December 19, 2005

Australia marred by underlying racism: poll

By Michelle Nichols

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Three-quarters of Australians believe
their country is racist and nearly 60 percent believe racial
violence at beaches in Sydney has damaged the country's
international reputation, an opinion poll showed on Tuesday.

The ACNielsen poll, published in The Sydney Morning Herald,
prompted Prime Minister John Howard to say for the first time
that racial tensions played a hand in the violence, though he
denied most Australians were racist.

"There are some people in the Australian community who are
racist, but I do not believe the average Australian is a
racist. I do not believe the majority of Australians are
racist," Howard told Australian television.

"Clearly there are some tensions which can be defined by
race. Clearly there are some tensions of that type in these
particular clashes," he said.

The southern Sydney beach of Cronulla, a mainly white
beachside community, burst into rioting on December 11 when a
large crowd stirred on by white supremacists, and fueled with
alcohol, turned on anyone of Middle East appearance.

The crowd said they were defending their beach from ethnic
Lebanese youth whom they blamed for a recent attack on life
guards. Lebanese youths retaliated over two nights, attacking
people and vandalizing cars in several suburbs.

Although calm returned to Sydney late last week,
mobile-phone text messages called for more racial violence and
police manning seaside roadblocks seized an array of crude
weapons, from petrol bombs to iron bars, and made dozens of

Police have warned people to stay away from beaches in
three cities -- Sydney, Newcastle and Wollongong.

Until now, Howard had labeled the beachside violence a law
and order problem -- not racism -- but he warned that Australia
should not over-react and that any harm to the country's
international reputation would be "ridden out."

"The rest of the world forms a judgment on a country over a
period of time," Howard said.

"Australians are not going to stop visiting Britain because
of the July attack on the London underground. Australians are
not going to stop visiting New York or Washington because of
the attacks of the 11th of September. These things come and

In the biggest security operation since the Sydney 2000
Olympics, some 2,000 police patrolled beaches on foot and
horseback and in cars and boats on Sunday, confiscating scores
of weapons and arresting 60 people over the weekend.

Beaches, normally packed with tourists a week before
Christmas, were almost deserted and beachside cafes half empty.

The security crackdown is set to continue over Christmas to
deal with the threat of ongoing violence.

"It's very important we don't become too self-critical,
it's very important that we don't lose any of the confidence we
have had as an outward-looking nation," Howard said.