Logan tension not caused by unemployment

Elisabeth Betz Elisabeth Betz
Email: erbetz@students.latrobe.edu.au

First published in The Sydney Morning Herald on 18 January, 2013.




'Mobs tearing up Logan. Did any of them do a day's work today, or was it business as usual and welfare on tap?'' the Coalition's indigenous health spokesman, Andrew Laming, tweeted in response to recent violence in Logan, Queensland, between Aboriginal and Pacific Islander groups.

Clearly both groups face discrimination, yet we know comparatively little about Pacific Islanders as a marginalised minority group in Australia. As police were called in to broker peace talks between the two Logan families - the Briggs and the Palaus - it's important to ask why the fight broke out in the first place.

Violence is always a complex issue, but where Pacific Islander youths are involved there are several observations that might help us understand.

It needs to be stressed that those involved are a small minority. But the Logan violence is not an isolated incident. In 2011 there were riots in Mount Druitt in which Pacific Islander youths fought each other outside the local Westfield shopping centre. One aspect of the riots was the involvement of youth gangs. While ''Mounty Country'' was mostly Tongans from the Mount Druitt area, ''G40'' was a group of mainly Samoans. However, it was not interpreted by those involved as ethnic violence.

So what lies behind violence involving Pacific Island youth in places such as Logan and Mount Druitt? Every Pacific Island culture is different. There are some general characteristics, though, that some of the time might help explain some of the violence.

First is work. Although Laming pointed to unemployment in Logan, in fact sometimes the opposite is an issue. First-generation Pacific Islanders come to Australia to better themselves, their families here and their families back home. But they often end up in low-paying or unskilled employment, often involving shift work. In other words, they work very hard for very little.

Another issue is supervision. Although the first (and sometimes subsequent) generation of parents works hard, the kids get less parental supervision, and often the supervision they do get is from elder siblings. This means they lack parental role models in their everyday life. In Pacific cultures, you typically don't speak back to elders. So, these youths have very limited scope to express their frustration - and anger builds.

The next problem is education. First generation parents put a very high value on education. Their children are meant to be shy and respect elders. Talking to teachers, let alone questioning them, is difficult. At the same time, at home if they adopt Australian ways of interacting with their Pacific Island elders, they are sternly rebuked. On the other hand, if they don't succeed at school, they also face heavy stricture from their parents. They get in trouble whatever they do.

Recent changes in immigration laws have made many Pacific Islanders ineligible for HECS. Even if they do well in school, they are unlikely to pursue a university degree due to the additional financial pressures this involves. Hence, many feel stuck and unable to break the circle of unskilled employment and parental expectations.

Then there is the pressure to support the family, sending money to relatives in the Pacific Islands, or other parts of Australia and the world - known as remittances. There is significant social pressure to do this. Also, a lot of money is funnelled to churches as Pacific Islanders are generally very religious. Consequently, even if the parents are working hard and earning money, their immediate family in Australia may not enjoy the benefits of this. Because so much of their earnings needs to be distributed to family and church, working is actually not as financially rewarding as it might appear. It's almost like they are at the top tax rate but are only earning minimum wage.

Then there is the complexity of belonging. As a result of these work and educational issues, self-esteem problems often arise. Young people look for alternative communities where they can find acceptance and more freedom.

Last is locality. Most of these youths live in outer suburbs in our cities, areas of low income where many ethnic minorities reside. This has the effect of grouping them and the difficulties they face.

The issues in Logan are those many migrant or ethnic youth face: clashing values, clashing behavioural expectations, limited resources, and unclear or even dubious role models. These are just a few of the underlying issues that need to be taken into account before judgments about the violence in Logan or Mount Druitt are made.

Elisabeth Betz is a doctoral candidate in anthropology at La Trobe University.