The politics of crime and race

Today Victorian police chief Simon Overland, with Premier John Brumby, announced further measures to crackdown on crime against Indian students.

This issue has been an interesting one, and is yet to fully play out.

The politics of crime 1

Mixing crime and race has brought the cultural left into the crime debate in a way that would have been unlikely otherwise. Though there is nothing intrinsically right-wing about being tough on crime, the propensity of right-of-centre parties to pursue ‘law and order’ politics pushes the cultural left into an oppositional stance: that fear of crime is exaggerated, that punishment doesn’t do much to rehabilitate, etc. Would Guy Rundle and David Marr have leapt into print if there was a crime wave without a racial angle?

The politics of crime 2

Even without an expressly racial element, this issue is interesting because a group has firmly, persistently, and successfully demanded that more be done to enforce the law. Usually, being a victim of crime is a lonely experience: people will sympathise with you, but they won’t mobilise for you. They don’t see your victimhood as a substantial risk to themselves. By targeting Indian students, the thugs picked on a group for whom a common identity is still strong, which provided the basis for political action.

The sociology of crime

The basis for political action also provided the basis for social action – the groups of Indians congregating around train stations for protection in Melbourne, and vigilante action in Sydney. Of course, this has the potential to get out of hand, as it did in Sydney, though fortunately with no serious injuries. But when the state fails to perform its most basic function of protection, it is an unsurprising reaction where the community resources exist to offer self-protection.

The confusion of racist narratives

In his SMH News Review article on Saturday, David Marr spent the vast bulk of his 1,573 words rehashing the racist history of white Australia. Only in the last two sentences did we get this admission that perhaps this history isn’t particularly relevant to this case:

One observation: not all the attackers are white. Race is always a shifting, contested and complicated business.

The Sydney Indian students themselves, unlike much media reporting, do not step around the issue of the ethnic background of perpetrators: their problem is with the Lebanese. Earlier reports claimed that the attackers included Africans, Islanders and Asians. Race is of course a complicated business, but it is not very likely that traditional Australian racism – reduced to marginalised cranks by the time most of these groups arrived – has anything to do with them picking on Indians.

The politics of higher education funding

Indian students are more likely to do vocational than higher education, but some universities do rely quite heavily on Indian students. The current troubles add another, unexpected, level of risk to Julia Gillard’s already high-risk higher education policy. Given the lack of any real additional funding commitment to teaching, the government is still relying on selling visas to finance universities. Reduced enrolments from one of our biggest source countries is bad news for universities already facing financial difficulties.

23 thoughts on “The politics of crime and race

  1. I think one of the big problems the Indians have is they live in such awful areas — St Albans in Melbourne and Granville in Sydney. It’s hard to think of worse areas in Australian cities — I personally wouldn’t be catching the train their late at night for obvious reasons. Personally, if their protests get something done about the crime in these neighborhoods then all I can say is good luck to them and I’m glad they brought attention to it!


  2. I can remember another example of a victimised group with a strong social identity successfully mobilising political support. About 10 years ago there was a spate of idiots throwing rocks and concrete off freeway overpasses onto the traffic below. Truck drivers were often the victims, and after one of them was killed this way, they were successful in having high fences added to overpasses.


  3. Sinc – OK, I doubt that is exactly how the government sees it, and private colleges that receive no government subsidy are also the beneficiaries of the visa policy. But de facto universities rely heavily on international student fees, and international student demand relies heavily on the prospect of permanent residence.


  4. “What’s so bad about St Albans conrad?”
    High crime rates. There is a neat site which makes the ABS stats easy to look at (versus using all the supertable stuff) if you are interested incidentally at You can type in all the different suburbs you want.


  5. The assault rates in St Albans are only slightly above average, and a tiny fraction (gulp!) of those for Carlton, though Carlton suffers for being in the city crime area. [Though rates expressed as a % of population are not very reliable for the city, since residents are a small % of those in the area at any given time.]


  6. This is the second time that a community group has had to resort to mass protest in order to bring attention to a crime problem. The first time was at Cronulla.

    What’s more frightening is the police saying that crime against Indian students is largely in line with crime against other groups in the community, such as little old ladies. If it’s unnaceptable to the Indian students, then I expect it is just as unacceptable for everyone else. But they’ve had to suffer in silence because the police and their political masters have spent near twenty years just shrugging their shoulders.

    I remember Peter Ryan’s being shocked at the level of violent crime in Sydney when he came here, and its being perpetrated by gangs formed along racial-cultural lines. Over ten years on and we’re still facing the same situation.

    I’m with the Indians – keep shouting boys! Don’t give up until the police do their job, and the politicians give them the resources they need.


  7. I agree with Andrew our Uni’s are to reasonable extent (>10%) funded by OS students studying here as a pathway to PR (Permanent Residency).

    The big picture issue is that it is not safe to take the train home at night to a lot of locations. It is not about being Indian or Asian or Anglo. The issue is that public transport (and leaving the station) is not safe late at night.

    Suburban train stations are a magnet for “trouble makers” because of the flow of people traffic at night. If there was lots of people it would be safe. IF there was no people, there would be no-one hanging around looking to cause trouble.


