Storm brewing in Melbourne

From the Herald Sun:

Storming the streets
Christopher Bantick
February 27, 2008

WHEN the city square used to be on the corner of Collins and Swanston streets, a group of anti-immigration protesters in Hitler’s storm trooper uniforms were holding forth.

Suddenly, two elderly men, their coat tails flying, ran across Collins St and tried to rip the swastika armbands from the protesters.

The resultant scuffle ended up with one old man receiving a cut head and the protesters scattering after an angry crowd gathered.

The swastika and the intimidating dog returned to Melbourne’s streets on Friday night in an anti-independence rally over Kosovo separating from Serbia. The irony was inescapable.

Seventy-five years ago, Hitler came to power and his swastika-wearing bovver boys crushed dissent. The swastika is a symbol of terror and totalitarianism.

Therefore, it is difficult to see how the Serb protesters can appropriate the swastika and expect public support.

To understand the convoluted logic of the Serbs who took to Melbourne’s streets is a challenge.

An Australian flag and placard covered in swastikas was confiscated by police. To besmirch an Australian flag with swastikas is not only an act of breathtaking ignorance, but inflammatory.

I wonder what my late father, a World War II veteran, would have thought. He fought under the Australian flag. He watched his mates die under the Australian flag. He would have been outraged that the Australian flag was desecrated with symbols of hate.

Melbourne is a city with an international reputation for its racial harmony, and was ranked third in a UN report last year as the most desirable country in which to live.

Peter Schneemann, from Switzerland’s Berne University, was in Melbourne last month for the 32nd International Committee of the History of Art Congress.

He praised the city’s “extremely open and tolerant culture”.

As a mark of this democracy and tolerance, Serbian demonstrators are free to march and chant in Melbourne’s streets.

But what they are protesting about bears closer examination.

At its heart, this protest was about nationalism and the Serbian refusal to accept Australia’s recognition of the now independent Kosovo.

What do we make of the veiled threat contained in the words of Father Milan Milutinovic of Melbourne’s Serbian Orthodox Church?

He asked Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to reverse Australia’s decision to recognise Kosovo independence from Serbia.

“Countries, unfortunately including Australia, have recognised Kosovo unilaterally as a sovereign state,” said the cleric. “This is something we cannot accept and we are here to protest what’s going on.”

But, while such nationalistic claims directed at the Australian Government are cause for unease, Father Milutinovic was partly correct when he added: “I don’t know what connection Australia really has to Kosovo — it’s a European problem.”

Kosovo’s independence is accepted by the United Nations Security Council and the council universally condemned Nazi-like violence in Belgrade.

But there’s the rub. European ethnically derived hate has no place on Melbourne’s streets, and I’m with Father Milutinovic when he says: “It’s a European problem.”

But not when Serbian bullying is crystallised in the mark of a swastika.

It is a symbol that destroys whatever cause the Serbs may declare.

Christopher Bantick is a Melbourne writer and social commentator

News brief · 27 February 2008