December 20, 2005

Australia soul-searching over racial violence

By Michelle Nichols

CANBERRA (Reuters) - Australia was soul-searching on
Tuesday over the racial violence that has gripped Sydney's
beachside suburbs with an opinion poll showing three-quarters
of Australians believe their country is racist.

The ACNielsen poll, published in The Sydney Morning Herald
newspaper, prompted Prime Minister John Howard to say for the
first time that racial tensions had 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," Howard told Australian television.

"Clearly there are some tensions which can be defined by
race," said Howard, who had earlier labeled the Sydney violence
as primarily a law and order problem.

But a poll by Australia's Sky TV found a clear majority of
people (79 percent to 21 percent) believed Howard is misjudging
the national character.

The southern Sydney beach of Cronulla, a mainly white
community, erupted into rioting on December 11 when a large
crowd, whipped up by white supremacists and fueled by 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 have 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

New South Wales state premier Morris Iemma, who recalled
parliament last week to give police extra powers to quell the
violence, said police were investigating white supremacist
videos on the Internet showing beatings and carrying slogans
like "Not White, not welcome in Cronulla."

But University of Western Sydney academic Andrew Moore, a
specialist in right-wing Australian politics, said white
supremacists were not the driving force behind the beachside
violence and had instead just taken advantage of it.

"The (extreme) right in Australia is pretty small, pretty
disorganized. Once the violence has happened they have derived
a lot of oxygen from it," he told Reuters.


Moore said he was "mystified" by Howard's remark that
Australia was not racist.

"Australia does have a racist history and a history of race
violence," he said, pointing to riots aimed at southern
Europeans in the gold-mining town of Kalgoorlie in 1934.

Chinese immigrants were also the target of racial violence
on Australian goldfields during the 1800s, while European
settlers tried to wipe out Australia's Aborigines in some

Australia is a nation built on migrants, where 200
languages are spoken, and one in four out of the 20 million
population was born overseas.

Iemma, the son of Italian immigrants who arrived in the
1960s, agreed with Howard that Australia is not racist, but has
slammed the Sydney violence as racially fueled.

"From my upbringing, I don't believe Australia is a racist
country or Australians are racist," Iemma told reporters.

The ACNielsen poll showed that nearly 60 percent of
Australians believed the recent violence had hurt the country's
international reputation.

But Howard warned against over-reaction and said any harm
to Australia's reputation would be "ridden out."

In the biggest security operation since the Sydney 2000
Olympics, some 2,000 police patrolled beaches last Sunday.
Beaches, normally packed with tourists a week before Christmas,
were almost deserted and beachside cafes were half empty.

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