John Howard denies racism issue, says Cronulla riots weren’t racist

Jun 22, 2021
More than half of Australians believe the country has an issue with inherent racism, yet former PM John Howard says that's a "supremely pessimistic view of the Australian community". Source: Getty

According to the ABC’s Australia Talks survey, an overwhelming majority of Australians believe the country has a problem with “underlying racism”. But John Howard, it seems, is not one of them, with the former prime minister hitting back at the statistics and even going so far as to reiterate his sentiments that the 2005 Cronulla riots were not racist.

The Australia Talks survey, conducted by the ABC, asked 60,000 Australians about their lives and “what keeps them up at night”. The prevalence of racism was one of the most widely agreed-upon statements offered up by the survey, coming well above the ‘I pay too much tax’ statement, which garnered only 31 per cent agreement. The survey found 76 per cent of Australians think racism is still largely prevalent across the country, with another 61 per cent admitting they have friends or family members who tell racist jokes.

During the ABC’s Australia Talks 2021 program on Monday night, Howard hit back at the ABC’s findings and reiterated his view to hosts Annabel Crabb and Nazeem Hussain that the 2005 Cronulla riots were not racist and the country does not have an issue with “underlying racism”.

“After the Cronulla riots, you refused to call it out as racist,” Hussain said. “Instead you said, ‘There is no underlying racism in Australia.’ Yet today, 76 per cent of Australians say there is a lot of racism in Australia. Are they wrong?”

Howard replied, “Well, that has not been my experience. I have to respectfully say to that 76 per cent, I don’t think there is underlying racism in Australia. I think there are racists in Australia.”

To which, Hussain replied, “You don’t think there is underlying racism?” To which Howard insisted, “No, I don’t.”

In 2005, the Cronulla riots were sparked following a fight between Middle Eastern men and a group of surf lifesavers. The following week, thousands of protestors took to the streets and things spiralled out of control as gangs of young white men set upon people of Middle Eastern appearance. The incident led to revenge attacks across the city, with thousands more heading to Cronulla that night. At the time, a text message circulated calling on locals to fight back and “get down to North Cronulla to support Leb and wog bashing day”.

At the time, the riots were deemed a racist incident by then NSW Premier Morris Iemma, however, Howard disagreed. The following day, as horrific images of the riots surfaced, Howard said the scenes did not mean racism was an issue in Australia, stating, “I do not accept there is underlying racism in this country.”

Fast forward 16 years and the former PM insists that to believe Australians were racist was a “supremely pessimistic view of the Australian community”. While he acknowledged the likely presence of racist people in Australia, his sentiments remained largely unchanged from 2005.

“On reflection, would you characterise the Cronulla riots as racist?” Hussain asked the former PM. “No, I don’t alter my view,” Howard replied. “I remember that very vividly. My view about the Cronulla riots was it was not an example of underlying racism. I think that is a supremely pessimistic view of the Australian community, and I’ve seen so many examples of where people of different races have worked together in a seamless fashion for the common good.”

Leading the country from 1996 to 2007, the 81-year-old was named Australia’s most popular prime minister by survey respondents, and invited to be a guest on the program on Monday evening.

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