MICHELLE GRATTANJanuary 20, 2010
FORMER Defence Force chief Peter Cosgrove has urged Australians to confront the nation's dark pockets of racism, in a speech dealing frankly with violence against Indians and tensions with Muslims.
General Cosgrove said attacks on Indian students in Australia had become ''a major problem'', and the nature of the attacks made it easy to conclude they were racially motivated.
He also declared there was ongoing estrangement between the broader society and elements of the Muslim community.
His comments, in an Australia Day address titled ''Sunshine and Shade'', deal more openly and directly with race issues than many political figures have been willing to do.
But the speech also highlighted Australia's history of tolerance and positive attitudes to immigrants.
General Cosgrove, a former Australian of the Year, said the issue of violence towards Indians had been brewing for some time, but ''has erupted over the last several weeks to become a major problem''.
''I sense in relation to the spate of attacks on largely Indian people, in Melbourne and elsewhere, Australians are very concerned and disinclined to downplay, much less dismiss, the potential 'racist' elements in what is becoming a litany of criminality,'' he said.
''The problem for us is that the criminal incidents are cowardly and sly and it is easy to conclude that they are racially targeted.
''We are all dismayed that there might be some kind of warped campaign in progress.''
He said the vast majority of Australians who totally rejected any such despicable behaviour would welcome the rigorous prosecution of those ''preying on these visitors''.
''Only that outcome will satisfy our determination to be, and to be known as, a just and equitable society.''
General Cosgrove said he had lived in India for a year in 1994 and ''I love the place''.
Speaking to The Age after his address, General Cosgrove said that the number of incidents against Indians seemed ''too many to be coincidences''.
''Attacks recently by groups of people on individuals looks like a profiling approach to people from the sub-continent . Rather than say 'nothing to worry about', I'd rather look more closely.
''If you didn't suspect a racial strand you'd be mad,'' he said.
In his speech, General Cosgrove said that Australia's history back to early colonial days showed that periodically there had been ''episodes of bad blood between sections of the community based on ethnicity, or very occasionally on religion''. ''Yet they have almost invariably been quite limited in scope and duration,'' he said.
By the time of September 11, 2001, some of Australia's Islamic community already felt alienated and isolated from the mainstream. ''It is a volatile mix when especially younger people are told that they are surrounded by corrupt and impious behaviour at every hand.
''It is unsurprising that some of them then perform in ways which stigmatises the whole Islamic community.''
He said that amid the ''elevated temperature and polarised views'' that characterised this problem, it was hard to have a neat prescription. But ''we must not be panicked into somehow changing or restricting our immigration patterns because of these sorts of issues''.
''Secondly, we should be very careful before assigning major blame for the problem to our broad Australian way of life, as if the estrangement was all somehow our fault and we should change accordingly.''
His comments on violence against Indian students are in contrast to those of police in Victoria, who have consistently downplayed suggestions that they have been racially targeted.