Small fire, not many dead: Ignorance and racism in Neo200 debate


On Wednesday morning I woke up to read a somewhat hysterical story in the Sydney Morning Herald about the latest apartment block fire in Melbourne.  Not only was I appalled by the lazy reporting along the lines of “the fire tore through the 40-storey building” (it didn’t – it was contained to the outside of balconies on five storeys), the racism throughout the reader comments was disgusting.

Now, I was called out  by one reader for referring to it as racist, but what do you make of this: “So two problems here…..the cladding and too many international students.” That’s all the reader comment said.  Is that racist or am I too sensitive? And it wasn’t the only one to reference race as a cause of the blaze.

Anyway, the whole mish-mash of ignorance, anti-apartment bias and, yes, racism (which you can read for yourself here) inspired me to write the following response.

The racism running through these comments is mind-boggling. Do we know it was a cigarette butt left by an Indian or SE Asian student that caused the fire? Because white Australians don’t smoke, right? And they don’t leave crap on their balconies either. And white Australian landlords would never overcrowd apartments for their own financial gain.
The real problem here is that the Victorian government, like its counterparts elsewhere, doesn’t give a stuff about people who live in apartments. They open them up wholesale to Airbnb and other holiday letting (STHL) agencies, destroying fledgling communities and driving out permanent residents – owners and renters.
Communities can manage overcrowding and clear balconies of rubbish if they are given support. But there is none forthcoming because both Labor and the Coalition are too busy cosying up to their developer and holiday letting mates. Heaven forbid that there should be any restrictions on their ability to turn a buck.
But consider this – there were no deaths and one serious smoke inhalation injury. So let’s stop wringing our hands about what COULD happen and look at what DID happen. There was a fire and it was contained. It didn’t “tear through the 40 storey building” it ran up the outside of five storeys. The internal damage was mostly from smoke and water. The same happened five years ago at the Lacrosse. Total death toll from Melbourne’s two “towering infernos” – zero.
The Grenfell building in London was a one-off, perfect storm, where there were no water sprinklers, a bad conversion of an old building and no workable evacuation plan. Lessons learned, for sure, but both Melbourne fires prove that the similarities begin and end with the cladding.
Here’s a thought: More people have died in domestic house fires in Australian cities than have perished in apartment fires. Why? Because a well-built apartment block, with its smoke alarms, sprinklers and isolated fire escapes is safer than a house, perhaps?
The overcrowding didn’t cause the fire and, regrettable though it is, the fact that nobody died despite the overcrowding suggests that apartment blocks are safer than some people want to believe.
Want an answer to the overcrowding?
You could start by getting commercial holiday lets out of apartment blocks where they are reducing housing stock, forcing up rents and, as a result, pushing students into illegal over-crowded dorms.

Interestingly, one moronic response from someone called Ryan said that just because they mentioned race didn’t mean the negative comment was racist.

“The problem stems from the overcrowding of the apartments by international students,” he (or she) said. “And the majority of these apartments are owned by people from their own countries who are exploiting the situation. These are the facts, where is the racism?”

Oh, they’re FACTS? That’s all right then. But surely it’s not just foreign students who have the gift of fire.  Or who put towels over air-con units. Or smoke on balconies.  I can’t see how this fire can have any direct connection to either race or overcrowding.

There’s no cure for stupidity … or racism, it seems.

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