Church Vandalism Triggers National Inquiry : Racial Harassment on Upswing in Australia

Christian Science Monitor

Once again, a black, oily substance oozes down the front door and steps of the Pitt Street Uniting Church in downtown Sydney. Every week for months, the church has been defaced--apparently by racists.

For two years now--ever since South African anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke here--the Rev. Dorothy McMahon and her parishioners have been harassed.

This low-level terrorism--which has sparked a national inquiry into racial violence--takes the form of bricks tossed through windows, car tires slashed, threatening phone calls at night, and human waste thrown at McMahon’s home. Police advised McMahon--an outspoken supporter of the African National Congress, Aboriginal land rights, and homosexual rights--to keep silent about the incidents.


But last November, after a mock “necklacing” outside her home--an effigy of a woman with a tire around its neck was burned--McMahon went public.

“Before, we felt a sense of impotence, powerlessness in face of it. Since going public, we’ve had amazing support from people all over country,” McMahon said. “I feel tired, but more peaceful and stronger. I feel much more able to be uncompromising in my stands. People say, ‘How could that be?’ And I say: ‘But you’re praying for me. Don’t you believe your prayer really works?’ ”

People Step Forward

Since McMahon spoke up, more people have stepped forward with complaints. For example, in the west coast city of Perth, two Chinese restaurants have been firebombed.

“We’re probably looking at well over 100 incidents, but those are only the cases we know about now,” said Irene Moss, the federal race discrimination commissioner in charge of the national inquiry. She notes studies in Britain indicate that as much as 75% of racially motivated violence goes unreported.

The principal targets in Australia are Asian immigrants, Aborigines--Australia’s black natives--anti-apartheid activists, and a growing list of politicians and journalists raising race-related issues.

The harassment appears to be the work of a few right-wing individuals and small extremist groups. Often the attacks are anonymous. “Cowardly hit-and-run vandalism,” said Commander Michael O’Brien of the New South Wales police.


The Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, a pro-South African apartheid group in Australia, claimed responsibility for the mock necklacing at McMahon’s home. Pamphlets from the Australian Nationalist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, and National Action have been left after vandalism at the Pitt Street Uniting Church.

Nationalists Blamed

National Action, a nationalist political group, has been most frequently blamed for the rise in racial violence. But this is perhaps because it is the most public group.

National Action chairman James Saleam will only say that membership numbers more than a few hundred. The group opposes Marxism, capitalism, and the globalization of economies and cultures. It advocates a “white Australia” immigration policy. One recent handout calls a Sydney real estate agent a “traitor” for “selling Australia for Asian money.” The agent’s home address and phone number are given with the command: “If you’ve had enough . . . let Max (the agent) know!”

Saleam admits that such tactics are aggressive and is sympathetic to the aims of other extremist groups. He notes that his organization has had bricks tossed through its storefront window. But he denies that National Action is directly involved in any vandalism or criminal activity.

“There isn’t any future as a subterranean criminal gang, because either you become the IRA (Irish Republican Army) or you don’t,” Saleam said. “We think the political situation in Australia will become more radical, and organizations like National Action will grow. So, we’re very careful here, we don’t want to be suppressed for criminal activity.”

But last month, the secretary of National Action was arrested on the charge of “violent disorder.” He was one of 10 National Action members wearing balaclavas who burst into a Liberal Party (Australia’s main conservative party) fund-raising dinner. Witnesses said that the demonstrators distributed leaflets, chanted slogans, and threatened to kill the main speaker, Helen Sham-Ho, an Asian member of the state parliament.

Overlapping Memberships

The arrested National Action member was formerly an official of a disbanded pro-white South Africa group. Police say political militant groups are often made up of members who move around or have overlapping memberships.

The recent surge in racial violence coincides with a vigorous debate on immigration policy. Racist elements have been given a green light by politicians such as opposition leader John Howard, McMahon said.

“Every community can be lifted up or discouraged depending on the leadership and the level of hope given,” she said. “People who encourage racism are probably fairly full of self-hate and despair and encourage the community to lower its expectations of what it can handle.”

Last year, Howard indicated that he might consider limiting Asian immigration if he became prime minister.

Although Commissioner Moss’s home was daubed with racist slogans recently, she does not believe racism is rife in Australian society. For a country with 120 nationalities and 40% of the population from a non-English speaking background, she said, Australia remains quite tolerant and easygoing by world standards. Moss hopes the national inquiry will nip emerging racial problems in the bud.

‘Climate of General Acceptance’

“People say: ‘What’s a bit of brick throwing or tire slashing?’ But if these small abuses go on and society tolerates it, you then create a climate of general acceptance which could lead to worse things. A responsible society has to look at this and do something about it,” she said.

Australia does have anti-discrimination laws. But there are no laws against inciting racial violence--yet. The Parliament of New South Wales, the most populous state, is considering such a bill that would impose large fines and a maximum six-month jail sentence.

National Action’s Saleam considers the proposal an effort to suppress his organization’s political views. The Australian Writers Guild has also express concern that such a law could inhibit freedom of speech. And Saleam calls the inquiry into racial violence a witch hunt.

After receiving written submissions, the federal inquiry will conduct public hearings beginning in June. The panel will issue a report by the end of the year.