Monday, 13 October 2008

Land push behind ethnic conflict

Fairfax Media.
13/10/2008 1:00:01 AM

IT HAS become almost a ritual in itself. A religious community proposes building a place of worship or learning, and encounters the wrath of thousands of residents.

There are furious mass meetings, petitions, legal challenges and sometimes even violence. On the face of it, Sydney looks like a city riven by ethnic and cultural hostility.

But the protests may be a sign of something much more basic - a competition between recent immigrants and Anglo-Celtic Australians for the dwindling amounts of cheap land. A report from the economic forecaster BIS Schrapnel, compiled late last week, found that "high land costs and affordability remain a challenge for the new housing market", especially in Sydney.

The number of residential plots released annually has fallen sharply, from 9000 in 2000 to fewer than 3000 plots each year since 2004. "This has resulted in new dwelling construction in Sydney falling to levels not seen since the 1950s," the report's author, Angie Zigomanis, said.

South-western Sydney and the Central Coast are particularly affected by the squeeze. But the land shortage and the persistent complaints from residents of south-west Sydney about poor government planning and land use decisions explain only part of the tension.

Research by Gabrielle Gwyther, a western Sydney academic, to trace the movement of immigrant communities over generations, helps to explain many of the social tensions in Sydney in the past decade.

Since 2001 there has been a rising consciousness - but not understanding - of Islam in Sydney. Several attempts to establish Muslim institutions have provoked a backlash from residents.

Dr Gwyther said: "It's often unclear whether people are talking about religion or terrorism when they raise objections."

The most recent outcry was when the residents of Austral campaigned to block a 600-place school for Muslim children.

Other faiths have encountered similar resistance. Hindus faced opposition to their plan for a temple at Rouse Hill, and the Hillsong Assemblies of God Church has battled with Rosebery residents over a proposal to build a 2700-seat auditorium.

But mostly it is Muslims who have felt the brunt of protest. The deputy chairman of the Islamic Council of NSW, Ali Roude, said: "This has historically been the trend and it appears that very little has changed over the past three to four decades.

"Based on recent responses from local residents to the proposed Camden school and other development applications … throughout south-western Sydney it would appear the real concerns and opposition from locals have little to do with the merit of the project but more to do with general anti-Muslim sentiments."

Dr Gwyther, a researcher at the Social Justice and Social Change Research Centre at the University of Western Sydney, refers to a "cultural protectionism" in south-western municipalities, which have tried to maintain their Anglo-Celtic character in the face of the movement of non-English-speakers from Sydney's inner and middle-ring suburbs.

She tracked a generational shift from neighbourhoods such as Alexandria, Leichhardt, Mar-rickville, Newtown and Enmore - where Greeks, Italians, Maltese, Yugoslavs, Poles and Christian Lebanese settled after World War II - to suburbs such as Bankstown, Parramatta, Kingsgrove, Black-town and Fairfield. In the 1970s migrants came from Vietnam and Cambodia to Fairfield, Cabra-matta and Liverpool.

Despite 46 per cent of its population being born overseas, Dr Gwyther said Liverpool was "a very assimilationist" municipality. "It has not allowed the same sorts of developments that you find in neighbouring areas," she said. In Fairfield, for example, the NSW Heritage Office had registered five non-Anglo-Celtic constructions of local significance, including a Laotian temple, a Buddhist monastery, an Assyrian cathedral, a Turkish mosque and a Buddhist temple.

Second- and third-generation immigrants are joining the rush for bigger homes and more green space, pushing out the boundaries of the neighbourhoods in which they grew up. And when cultures rub up against one another, tensions are unleashed.

Dr Gwyther said that in response to the multicultural challenge some Anglo-Celtic Aust-ralians had tried to re-create their own ethnic roots, especially in master-planned estates. With a park named Kensington Green streets lined with deciduous trees and even a cricket pitch, it is its own little England.

She found 85 per cent of residents were Australian-born and the rest mostly British- or New Zealand-born.

"There is a direct correlation between these planned communities and the so-called new towns and garden suburbs created in England after World War II."

But she also found a conditional openness to other ethnicities. "You can be any colour or background so long as you are Anglophile in culture," she said. Elsewhere in south-western Sydney, Dr Gwyther found people fleeing multi-culturalism. "One couple, before they bought their house, "sat in a coffee shop in Narellan for two hours counting the number of Muslims they saw."

But the passing years suggests hostilities can soften. Six years ago in Annangrove, north-western Sydney, a Muslim businessman, Abbas Aly, faced down almost 8000 residents opposing his plan to build an Islamic prayer hall. The council rejected his application but the Land and Environment Court overturned the decision.

The furore was nasty. But now, some say, harmony prevails.

"After about the first year there was a real change in sentiment," said Rohan Baker, a cafe owner.

"This is a pretty white Anglo community but now no one really notices any difference."

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