Australians racist? No way, says HowardSydney Morning HeraldDecember 13, 2005
By Anne Davies and Stephanie Peatling
THE Prime Minister, John Howard, has played down claims that racism fuelled the weekend riots, putting him at odds with the NSW Premier, the Police Commissioner and many community leaders.
"Mob violence is always sickening and always to be unconditionally condemned," he said. "Attacking people on the basis of their race, their appearance, their ethnicity, is totally unacceptable and should be repudiated by all Australians, irrespective of their own background and irrespective of their politics."
But he said the riots were primarily a "law and order issue".
"I do not accept that there is underlying racism in this country. I have always taken a more optimistic view of the character of the Australian people. I do not believe Australians are racist."
But the Premier, Morris Iemma, condemned the weekend riots as "un-Australian". "What it showed on the weekend was the ugly face of racism in this country," he said.
"There is no way this disgraceful behaviour will be tolerated anywhere, not in Cronulla, not in Maroubra , not anywhere."
The Minister for Police, Carl Scully, said there appeared to have been an element of white supremacists inciting the weekend violence, and that their attitudes had no place in mainstream Australian society.
"Those sort of characters are better placed in Berlin circa 1930, not Cronulla 2005," he said.
Mr Howard rejected suggestions that his stance on Iraq or the recent emphasis on the threat of "home-grown terrorism" could have contributed to the weekend tensions.
"It's impossible to know how individuals react, but everything that this Government has said about home-grown terrorism has been totally justified," he said.
"To suggest that one should remain silent on something like that, knowing what I know, because that might antagonise somebody else is a complete failure of leadership," he said.
But one of Mr Howard's backbenchers, the Liberal MP Bruce Baird, whose south-eastern Sydney seat takes in Cronulla, blamed the riots on simmering racial tensions that finally spilled over following the September 11 attacks, the Bali bombings and the gang rape trials.
"I think there's been increasing emphasis on terrorism and our security," Mr Baird told ABC radio.
"There has been high-profile rape cases in Sydney, and of course the Sutherland Shire itself is very much an Anglo-Celtic enclave … I can understand at one level people's frustration because they all feel that the beaches belong to them and it is a Sutherland Shire thing and when anybody disturbs the equilibrium, given all the events that have happened since September 11, I just think that's the match that sets alight the fuel."
The Federal Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, also played down the racial motivation of the riots.
"It's just criminal behaviour," Mr Beazley said. "Australian multiculturalism is alive and well. Just take a look a few weeks ago [with] the response to Australia's World Cup win."
The State Opposition leader, Peter Debnam, reiterated that the Government's soft approach had failed. "Local communities know public order has been breaking down for years - but not according to the Labor Government. That is the problem."
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