BEFORE the Christmas shutdown, the Cronulla riots were white-hot news. Everyone had a theory about why Sydney’s southern beaches exploded.

We pondered our “are we racist?” navel. Lurid maps rated the tolerance factor of every suburb. Po-faced politicians ducked some hard questions. Some Sydneysiders fancied themselves as Sandra Bullock or Matt Dillon in Crash, stars of racial fear and loathing, LA-style.

One gloomy prognosis is that Sydney is stuffed, multiculturally speaking, so we might as well move to Melbourne. As George Megalogenis presciently observed in his 2003 book Faultlines, whacking Bob Carr as hard as John Howard and Alan Jones: “Sydney is the nation’s first global city, but its attitudes on race reflect the backlash of an old culture.” For reasons of demography and dogwhistling, he claimed, Sydney hasn’t swallowed the immigrant olive.

Against that still stands the incomparable spectacle of the harbour city on a glorious gold-and-turquoise day. The visceral tug of sun and sea pulls tourists from Paris and Tokyo onto the Manly ferry, and Westies of all shades from their parched suburban plains to snog and surf round Cronulla.

It’s why Ken Done, Brett Whiteley and Margaret Preston are Australian icons, as well as the Opera House. It’s why a million people from everywhere squeezed peacefully enough onto the Sydney waterfront for New Year’s Eve fireworks.

It’s also why Sydney’s tabloid Daily Telegraph opened 2006 running hard on Waverley Council’s decision not to fly the Australian flag over Bondi Pavilion — reportedly to avoid racist violence being visited on another national icon.

The ban came after the council rejected federal Liberal backbencher Malcolm Turnbull’s offer to pay for both the Australian and Aboriginal flags to flutter in the Bondi breeze. Condemning the council, Turnbull’s purplish patriotism included this Clintonesque statement: “The Australian flag belongs to all Australians, whether they are descendants of our first inhabitants or just became citizens last week. Bondi welcomes and is home to the world. But that only makes it more Australian, not less.”

His message sat neatly with the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia’s reminder that many Muslims call Australia home and they are just as happy to see the flag flying high as any other Australians — gazumping both Howard and NSW Premier Morris Iemma in their own public criticism of Waverley’s folly.

Yet less than a month after large-scale bashings and lockdowns down the coastal road from Bondi, beyond Tele-land the Turnbull intervention missed the kind of attention it deserved. Easier to run the “how many flagpoles and media grabs can a multimillionaire buy?” line.

Australia whacking South Africa

Even easier to watch Australia whacking South Africa in more ways than one at the SCG, and a rerun of the “are we racist?” inquiry leading us pretty much nowhere.

Meanwhile, the flag fuss is new ammunition in a long-running faction fight between Labor’s left (which controls Waverley, with the Greens) and right (which wants Waverley, with property developers). Iemma, like Carr, is a creature of the right. Turnbull is no one’s fool. Join those dots, then pose the hardest question. In spiv city, is race just another token for trading?

Not necessarily. Some home boys are more equal than others. Iemma is beholden to the Labor Party machine, but he’s more flown here than grown here and that could give him an edge over Carr. Turnbull plays the violin of power politics like a prodigy, but his horizons are wider than Howard’s.

We may yet see both men play the race card for higher stakes. Their potential constituency hasn’t packed for Prahran. Voters like the Sikh taxi driver whose cab was pelted with rocks in Cronulla crossfire. And the Hungarian Jews in my so-called medium-tolerance neighbourhood, tanned old men muttering about the Lebanese problem, then about skinheads, finally blaming an oversupply of testosterone and beer. And my cricket tragic friends who’ll call each other “skip” and “wog” but won’t brook “kaffir”. Because they know a big heart can hold at least two loves, and later this year they’ll be in Leichhardt pubs watching the World Cup and cheering not just for the Socceroos.

It would pay to watch more of that Sydney space. For now, one thing’s certain. My city of choice confounds expectation as much as convention, and the Turnbull sideswipe was that slice of Sydney on a stick.

Natasha Cica is a strategy and communications consultant. This article ran first in The Age, Thursday January 12.