Racial Rumblings in Australia. Incidents of violence and vandalism across the country have sparked a national inquiry. HARASSMENT AND DISCRIMINATION

ONCE again, a black, oily substance oozes down the front door and steps of the Pitt Street Uniting Church in downtown Sydney. Every week for months, the church has been defaced - apparently by racists. For two years now - ever since South African anti-apartheid activist Archbishop Desmond Tutu spoke here - Rev. Dorothy McMahon and her parishioners have been harassed.

This low-level terrorism - which has sparked a national inquiry into racial violence - takes the form of bricks tossed through windows, car tires slashed, threatening phone calls at night, and human waste thrown at Ms. McMahon's home. Police advised McMahon - an outspoken supporter of the African National Congress, Aboriginal land rights, and homosexual rights - to keep quiet about the incidents.

But last November, after a mock ``necklacing'' (an effigy of a woman with a tire around its neck was burned) outside her home, McMahon went public.

``Before, we felt a sense of impotence, powerlessness in face of it. Since going public, we've had amazing support from people all over country,'' McMahon says. ``I feel tired, but more peaceful and stronger. I feel much more able to be uncompromising in my stands. People say, `How could that be?' And I say: `But you're praying for me. Don't you believe your prayer really works?'''

Since McMahon spoke up, more people have stepped forward with complaints. For example, in the west coast city of Perth, two Chinese restaurants have been firebombed.

``We're probably looking at well over 100 incidents, but those are only the cases we know about now,'' says Irene Moss, the federal race discrimination commissioner in charge of the national inquiry. She notes studies in Britain indicate that as much as 75 percent of racially motivated violence goes unreported.

The principle targets in Australia are Asian immigrants, Aborigines - Australia's black natives - anti-apartheid activists, and a growing list of politicians and journalists raising race-related issues.

The harassment appears to be the work of a few right-wing individuals and small extremist groups. Often the attacks are anonymous. ``Cowardly hit-and-run vandalism,'' says Commander Michael O'Brien of the New South Wales police.

The Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging, a pro-South African apartheid group in Australia, claimed responsibility for the mock necklacing at McMahon's home. (Police have identified one suspect and are looking for him). Pamphlets from the Australian Nationalist Movement, a neo-Nazi group, and National Action have been left after vandalism at the Pitt Street Uniting Church.

National Action - an nationalist political group similar to the National Front in Britain and France - has been most frequently blamed for the rise in racial violence. But this is perhaps because it is the most public group.

National Action chairman James Saleam will only say that membership numbers more than a few hundred. The group opposes Marxism, capitalism, and the globalization of economies and cultures. It advocates a ``white Australia'' immigration policy. One recent handout calls a Sydney real estate agent a ``traitor'' for ``selling Australia for Asian money.'' The agent's home address and phone number are given with the command: ``If you've had enough ... let Max [the agent] know!''

Mr. Saleam admits such tactics are aggressive and is sympathetic to the aims of other extremist groups. He notes his organization has had bricks tossed through its storefront window. But he denies National Action is directly involved in any vandalism or criminal activity.

``There isn't any future as a subterranean criminal gang, because either you become the IRA [Irish Republican Army] or you don't,'' Saleam says. ``We think the political situation in Australia will become more radical, and organizations like National Action will grow. So, we're very careful here, we don't want to be suppressed for criminal activity.''

But last month, the secretary of National Action was arrested on the charge of ``violent disorder.'' He was one of 10 National Action members wearing balaclavas who burst into a Liberal Party (Australia's main conservative party) fund-raising dinner. Distributing leaflets and chanting slogans, several witnesses said death threats were made against the main speaker, Helen Sham-Ho, an Asian member of the state parliament.

The arrested National Action member was formerly an official of a disbanded pro-white South Africa group. Police say political militant groups are often made up of members who move around or have overlapping memberships.

The recent surge in racial violence coincides with a vigorous debate on immigration policy. Racist elements have been given a green light by politicians such as opposition leader John Howard, says McMahon, voicing an oft-repeated opinion.

``Every community can be lifted up or discouraged depending on the leadership and the level of hope given,'' she says. ``People who encourage racism are probably fairly full of self-hate and despair and encourage the community to lower its expectations of what it can handle.''

Last year, Mr. Howard indicated he might consider limiting Asian immigration if he became prime minister.

Although Commissioner Moss's home was daubed with racist slogans three weeks ago, she does not believe racism is rife in Australian society. For a country with 120 nationalities and 40 percent of the population from a non-English speaking background, she says Australia remains quite tolerant and easy going by world standards. Moss hopes the national inquiry will nip emerging racial problems in the bud.

``People say: `What's a bit of brick throwing or tire slashing?' But if these small abuses go on and society tolerates it, you then create a climate of general acceptance which could lead to worse things. A responsible society has to look at this and do something about it,'' she says.

Australia does have antidiscrimination laws. But there are no laws against inciting racial violence - yet. The parliament of New South Wales, the most populous state, is considering such a bill which would impose large fines and a maximum six-month jail sentence.

National Action's Saleam considers the proposal an effort to suppress his organization's political views. The Australian Writers Guild has also express concern the bill could inhibit freedom of speech. And the inquiry into racial violence is a witch hunt, according to Saleam.

After receiving written submissions, the federal inquiry will conduct public hearings beginning in June. A report is due out by the end of the year.

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