In just over two weeks Australians will mark Australia Day, January 26, 2018, as a unifying moment for most, not all, to mark the day on which the First Fleet arrived in 1788.

People will go to the beach, families will gather for barbecues, others will play sport or attend musical events.

On the face of it, life will continue as normal while a long hot – very hot in some cases — Australian summer carries on.

This apparent normalcy hardly disguises a troubled start to the year that began with Malcolm Turnbull using his New Year’s day press conference on the Bondi waterfront to attack the Daniel Andrews government in Victoria over youth gang violence.

Law and order issues rarely bring out the best in politicians, more often the worst.

No purpose is served by pretending Victoria does not have a problem with violent acts committed by youths of an African – largely Sudanese – background. But equally, no benefit will be derived from overemphasizing the racial characteristics of those committing violent acts, including home invasions, burglaries, car-jackings, muggings in the street, and wanton vandalism against property.

In this regard, media coverage has been unhelpful. Whether intentional or not some of this coverage has been inflammatory. Immigrants of an African appearance have been made to feel unwelcome, even vulnerable.

As a society we are better than this.

This is why the Prime Minister’s performance on the first day of a new political year was not just disappointing: it was regrettable.

Instead of delivering a message of inclusiveness and hope for 2018 Turnbull chose to use the occasion to score points against a political opponent who is facing re-election in November of this year.

This is what Turnbull said: “We are concerned at the growing gang violence and lawlessness in Victoria, in particular in Melbourne … what is lacking is the political leadership and the determination on the part of the Premier Daniel Andrews.’’

These remarks were coordinated with Coalition ministers and backbenchers from Victoria against a background of prominence given to Victorian gang violence in the Murdoch press. If this offensive was not a concerted “hit job” against the Andrews government, it certainly gave the appearance of being so.

None of this is to argue that prompter action might not have been taken by the Victorian government to address social problems among African youth, among whom reside some of the highest unemployment rates in Victoria, nor that greater resources might not have been devoted to policing in areas most affected; nor that bail and other laws need to be stiffened to combat this challenge to public order.

Belatedly, it seems, a task force has been established to address the issue, beyond the appointment of liaison officers to improve relations with the Sudanese community.

While one sympathizes with avoidance of use of the word “gang’’ to elevate those groups of youths involved in violent acts against people and property, there are also risks in not identifying the problem for what it is.

Whether groups of offending youths are “gangs’’ or “networked offenders’’, to use Victorian police terminology,  these individuals have coalesced to commit crimes.

These are youth gangs by any reasonable definition.

Now to what Turnbull should’ve said on New Year’s day instead of playing politics.

“We are concerned about episodes of gang violence in Victoria. We recognize these are not easy issues to deal with. I have been in touch with Mr Andrews to discuss the matter. The Federal government stands ready to offer assistance.’’

Instead, Turnbull took the low road.

Speaking of low roads, new Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton indulged in what can only be described as dog-whistling when he said Melburnians had got to the stage where they were afraid to go to restaurants at night because of a Sudanese gang menace.

This is absurd, leaving aside legitimate community concerns about gang violence.

Finally, Victorians might question the wisdom of using Bondi as a platform from which to attack their government when, not many kilometres away, Sydney experienced some of the worst race riots in the country’s history .

On the occasion of the Cronulla riots Melburnians shared the concerns of their Sydney brothers and sisters. I don’t recall mainstream politicians seeking to make political capital out of these diabolical events.

Peter Fray

Help us keep up the fight

Get Crikey for just $1 a week and support our journalists’ important work of uncovering the hypocrisies that infest our corridors of power.

If you haven’t joined us yet, subscribe today and get your first 12 weeks for $12.

Cancel anytime.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW