Western Sydney Mayor sparks outrage with divisive words about Diwali

Cumberland Council’s Steve Christou suggests Diwali and the Chinese Lunar New Year are "not part of Australian culture."

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It is now an established tradition for Australian politicians, including Prime Ministers, to wish their local communities on Diwali every year. Many are seen wearing Indian traditional clothes at a local Diwali event and savouring Indian food. Indian Australians proudly share those images and videos with their friends and families in India to showcase Australia’s success with multiculturalism.

One of those politicians was the mayor of the Cumberland Council, Steve Christou, who has released annual Diwali messages to his social media, acknowledging the cultural diversity in his council area. Given that history, it came as a rude shock yesterday that Mr. Christou made a stunning U-turn from his own words.

In a statement that was widely denounced, Christou rejected the notion that festivals like Diwali and Lunar New Year are now a part of the Australian culture. Even more disturbing was his mention of a racist dog whistle term ‘western culture’ that alienates Australians of non-European origin, including First Australians.

In his statement, Mr. Christou references ‘western culture’ to assert that Easter and Christmas should be funded by the local councils whereas Diwali and Lunar New Year do not deserve similar support. While a seemingly innocuous phrase, The New York Times reported in 2019 that ‘western culture’ has gained a disgraceful place in today’s political dialogue as a dog whistle that obfuscates references to whiteness and race. Hate-watch groups like the Anti-Defamation League consider it one of the buzzwords that signal support to white nationalists, along with an obsession with birth-rates and abortion rates among different ethnic groups.

At the time of writing this article, Mr. Christou partly walked back on his comments about Lunar New Year but made no mention of Diwali in his media release. Nor did he apologise for the divisive reference he made. He suggested community groups from all diasporas “organise financial support through sponsorship for events to allow them to proceed” (which the Council would support with “logistics and planning expertise”).

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It could be argued Mr. Christou was unaware of how damaging the phrase ‘western culture’ is. However, a quick look at his Twitter feed shows him cosying up to the controversial NSW MP Mark Latham of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party. Perhaps Mr. Christou’s U-turn has much to do with the company he is keeping.

Irrespective, it must be noted that Australia is frequently touted as the most successful multicultural country in the world by PM Scott Morrison. It can, by no means, be termed a monoculture, in complete denial of the 60,000 years of First Australian history, and many new cultures that found a home here in the past 240 years.

Apart from the dog whistle, it also makes no sense for a local government official to exclude Diwali from their annual calendars. Several local governments in Australian capital cities support Diwali fireworks events, just as they also support Lunar New Year events. They not only help in community building but also boost the local economies. In fact, figures from a 2016 census by the Australian Bureau of Statistics indicated nearly 10.5 per cent of the Cumberland population are Hindus.

In his follow-up statement today, Mr. Christou implied that his comments were about financial pressures. However, there is no fiscal prudence in attacking ethnic festivals that rival Christmas in both cultural and economic significance globally. If anything, Mr. Christou should be finding a way to support his local businesses by helping them capitalise on these cultural events and boost community spending in a choppy post-Covid economy.

Mr. Christou’s actions are deeply hurtful to the Indian community and are antithetical to his own lofty words about cultural diversity in the past. It is but political suicide in 2021 to deploy this kind of divisive language, especially in one of the most diverse electorates in the country. Mr. Christou must immediately retract his words in entirety and apologise unreservedly to Australians of Indian and Chinese origin.

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