Defending the Shire


I once jokingly described the Sutherland Shire as ‘the land that irony forgot.’ The jibe wasn’t entirely accurate, as people from the Shire have the same capacity for irony and irreverence as the rest of Australia. The only difference is that they can’t apply it to the subject of ‘the Shire.’

My quip is a reference to that ill-defined moniker ‘God’s Country.’ Used by an outsider, it is an ironic term, usually uttered with a sneer to indicate contempt for the perceived superiority of the Shire’s inhabitants. Shire residents, on the other hand, mean it even the atheists.

By my use of the definitive article in ‘the Shire’ (as if there isn’t any other, or at least no other worth knowing about), and by my reference to people living elsewhere as ‘outsiders,’ you can probably tell that I’ve lived my entire life in Sutherland Shire.

The implication that the region bordered by the Georges River on the north and the Royal National Park on the south is a golden-shored Elysium untainted by the perils of modern society (like crime, pollution and ethnic people) is unavoidable for most of its residents, even those who decry it like myself. If people from the Shire have a flaw distinct from the rest of Australia it is that they insular, not that they are racist.

Thanks to Bill Leak

I was an unwitting witness to some of the Cronulla chaos, though I was not a participant. Anyone who is familiar with John Marsden’s popular Tomorrow, When the War Began series will know the tale of a group of teenagers who go for a holiday into isolated bushland, only to return and find that the rest of Australia has been invaded. I felt that same eerie sense of the scenery moving behind me when I returned from a weekend houseboat trip with friends, our boat docking at the wharf adjoining the Cronulla train station. We had seen the helicopters hovering over the suburb from some distance, but it was only when we reached shore that we understood that the minor turf dispute that we had left behind on Friday afternoon had escalated into a full-blown race riot. We made our way to the station and, from the other side of the tracks behind the wire mesh fence, got a partially obscured though terrifying view of the scene taking place. The chant of ‘Fuck the Lebs’ was audible from streets away, before the screams, shouts and unmistakable sound of clashing bodies replaced it.

My friends and I had left a society but had returned to anarchy.

It was immediately clear to us that this was not solely the work of locals people had clearly come from all over Sydney (why else would there have been that explosion of violence at the train station?). No doubt, this was the day that many of them had been waiting for, when their private bigotry could be manifested as public and physical action.

But the media coverage that night begged to differ, with all three commercial networks referring to ‘locals’ and ‘residents’ rioting. The next day’s Sydney Morning Herald took up this theme, referring to the riot as the response of ‘Shire boys [who]would not take it lying down anymore.’ Two days later it went further, with Sharon Verghis leading the charge:

The Shire is friendly and community minded, but scratch the surface and you’ll find a sometimes aggressively patriotic mindset that has long looked at other cultures with suspicion Some argue that Cronulla’s insularity is not unique: the northern beaches, too, is largely white and self-contained. But if that was the case in the 1960s and 1970s, it is not now. The yobs have largely moved on as the wealthy and educated have taken over: change, it seems, has happened everywhere in Sydney except the Shire.

Damien Murphy on the same page claimed that Shire residents, ‘enjoy a White Australia lifestyle trammeled only by the occasional visitor from across Tom Uglys Bridge, Blacktown and beyond.’

Even in New Matilda last week, Salam Zreika referred to ‘Middle-Eastern gangs versus the œthis is our Shire, young, true-blue Aussie blokes.’

But the facts were there for those who cared to look. The Australian from the same day, for instance, listed those arrested as coming from places as far afield as Northmead, Mascot, Greenacre, Riverwood, Granville and Bondi Junction. The same newspaper also revealed that Neo-Nazi groups had admitted to mobilising more than 100 extremists from all over Sydney to participate in the riot.

Newspapers and television news programs were full of local residents claiming how ashamed they now were to live in the Shire. Although I was certainly among them, our sentiments were largely misinterpreted. We were not ashamed because we accepted the argument that the Shire mentality was responsible for the violence, but rather because the Shire had been allowed to become the site for such violence.

I’m well aware that the vilification of the Shire and its people is the least of the problems to emerge from the Cronulla riot. I’m not trying to capture the big picture here; I’m just trying to stick up for myself, my family and neighbours, the majority of whom I know to be tolerant, well-intentioned people. Now, the Shire has become synonymous with violent racial bigotry, and its residents characterised as Leb-haters and bashers. We’ll just have to wear that. But we’ll also have to address the fact that, out of all the places in Australia, this was allowed to happen in our backyard first.

If this article was going to have a hook it would be that as a young, Anglo-Celtic, Shire-dwelling male I would be able to offer some unique insight into the minds of those who smashed their beer over the heads of foreign-looking strangers. The truth is I don’t. I bear all the hallmarks of the archetypal Shire racist: I look and talk just like those boys we saw on the news and, no doubt, over the years, I have probably shared the same floor space with them at the now-infamous Northies bar. But the notable difference is that I have not and don’t intend to smash a bottle into the temple of a stranger because I find their skin colour sufficiently provocative.

We’re approaching the issue the wrong way if we think we can understand it through these frames that these people did these things because they were White, because they were young, or because they were from the Shire. It’s a tempting proposition, to write it all off as the result of a particular regional racism, because it lets everyone else off the hook. But we here in the Shire know that you’re all kidding yourselves if you think this is a ‘Shire problem.’ This is a nationwide problem, Cronulla is just the first flashpoint.

There are many things we need to come to terms with, if not accept, about Australia. We are going to have racist people, and occasionally they’re going to get together and do stupid, violent things. It was our misfortune in Cronulla that so many were able to find each other through the wonders of text messaging. What’s more, these people are always going to have a target: decades ago it was the Italians and Greeks, then it was Asians, and now it’s predominantly Arabic people. The word ‘wog’ will always have its place in the Australian vernacular, though the race it applies to may change.

This is not to say that we should give up the fight against racism; quite the contrary, efforts must now be doubled to combat it. But if we make the mistake of picking the wrong target and holding up the people of the Shire as the main objective, then we will lose.

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