Australians disagree with prime minister's statement that country is not racist

Most Australians disagree with their prime minister's statement, made last week after race riots erupted in Sydney, that there is no racist undercurrent in their society, according to a poll published Tuesday. The ACNielsen poll in The Sydney Morning Herald showed that 75 percent of voters agreed with the statement "There is an underlying racism in Australia."

The poll of 1,423 people had a maximum margin of error of 2.6 percent. However, the same poll showed that 80 percent of people support multiculturalism in Australia. Prime Minister John Howard said that result proved the country is not inherently racist. If that number of people "is tolerant and supportive of ethnic and racial difference, then you can't simultaneously have underlying racism," Howard told television's Nine Network.

Meanwhile, a teen who was photographed by media ahead of a Dec. 11 riot at Sydney's Cronulla beach with the words "We grew here! You flew here!" written on his bare chest said in an interview published Tuesday that he is not racist.

The youth, identified by Sydney's Daily Telegraph newspaper as Ryan, said he was not involved in the violence and was not racist. Instead, the 16-year-old volunteer lifeguard was protesting after being robbed at knifepoint earlier in the year by a gang of men of Middle Eastern appearance.

"I was there peacefully, I was there just to say what some people were doing is all wrong," he said. "I had a knife pulled on me." The Cronulla riot, by 5,000 white youths, many of them drunk, was sparked by an attack a week earlier on two volunteer lifesavers by a group of men described by witnesses as being of Lebanese descent.

The Cronulla riot triggered two nights of retaliatory attacks by gangs of youths of Middle Eastern descent.

Hundreds of police now patrol beachside suburbs where the unrest broke out and have prevented a repeat of the violence.

Stepan Kerkyasharian, chairman of the Community Relations Commission, a government-funded group that aims to improve race relations, said he was not surprised by the opinion poll results.

"I would have expected Australians to say that we are not racist and I believe Australians are not racist," Kerkyasharian told the Nine Network. "But if you asked me whether there are racist elements in Australia, I would say yes there are racist elements and they are very active," he added.

Sydney's Catholic archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, agreed. "There are pockets of racism amongst us, there is no doubt about that, (but) a lot of racism is motivated by fear and ignorance and on an international scale I don't believe Australia is racist," he said Tuesday. "I hope this holiday season we will be able to show the world that we are well balanced, decent and peace-loving."

And Morris Iemma, political leader of New South Wales state of which Sydney is the capital, said that in his experience as the son of Italian migrants, he also did not believe Australia is inherently racist, reports the AP. I.L.

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