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 labelled 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 Dec. 11 when a large crowd, whipped up by white supremacists and fuelled 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 vandalising 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 arrests.
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 disorganised. Once the violence has happened they have derived a lot of oxygen from it," he told Reuters.
History of racism
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 areas.
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 fuelled.
"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.