1. Themes
  2. A to Z

Racial and Ethnic Tensions

Melbourne has not experienced the violent disturbances, stemming from racial and ethnic tensions, that marked the histories of many European and North American cities.

The Koorie population of the future Melbourne region, estimated at several hundred, was rapidly overtaken by European arrivals. However, the land chosen for the settlement was a favoured Aboriginal meeting place, and in the early years gatherings of up to 500 people were recorded. At times there was violent conflict among different groups at these meetings. In 1840, for example, members of the Goulburn clans were involved in a confrontation with troopers and police, leading to arrests and two Aboriginal deaths. In the environs of the settlement, violent incidents stemming from occupation of land were few, but trials resulting from conflict consequent on the advance of pastoralism in the Port Phillip District led to three Aboriginal people being executed in the city in the course of 1842, the executions witnessed by large crowds. As a consequence of their rapid dispossession, small groups of beggars were soon found in the streets, some supplied with alcohol and encouraged to fight among themselves for the entertainment of the whites. As a result of such dispossession and demoralisation, there were fewer than 20 survivors among the Woi wurrung and Boon wurrung clans by the early 1870s.

Within the immigrant population, the major ethnic cleavage in 19th-century Melbourne was a sectarian one, between Protestants and Irish Catholics. Annual celebrations of the Battle of the Boyne and St Patrick's Day were the occasions for manifestation of animosities, but tensions were usually contained without serious outbreak of violence. The major exceptions were the disturbances of 1846, when firearms were discharged and three Catholics were seriously wounded, and a disturbance in 1867, when a volley of rifle-fire by Protestants resulted in the death of an 11-year-old boy in the crowd.

The few non-European residents in Melbourne were subject to greater harassment. Antagonism to the Chinese led to the holding of public meetings in the 1880s to call on governments to halt further entry, as a result of which further restrictive legislation was enacted in 1888 and 1901. In the last decades of the century there were occasional attacks by youths on the Chinese market gardeners of South Richmond and on residents in other parts of the city, but there were no mass assaults on the Chinese quarter in Little Bourke Street.

In the 1920s a small increase in immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe was also met with protest. Recently arrived Southern Europeans were caught up in strikes, particularly on the Melbourne docks. During the waterfront strike of 1928, employers recruited immigrants to act as strikebreakers. Trade unionists responded with verbal abuse and acts of violence; by one account explosives were set off in the Greek Club and near an Italian boarding house. It has been rightly observed that each ethnic group has its history of hard times and difficulties in the process of settlement, although for some the difficulties are of much greater magnitude and duration than for others.

Australian culture in the first half of the 20th century was distinguished by its insularity, grounded in pride in British heritage and Australian achievement. Intolerance of foreign customs and languages became more marked after Federation. Although employment was easily obtained in the 1950s and 1960s, the significant increase in immigration from Europe was not enthusiastically received. Non-British immigrants were resented for their work ethic and willingness to sacrifice their standard of living for goals such as home-ownership and independent school education of children.

While resentment did not lead to large-scale disturbances, abuse in the streets and brawls in hotels and schools were common. Many immigrants found that, while they were accepted as workers, barriers to social mixing were imposed. Although citizenship could be obtained after five years' residence, a sense of separateness was not easily overcome, and surveys in the late 1960s found that among a number of national groups more than one in five immigrants left Australia.

The immigration program also brought with it the tensions of Europe, the Middle East and Asia, particularly marked in incidents between Serbs and Croatians from the 1950s and between Turks and Armenians, Greeks and Macedonians, and partisans in Middle East conflicts in later decades. In 1986 a bomb exploded in the basement of the building housing the Turkish Consulate-General in Melbourne, killing one of the bombers, while in 1994 there were a number of arson attacks on community facilities and private property at a time of protest over recognition of the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. Inter-ethnic hostility led at times to violence at soccer matches, with a number of clubs in the postwar period based in community groups and assuming their national character. A brawl in 1992, in the context of the Macedonian issue, involved 400 fans, leading to the injury of 11 police and a number of arrests.

By the time immigration from Asia grew in significance in the 1980s, there was greater tolerance of cultural difference within government and sections of the Australian community, but high levels of unemployment led to renewed calls for restriction. At times of extensive discussion of immigration in the media, particularly during 1984, 1988 and 1996-98, there has been increased incidence of intimidation, harassment and violence, most of a minor nature, directed at people of Asian appearance. Islamic groups reported incidents of harassment and violence peaking during the Gulf War, 1990-91, and in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Members of Melbourne's Aboriginal population, which had grown after the 1920s, experienced discrimination, verbal abuse and poor relations with police, but there were no major incidents or flashpoints, as happened in Sydney, where the indigenous population in the early 1990s was well over double that of Melbourne.

Studies of youth culture in the postwar decades revealed that, in some areas, street fighting and school-based fights were 'fairly common', some involving conflict between Anglo-Australian and immigrant groups, others between members of different immigrant groups. Among the major reasons for such conflict was racial hostility. Fringe extremist groups, less active in Melbourne than in Sydney and Perth, targeted recent immigrants and were involved in attacks on property and in campaigns utilising offensive graffiti and posters. The incidence of harassment and petty violence has been inadequately quantified, but a small-scale 1990 survey of 100 Salvadoreans found that 60% of adults had experienced racist verbal abuse and 15% physical harassment. The 1991 Report of the National Inquiry into Racist Violence in Australia concluded that violence on the basis of ethnic identity was sufficient to warrant concern, but it was 'nowhere near the level it is in many other countries'.

Andrew Markus