  8. “I agree with Andrew our Uni’s are to reasonable extent (>10%) funded by OS students studying here as a pathway to PR (Permanent Residency)”
    Actually, despite the constant hyperbole, lots (most) of them study because they learn something too, and many don’t have the slightest intention of staying. This latter is of course _bad_ news, especially in courses that Australians don’t want to do as much anymore (like engineering, for example).


  9. Conrad – A 2006 survey of international students by Australian Education International found that about 2/3 wanted permanent residence. Of course that is not inconsistent with them wanting to learning something as well – though they are clustered in courses that will them migration points.

    Fitzroyalty – On balance, it is hard to see that international students have been bad for local students, given that financial collapse of universities was the most likely alternative. The need to compete in markets has also given universities are more student-focused orientation, as seen in rising student satisfaction. I know this does not measure ‘academic standards’, but there are no measures of this. It’s one anecdote against another.


  10. “A 2006 survey of international students by Australian Education International found that about 2/3 wanted permanent residence”
    If I asked, say, the average person in Mumbai the same question, I would bet that I would get a higher response rate than 2 in 3, so the question could be specified better, e.g., “and are you doing your degree in this particular area to help qualify”. In this respect, some of the clustering into courses that offer migration points may have nothing to do with migration — it’s not surprising that when you have to pay back oodles of money and your wages are very low, overseas students choose courses which offer good immediate job opportunities. It is also the case that the places the students come from also offer better opportunities for some courses that offer migration points in Australia (like IT in India I assume), and there are probably cultural reasons some courses are chosen too (a good example of this is Engineering — if I remember correctly, 25% of students in Chinese universities study Engineering).
    “On balance, it is hard to see that international students have been bad for local students”
    Even excluding money, my opinion is that they have been good for local students, since they (a) tend to try a lot harder; (b) offer cross-cultural social exchange; and (c) often come from places where things like mathematics and science is more highly valued — hence forcing the Australian students to compete to their level, not the lesser Australian one. My opinion of this is that most of the complaints are about “poor English”, something that certainly isn’t restricted to them, yet I never hear any statements like “better mathematics” and so on. Yet this latter one is certainly true.


  11. Guy Rundle has written several times before on crime – especially about UK labour’s ‘tough on crime tough on the causes of crime’ policy, CCTVs and the surveillance society, alcohol policy and moral panics about ‘binge drinking’, and so on. It’s been in his pieces in the Sunday Age over the last couple of years.

    Besides, the article you cite suggests that the violence was as much about class conflict, arising from globalisation, masquerading as race – doesn’t seem to be a ‘cultural left’ position as you characterise it.


  12. David Marr is quite confused. Islam is not a race – it’s a religion. If someone distributed false claims that the catholic church wanted to build a cathedral in Port Kembla would Marr claim this was an appeal to racism?


  13. Sinclair Davidson (first comment) questions if Andrew is being a bit dramatic about Julia Gillard worrying about how to finance universities without selling visas.

    I think Andrew is UNDERstating the worry, as one of Australia’s top exports, it’s probably Wayne Swan who has the cold sweats, not worrying so much about keeping a healthy education system, but worrying about another big hole in the current account.

    And I agree with Fitzroyalty that it probably undermines the quality of the education available from our institutions – whether the students are Australian or from overseas. Andrew is right, the institutions have become student-focused, but my gut tells me that the customers see getting a piece of paper as more important than the ideas that paper should certify – and the unis have been forced to keep the customers happy. (Andrew, perhaps someone has done a study on the time it takes a recent IT graduate to reach a standard of proficiency where they can be productively employed, maybe by interviewing employers with long memories?)

    Who has a nagging worry that the politicians are paying attention to the issue merely because of the impact on Australia’s exports? The politicians have watered down critical climate action from their election promises for far less.

    And Andrew, I reckon your “Politics of Crime 2” is a good meme. Thanks.


  14. “And I agree with Fitzroyalty that it probably undermines the quality of the education available from our institutions”


  15. In fact, now we must dredge up “who’s worst for the Australian university system”, surely the title must go to the rather large percentage of Australian students who don’t do any work, don’t know why they are doing the degree, and still expect to, and will, pass. I personally have never met any overseas students like that (and I’ve met a lot).


  16. Overseas students who migrate do have more difficulty getting jobs matching their qualifications than locals, but it is hard to know whether this is the quality of their education as perceived by employers from experience, or as perceived by employers because of perceptions like Dave’s (often repeated, but for which there is little evidence), or because of language issues, or prejudice on the part of employers. The theories are not mutually exclusive.

    As noted above, I still think it is more likely that overseas students have helped trigger substantial improvements on what went before, and dramatic improvements on what would have happened if they had not come. They have been the driving force pushing universities from being particularly backward parts of the public service into being modern, professional service organisations. They are not there yet, but there is steady improvement.


  17. Having worked in university departments where some international students can barely introduce themselves in English, it is obvious that assessment standards are lowered to minimise fail rates for full fee paying international students. Some people think education can be bought not earned and our systems encourage this practice.


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