If you needed any confirmation that Australia’s xenophobic and racist underbelly is unfortunately still alive and well, then look no further than Queensland’s Gold Coast. A proposal by the Muslim community to build a school there has enraged a group of protesters who yesterday met at the Gold Coast Council headquarters.

According to a report in this morning’s Courier Mail, around 200 locals attended a demonstration, “draped in Australian flags and shouting pro-Aussie slogans while Australian rock classics such as Land Down Under and Great Southern Land boomed across the parkland.” No doubt the music and the flags were props borrowed from those who organised the infamous Cronulla race riots in 2005.

As an aside, one would have thought both songs were grossly inappropriate choices for this gathering of the ignorant. Land Down Under is about an Australian backpacker reaching out to the world, and Great Southern Land has within it lyrics about the white invasion of Aboriginal land!

Last week a larger group also staged a protest against the proposal to build the Australian International Islamic College at Carrarra.

According to Tony Doherty, a spokesman for the outraged residents, a Muslim school would encourage segregation, not integration — whatever that means.

Mr Doherty doesn’t mind Catholics building their own schools. And in justifying to the media why it was that Muslims should not be allowed to build their own schools, but Catholics can, Mr. Doherty reveals much about himself and his fellow protesters — Muslims are “different”, he says.

“Catholics aren’t a different culture,” Mr Doherty told the Courier Mail. “They are the same as us.”

Who is “us”? And what about Buddhists, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs, the list of permutations is endless. Perhaps Mr Doherty and his fellow anti-Muslim crowd could tick off on which religious and ethnic groups are ok and which are not, based of course on his own narrow criteria of what it means to be like “us”.

Come to think of it, this sort of reasoning on Mr Doherty’s part could have come straight from apartheid South Africa or racially segregated America.

This protest is ugly, and deeply harmful to the image of Australia as a tolerant liberal nation. And more relevantly, those who are behind this concerted campaign to demonise Muslims on the Gold Coast are guilty of racial vilification.

So why aren’t our political leaders condemning this outburst of xenophobia and racism? Where is Queensland Premier Anna Bligh? What about the federal and State MPs who represent the Gold Coast region? Ms Bligh should, particularly in the wake of the Mumbai terror attacks, hit the airwaves and make it clear the government will take whatever steps it has to within the law to stamp out prejudice and vilification of the type that is occurring on the Gold Coast.

Mr Doherty and his supporters will cry “freedom of speech” to justify their actions. But they need to remember freedom of speech is not an absolute and where others are directly harmed by inflammatory speech then the line has been well and truly crossed.