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Issue # 1415      17 June 2009

Editorial – Racist attacks and the right to protest

Like night follows day, racist attacks grow out of economic crisis. In recent months we have seen increased tensions between various sections of the community and foreign students in Australia, particularly Indian students. The bigoted and ignorant have jumped on the bandwagon and the ill-intentioned have encouraged them. Accusations of overseas students taking the university places away from Australian students and other more plainly racist statements have been given air time on talk back radio and other media platforms. The implication is that foreign students should expect the vicious attacks made on them without response or protest.

Typically, the hostility that has been generated targets the victims. Foreign students are not responsible for the number of places made available for them. It is a policy of the universities and other institutions that has grown out of the sharp decline in the Commonwealth’s funding of tertiary education. This assault on university education reached its peak during the Howard era. During that period, Australian students from wealthy backgrounds could obtain a full fee-paying place without being required to meet the same entry level of academic achievement. Why are there no reports of violent attacks against these students? Proper funding should have allowed for an adequate number of places for local and overseas students.

Indian students are quite often forced to look to Australia and other countries because of the defunding of universities in their country as a result of the application of the neo-liberal economic agenda. They are not spoilt when they get to Australia. In fact during the various high-level meetings that have taken place since the spate of attacks in Melbourne and Sydney, a list of serious complaints about the conditions encountered in the various metropolitan centres in which students live, study and work has come to light. Until the recent savage and cowardly attacks on their colleagues, foreign students used to endure these problems with considerable patience.

A meeting of university student leaders, members of the diplomatic community and Universities Australia Lead Vice-Chancellor Professor Daryl Le Grew drew up a plan with ten very telling points about student safety and amenities. It has been adopted by Universities Australia. Naturally, it provides for improved security on campus and advocates increased security on pubic transport and other hot spots to state and territory authorities. It commits to working harder on raising cultural awareness and integration of the students of all nationalities on campuses.

Most revealing is the point that seeks cooperation with authorities in student source countries to ensure recruitment agencies present an accurate picture of the conditions they will encounter in Australia. Students usually have difficulty locating suitable accommodation. Housing is extremely expensive in Australia’s capital cities. In most centres they do not qualify for concessions, including for public transport. It is difficult to find work to supplement income coming from home. They are often paid inferior rates for hospitality and cleaning jobs.

Even before the recent attacks, Indian students had formed themselves into the Federation of Indian Students of Australia (FISA). That body has called for calm in the face of escalating tensions of the sort witnessed in the Sydney suburb of Harris Park. It has welcomed the adoption of the universities’ ten-point action plan mentioned above. It has called on the Indian community to join the Victorian Premier on the Harmony Walk on July 12 and praised the introduction of new hate crime legislation.

FISA has had to take a stand for the right of students to protest. This right has come under attack from racists in the Australian community.

Under normal circumstances, that is precisely what that country’s students do in Australia but it would be extremely bad advice to accept the deadly violence directed against their colleagues in silence. If the students had not protested there would not have been official acknowledgement that the attacks were racially motivated. There would be no ten-point plan, new hate crime legislation or increased Victorian Police presence at public transport hotspots. No doubt elements of the ultra-right and ultra-left insinuated themselves into protests to incite violence but if there had been no protests there would have been more attacks on defenceless and isolated Indian students with no prospect of a solution.

It has been said many times before that the capitalist ruling class loves division among the workers and other exploited: between local and immigrant workers, between men and women, between Indigenous and non-indigenous people, between local and overseas students and so on. It is still true. Groups with grievances should protest and we should all meet our obligation to stand with them.

Next article Tribute to Freda Brown

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