defined as Australia in tension with Britain, especially after those British agreements with the Manchu Qing government that allowed the fairly free movement of Chinese citizens to the British empire. It would be defined as “White” through the rapid intensification of racialised ideologies of superiority in the wake of the spread of social Darwinism, and the affirmation of racial bigotry as an Australian social value (still alive in the heart of attorney general George Brandis). Both riots were driven by the perception among many European Australian miners that the Chinese were present illegitimately, and furthermore that their cultural capital gave them unfair advantages at exploiting increasingly scarce gold.

So while the 1846 riot helped to establish the widened boundaries of who might be called White (now the Irish were allowed to wiggle into the cave), the mining riots ended up defining who could not be called Australian: anyone from Asia but particularly the Chinese. Indeed one of the few emotions that was widespread enough to be called national in the formation of the Australian nation was the belief that only Europeans carried enough of the civilising blood to draw up the terms and conditions for a Commonwealth of equality. Many Chinese were shocked and bemused by the self-delusion of the Australians, yet nevertheless they suffered the full weight of the racialised Nation, one that at the end of World War One was fully convinced it was indeed White Australia. Gallipoli after all was the bloody baptism for future claims to Australia being a white man’s paradise.

Each of the riots that follows in the SBS series charts out how that problem, the delusional politics of race, would entwine the Nation in conflict after conflict, from days of attacks on the revolutionary pro-Soviet Russians of Brisbane, through the inter-Asian and anti-White confrontations of Broome, to that bloody series of clashes at Kalgoorlie ( Even after the War to end racial hate concluded in 1945 White Australia did not dissipate. Italian immigrants, becoming Bolshie as the jobs promised them failed to materialise and defined by their swarthy skin tones, were confronted with tanks and rifles at Bonegilla; refugees, their non-White ethnicities inscribed on their skin, were trapped in the relentless purgatory of Woomera until they tried to escape and were beaten back; and the Indigenous population of Redfern finally struck back at perceived endless police oppression and violence. These last three riots tell us that sometimes people have no recourse but to stand up against repressive authority, and sometimes we respect them, and sometimes we fear them. Afterwards society may recognise the impossibility of their circumstances and the responsibility we all share to build those bridges and relieve that oppression. Or not. No denouement, only an open space for future painful exploration.


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