August 2011: There is something startlingly predictable about last weekend’s riots in the UK. The only surprise is that they didn’t happen sooner. Britain, and London in particular, has a history of violent clashes whenever youth unemployment is on the rise. Right now it’s the highest it’s been for decades. All it takes is an incident to light the touch paper and the inferno begins. In this case it was the fatal police shooting of a 29-year-old taxi driver, Mark Duggan.
Was this really the reason for people to storm electrical stores in London’s poorer suburbs and grab HD TVs? No, it’s more likely the powder keg from the rising despondency of a generation out of work, with what little hope there was dashed by the global financial crisis and the news that things are only going to get worse. Except for the inevitable G20 clashes and the famous poll tax riots, most of London’s riot activity can be linked to times of high youth unemployment. The poll tax riots were just an offshoot of a far wider civic demonstration — I joined a march myself — against an absurd notion that a flat charge should be made to everyone, but set by each local council, so people in poorer areas ended up paying more for the services they needed.
Australia has avoided the London phenomenon. I suspect there’s a simple reason. In London, unemployment is bad news for young people; without money to spend all you can do is roam the streets. In most Australian cities, unemployment means more time to spend in the surf. It’s only fitting, therefore, that our biggest riot of modern times in Australia happened on the beach front at Cronulla, was race induced — with a little egging on by talkback radio — and happened at a time of relatively low unemployment.
The reality is, youth unemployment has been far higher in Australia during Keating’s recession that we had to have, yet we didn’t see anything of the like experienced in London. Times change, of course, and we should treat London’s experience as a warning. The more our cities stretch from the waterfront, into vast land-locked suburbs with inadequate transport and facilities, the more disillusioned youth will turn to the Tottenham-technique for airing their grievances.
You can pin any number of reasons on why riots break out — poor parenting, racism, the media — but the one common factor, nine times out of 10, seems to be youth unemployment. Australia’s two big lessons have to be: keep a check on the unemployment rate and don’t let planning blight add fuel to the potential for similar riots in Australia’s near future.
First published on CBS News