John Howard has insisted there is no “underlying racism” in Australia, holding firm in his view that the 2005 Cronulla riots were not racist.
The former Prime Minister made the comments on the ABC’s Australia Talks 2021 program on Monday night, where hosts Annabel Crabb and Nazeem Hussain presented the results of the national broadcaster’s survey of 60,000 Australians.
The 81-year-old, who led the country from 1996 to 2007, was named the most popular PM by survey respondents.
“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?”
Mr 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.”
Hussain asked, “You don’t think there is underlying racism?”
“No I don’t,” Mr Howard insisted.
The 2005 Cronulla riots began with a fight between Middle Eastern men and a group of surf lifesavers.
Thousands of people attended a protest the following week, which quickly got out of control as the crowd set upon people of Middle Eastern appearance.
This led to revenge attacks, with convoys of cars from Punchbowl, in south west Sydney, travelling to Cronulla that night.
The next day, NSW Premier Morris Iemma said the incident was racist.
Speaking to Mr Howard on Monday night, Hussain asked, “On reflection, would you characterise the Cronulla riots as racist?”
“No, I don’t alter my view,” Mr Howard said.
“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. I think that’s a hugely pessimistic view of the Australian community.”
Earlier in the program, Crabb asked Mr Howard whether he was surprised to be named Australia’s favourite Prime Minister of all time.
“When I was in politics, if you got a bad poll you would say there was only one poll that counted and that was the election day poll – the last time I faced the voters I lost in 2007,” he said.
“Look, it’s nice of people to say that, and I’m not going to violently disagree with them. But I enjoyed my time in public life, I tried to do some good things for our country.
“We were a very stable government. We had the same three people for the whole time we were in government which was almost 12 years. We had me as Prime Minister, Peter Costello as Treasurer, and Alexander Downer as Foreign Minister, and that is by far the only time since Federation you’ve had that stability. Stability counts.”
Hussain asked Mr Howard to comment on the finding that 56 per cent of the survey respondents thought most Australian politicians were corrupt.
“I think the research on all of this shows that it tends to wax and wane, and we have gone through a very unstable period,” he said.
“We’ve had a lot of changes of Prime Minister. I don’t want to get into the yea-ing and the nay-ing on the individuals, but I think that has mattered, and I think that is one of the reasons why people are grumpy about the political scene at the moment.”