Sydney suburb still seething over boys' deaths

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 06 March, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 06 March, 2005, 12:00am

The parched lawns, picket fences and neat bungalows are straight out of the set of Neighbours, but Macquarie Fields is a world away from the laid-back lifestyle portrayed in Australia's favourite soap opera.

A depressed suburb on the farthest fringes of Sydney, Macquarie Fields erupted into violence last week after the deaths of two teenage joyriders in a police chase.

Matt Robertson, 19, and Dylan Raywood, 17, died nine days ago, when the stolen car in which they were passengers hit a tree at 160km/h. Their deaths sparked four nights of rioting, with about 200 youths on the rampage, hurling petrol bombs, fireworks and rocks at police in riot gear.

Several officers were injured and cars were set on fire as crowds gathered to watch the street battles.

The violence has deeply shocked Australians, who are unaccustomed to serious urban unrest.

Threats of revenge against the police were daubed in red paint on fences and walls, including 'Cops kill kids' and 'These ****ing pig dogs will pay'.

Police have arrested 31 people, charging them with 88 offences, including rioting, assault and affray.

The riots followed similar violence in the inner-city suburb of Redfern last year, after a 17-year-old Aboriginal boy who believed he was being chased by police crashed his bicycle and impaled himself on a fence, later dying in hospital.

The latest riots were motivated not by race, however, but by poverty and social discontent.

Macquarie Fields may look like many other Australian suburbs, but beneath the surface lie deep-seated problems.

An air of sullen hostility hung over the district yesterday, with police cars patrolling the streets and officers watching the home of the alleged driver of the crashed car, 20-year-old Jesse Kelly.

Police have been searching for Mr Kelly since he fled the scene of the crash, leaving his two dead friends in the twisted wreckage of the car.

The tree with which the stolen vehicle collided has become a makeshift shrine, covered in flowers and cards bearing calls for vengeance.

'We will get them,' one card warned. 'RIP Matt and Dylan. We know who the real criminals are,' read another.

'The boys want revenge,' said Mr Kelly's mother, Debbie, 39.

'The police treat them like dirt.'

While much of the country rides the coattails of a booming economy, for a growing underclass, the Australian dream has soured.

When it was built in the 1970s, Macquarie Fields was touted as a model suburb. But despite its palm trees, parks and bucolic street names, it harbours a depressing cocktail of welfare dependency, broken homes, drug addiction and lawlessness. Unemployment among school leavers is 25 per cent, five times the national average. Crime is rife, with a robbery and burglary rate twice the average for the state of New South Wales.

It is a part of Sydney no tourist ever sees - adrift in a sea of sun-baked suburbia and separated from the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge by nearly 50km of shopping malls, freeways and housing estates.

'Life here is putrid,' said Bob Clarke, a resident of 32 years. 'What's here for kids? Nothing. Why wouldn't they go off the rails?'

Local mayor Brenton Banfield added: 'Over the years, the people with get-up-and-go got up and left.

'The most disadvantaged stayed. As the years have gone on it has only got worse,' he said.

Many locals accuse the police of exacerbating the situation in the hours immediately after the crash by acting with brutality.

'The way the police treat people here is disgusting,' said Colin Reck, 53.

'They assume everyone is a druggie and whenever there's trouble they go in, boots 'n' all.'

A 32-year-old woman who asked not to be named said: 'I saw one of the dead boys' friends approach the wrecked car, but he was pushed to the ground by two police officers and punched in the face.'

New South Wales Premier Bob Carr said there was no excuse for such lawlessness.

'I will not have it said this behaviour is caused by social disadvantage,' he said, pointing out that A$49 million ($302 million) had been spent improving housing in the area over the last eight years.

'A lot of people grow up with social disadvantage, but they don't go out and fling bricks at police, and create fires and make Molotov cocktails.'

As the authorities argue over how the riots could have been prevented, residents portray a way of life that is far removed from the suburban idyll of soaps like Neighbours and Home and Away.

'I don't go out at night any more, and even when I go out during the day I watch my back,' said Jennifer, 24, who like most locals declined to give her full name for fear of retribution from thugs.

'I've lived here all my life and this is the most violent I've ever seen it.'

Eucalyptus Drive may look like Ramsey Street in Neighbours, but the two are poles apart.