Sunday December 11, 2005 is a day that will go down in Australian history for all the wrong reasons. After months of build-up, racially-fuelled riots broke out at Cronulla Beach in Sydney’s south before spreading to other beachside suburbs the following day.
In 2014, SBS aired the documentary Cronulla Riots: The Day That Shocked the Nation and launched an accompanying multimedia presentation. Here, documentary writer and director Jaya Balendra reflects on the process of making the film and the impact the riots continue to have.
What interested you in the topic in the first place?
I was living in London at the time and read about these riots. I didn’t have a great appreciation of it. I’m from Melbourne, not Sydney. I’ve never been to Cronulla in my life so it didn’t particularly resonate with me – it was just something I noted.
Many years later, I was hired by the team behind Once Upon A Time in Punchbowl to make a companion piece to that series, which was to re-evaluate the Cronulla riots. We were very interested in what lay behind the riots and to interrogate it from all perspectives – people who were there and also to include the Lebanese Australian perspective.
It wasn’t until I pressed play on the riot footage itself that it hit me. I really couldn’t believe what I was watching. I was so deeply shocked and ashamed to be Australian – all those things that many other people have said. The sheer visceral hatred of what I was watching… To see the angry mob, that’s the thing that deeply moved me and made me very angry. I remember thinking, “How did it get to this?” That’s what really compelled me to understand every aspect and tell the story.
How willing were people to talk about the riots?
It was very difficult. There were a number of people that were assaulted that day. Some of those people were not Lebanese Australians; they were of different cultural backgrounds but were tarred with the same brush and assaulted randomly.
We had been in contact with a couple of Lebanese Australian guys who were assaulted and they were very fearful of more reprisal and didn’t want to talk to us. The whole episode was a nightmare and they didn’t want to revisit it. A lot of people were very traumatised by it.
What about the participants in the riot at Cronulla, did you try to speak to any of them?
Yeah, we did. We tried to get them but a lot of these people are very cowardly. No wonder they didn’t want to stick their heads up. But they made themselves very clear in the actuality. I thought the raw footage of the riot spoke for itself.
Even though they didn’t come on camera, did you get a sense of how participants now feel about the part they played?
My memory is that they were just the same. I don’t think they had any great reflection. But from many other people, there is a sense that this was tensions boiling over and it did expose a lot of deeply held prejudices.
The then-prime minister, John Howard, was criticised by some for stating that the riots didn’t actually expose a problem of underlying racism. Do you agree with the view that his response was too weak and left things liable to flare up again?
Absolutely. He left that wide open and people felt that there needed to be a much stronger statement of condemnation. I don’t think it’s analogous, but in the wake of acts of violent extremism which we’ve seen recently, I think what’s very interesting is that if you look at the statements made by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, they’re very different to the ones of complete denial. I don’t think John Howard helped at all.
I think the Cronulla riots were very much about these deeply held prejudices and fear. Really warped ideas about identity and belonging were at the heart of it. “It’s not your beach, it’s ours”. Could it happen again? Unfortunately, I don’t think it takes much for people who do have a lot of fear and prejudice to arc up.
But I don’t think we should conflate the Cronulla riots with what is happening at the moment with people wanting to carry out acts of violent extremism. They’re completely different.
What’s your take on groups like the Party for Freedom marking the anniversary of the riots and stating that multiculturalism has failed?
That’s their calling card, isn’t it? They’ve been saying the same thing forever – in the same way that extreme jihadists would say the same thing. Their response is not interesting and I don’t think we should give it too much credence, because extreme groups will always be just that.
They do exist, they have the right to exist and express their views but if you look at the content, the context and the message, it’s the same as it ever was.
Ten years on from the riots, what has changed so that something like this might not happen again?
It was a really appalling incident but some good things have come out of it. There have been a lot of initiatives in terms of community policing that have been very important in creating or strengthening multicultural community liaison teams. Those people are on the ground and really making inroads into and understanding those communities.
The police were completely under-prepared for what happened and are now much better informed and at the ready. We saw the way the riot squad was out in force at the 2012 riot at Hyde Park, and that’s a flow-on effect from the Cronulla riots.
Also, we know the warning signs now so hopefully we have learnt something.
Watch SBS's award-winning documentary Cronulla Riots: The Day That Shocked the Nation at 9:30pm (AEDT), Thursday 10 December on SBS2 and explore the interactive site now.
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