The Guardian 9 March, 2005

Macquarie Fields revisited

Peter Mac

On the night of February 25 two youths, Dylan Raywood and Matt Robertson, died in a stolen car in which they were passengers, after a high speed police car chase in the outer Sydney suburb of Macquarie Fields. A local resident, who lives opposite the crash site, told ABC radio that the police appear to have run the vehicle off the road.

The suspect driver later surrendered to police, but was inexplicably released and subsequently disappeared. It was later revealed that the Carr government bugged his family's house after the crash. What little goodwill that might have previously existed between residents and police is in tatters. The little bus that police used to take local kids to the local activity centre could not even be used to take residents to the Raywood and Robertson funerals because it was likely to be attacked.

The tragedy sparked three nights of riots. A patronising Police Commissioner Ken Moroney subsequently told local youths that he that he had grown up in a similar area, and that "Nobody owes you a living. It is about making life choices and your life based on the circumstances you find yourself in." He declared "you should be proud of who you are and acknowledge that your future is in your hands".

However, the Commissioner did not, in fact, grow up in the area in question, and Macquarie Fields is not just another working class suburb. It is a living illustration of what happens when official policy crams into a place a high number of poor families in geographically stigmatised housing estates, with few job opportunities, little public transport, and almost nothing by way of entertainment or sporting facilities.

That is not to condone criminal behaviour. The police have a responsibility to deal with all criminal behaviour, including car theft. However, such areas inevitably breed high crime rates, and it seems that at Macquarie Fields the most commonplace police activity was chasing stolen cars. One commentator stated that the local kids "knew the car chase routine as well as they knew the area". In comparison, local residents complained bitterly that the police were appallingly slow in responding to local distress calls.

However, critics of the police tend to overlook the fact that looking after areas such as Macquarie Fields is in itself likely to elicit bad behaviour from police. They inevitably see it as a thankless task, with no solution in sight because the government seems to be always looking the other way.

And there's the rub. Residents complain bitterly that the area's social problems are compounded by a lack of public transport. It is difficult to get into or out of, and extremely difficult to move around without a car. Education facilities are poor, and only 25 percent of local kids make it to the HSC level, compared to 44 percent for the Sydney area. There are few job opportunities, and some 35 percent of young non-students are unemployed.

NSW Premier Carr denied that the area had been ignored by government. However, when questioned he could only cite the government having recently improved housing design and layout in the area in short, nothing on new public transport, schools, sporting facilities or employment programs.

After the riots Carr did not attempt to negotiate with local residents, but simply sought to "crush the revolt". He declared that the young people were "bad" a point of view that was added to in similar remarks condemning the young people by John Laws, Alan Jones, John Brogden (Liberal leader), Ken Maroney (Police Commissioner) and Karl Scully (Minister for Police).

The mayor of Campbelltown, Brenton Banfield, correctly highlighted the dangers of establishing housing estates entirely or primarily for disadvantaged people, but failed to acknowledge that fundamental problem of unemployment and lack of opportunities, particularly for youth. He declared "what we need to do is to demolish the housing estate and start again, and disperse the disadvantaged people throughout the community." Presumably that way they are not so visible.

Banfield's "solution" has clear overtones of the Carr government's ideas for Redfern, i.e. to take over that locality and adjacent suburbs and let the developers in, with only a few of its former occupants allowed to remain as a token presence. Too bad if people actually care for these places as their homes!

Dr Murray Lee, lecturer in criminology at the University of Western Sydney noted: "we need a reasoned discussion about social problems in communities such as Macquarie Fields that goes beyond recent events. The residents of Macquarie Fields understand the problems and have much to offer in finding solutions. They clearly articulate the shortcomings of service delivery, public transport and lack of activities for young people.

"This does not excuse law-breaking, as the residents would be the first to remind us. [However] pointing the finger at individuals over these 'riots' and the events that led to them is unlikely to get us very far."

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