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Multi-racial Melbourne suffers blow to reputation

Nick Bryant | 02:06 UK time, Sunday, 10 January 2010

Of all the world's front rank cities, few have such a carefully manicured image as Melbourne. It's a forward-looking metropolis almost fixated with civic self-improvement, which has used eye-catching developments and high profile sporting events to maintain its global profile. Much more than the sum of its parts, the city regularly features high up on those global liveability lists - and deservedly so.

The last time I was in Melbourne, the city was brimming with self-confidence and pride. Tiger Woods was in town, happily endorsing a city and state which had paid millions to attract his services.

But just as Tiger's gilt-edged reputation has taken a hammering in the months since - oddly, it was a snapshot of one of Tiger Woods' alleged mistresses outside his Melbourne hotel that provided the American tabloids with their smoking gun - so has Melbourne's as a blue-ribbon city.

Last weekend, an Indian graduate student, Nitin Garg, was stabbed to death in the city, and this weekend another Indian was set upon by a gang of youths who doused him in liquid and then set him alight. The Victoria police has uncovered no evidence that either of these attacks was racially motivated. Nonetheless, the Indian government has decided to issue a travel advisory to its citizens singling out Melbourne as a potential trouble-spot for street crime and violence.

Controversially, an Indian newspaper, the Mail Today, went further by publishing a cartoon which depicted a Victorian police officer in the white robes and conical helmet of the KKK. It considers laughable the assertions from the police that there is no racist angle behind the attacks.

Unfortunately for Melbourne, the latest gruesome attacks follow a spate of muggings last year against Indian students in the city. Of course, Sydney experienced something similar, but Melbourne became the main focal point for the Indian students' angry protest campaign.

The irony is that a persuasive case could be made that Melbourne is
Australia's most successfully multi-racial city. It has a polyglot population, with residents from 140 nations living side by side. By the mid-1970s, 20% of the city's population spoke a non-English first language, and for much of the past decade its mayoral figurehead was John So, a popular politician who was born in Hong Kong. With justification, Melbourne can claim, as it does on its city website, to be 'the home, workplace and leisure centre of one of the world's most harmonious and culturally diverse communities.' And as its all-encompassing food culture attests, it has long been viewed as a melting pot rather than a pressure cooker.

In India especially, the reputational damage to the city will take a long time to repair. And there's been commercial fall-out, as well, to the Australia education sector, which, after coal and iron ore, is the country's third most lucrative export. This week, the Australian government released figures showing that student visa applications from India were 46% down following last year's attacks. One India-based education agent has said the market is 'absolutely doomed.'

I have always looked upon Melbourne with great affection, and, after three years living in Delhi, also have a great passion for India. After all, it was the country where I met my Australian wife. So I can well understand why Australia's second most populous city is feeling that it is being unfairly vilified because of the actions of a few thugs, whatever their motivations, and also appreciate why a middle-class Indian parent living in Delhi, Mumbai or Chennai would now harbour deep misgivings about paying for their son or daughter to study in the city which they have now come to associate with street crime and intolerance.

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