- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 15, 2005

DARWIN, Australia — We know it as the Lucky Country — no matter that the phrase was coined ironically by a historian in the 1960s who saw his homeland as smug and insular. Australia remains, in the eyes of the world, a golden land of sunshine, surf and soaps, good food, good wine and good living.

Generations of British student slackers have frittered away their afternoons engrossed in the far-fetched plot lines and taut-bodied teenagers of the TV series “Neighbors” and “Home and Away.” Yet two stories this week offer a starkly different view of down under.

Race riots shook Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, with thousands of white youths rampaging through a well-known beach suburb, attacking people of Middle-Eastern background. They were egged on by white supremacists and neo-Nazis.

Meanwhile, in the steamy tropical outpost of Darwin in the north, a burly outback drifter was sentenced to life in prison for murdering the British backpacker Peter Falconio four years ago. Suddenly, Australia no longer seemed quite so lucky.

Both stories offered violence, desperation and a chilling glimpse into the darker corners of Australian society. The eight-week-long Falconio trial lifted the lid on a grubby criminal underworld hardly ever seen by foreigners unless they are unfortunate enough to collide with it unwittingly, as did Mr. Falconio and his girlfriend, Joanne Lees.

Australians don’t use the Americanism “trailer trash,” but if they did, it surely would be applied to Bradley Murdoch, the man found guilty of fatally shooting Mr. Falconio and trying to abduct Miss Lees. He had all the skills of the Aussie bushman: He camped out in the desert, traveled remote dirt tracks and knew how to handle a rifle. But he was no Crocodile Dundee. He served time for shooting at a bunch of Aborigines who were doing nothing more threatening than watching a soccer match, and had been accused of brutally raping a 12-year-old girl.

Outback is far away

Most coastal-dwelling, city-based Australians have never been to the outback. The Tanami Track, the former cattle-driving route along which Murdoch escaped, is as unfamiliar to most Sydneysiders or Melbournians as it would be to someone in London.

It’s not just that the interior of the continent is arid and inhospitable. It is also enormous. Flying from Sydney to Darwin takes four hours. Australia is not much smaller than the United States, yet it is inhabited by just 20 million people. In the 1930s, Australians worried that they were not numerous enough to occupy such a big land and feared invasion by Asiatic hordes, “the Yellow Peril.” Japanese air raids on Darwin during World War II and an attack on Sydney by midget submarines confirmed their worst fears and led to the catchy cry “Populate or Perish.”

The sense of national identity has been muddled ever since. Australia is in Asia, but not of it. The White Australia policy was abolished only in the 1970s.

A lingering sense of unease was seen again in this week’s riots. The trouble started when a gang of Lebanese-Australian men reputedly beat up a pair of teenage lifeguards on Cronulla beach, in Sydney’s southern suburbs. They could hardly have picked a more sacred institution. Bronzed lifeguards are as Australian as Vegemite.

A protest against the attack Sunday degenerated into a mob frenzy, with thousands of white youths chanting “Lebs go home.” Their rampage, in turn, led to three nights of reprisal raids by gangs of Lebanese-Australian young men.

The violence exposed a racial fault line that pitted flag-draped “Anglos” against “wogs” — Australian slang for people of Mediterranean origin. The vicious tribalism and racist taunts were denounced by politicians and police as “un-Australian,” whatever that means.

Strife brewing for years

“After half a century of welcoming millions of migrants from all over the world, the Cronulla riot is a stain on our national standard and all it stands for,” the Australian newspaper said.

The unrest prompted impassioned soul-searching and self-analysis, but it had been brewing for years. Australians of Lebanese background are among the poorest, least educated and least integrated of any immigrant group. They feel alienated, shut out of the Australian dream — neither Lebanese nor Australian.

They live in Sydney’s never-ending western suburbs, where bucolic street names — Melaleuca Drive, Gumnut Place, Grevillea Crescent — mask a depressing spiral of welfare dependency, unemployment and lawlessness.

Australians forget that their country is no stranger to violence. It was founded, after all, by a bunch of brutalized, half-starved convicts who in turn ill-treated the indigenous inhabitants of the new penal colony.

In the 19th century, Aussie “diggers” lynched Chinese miners on the gold fields of New South Wales. Xenophobia was even directed toward the country’s wartime allies: the “Battle of Brisbane” was a mass brawl between Australian and American soldiers preparing to fight in the Pacific.

The Lebanese are the latest in a long line of immigrant groups to find themselves at the sharp end of Australian nationalism. The spirit of Pauline Hanson, the anti-immigration founder of the now defunct One Nation party, stalked the beach at Cronulla last weekend.

The Sydney riots and the slaying of Mr. Falconio in the dusty red center of the continent happened more than four years and thousands of miles apart. But together they have posed uncomfortable questions for Australians about identity, multiculturalism and whether their luck can hold.

For all its faults, Australia is still one of the best countries in which to live. Just don’t expect to find Mick Dundee.

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