John Howard under fire over 'bloody arrogant' remarks

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·Associate News Editor
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Former prime minister John Howard has come under fire after saying he didn't believe Australia suffered from underlying racism.

Appearing on the ABC's Australia Talks on Monday night, Mr Howard, 81, also said he didn't believe the 2005 Cronulla Beach riots were fuelled by racism – echoing his remarks, as prime minister, in the aftermath 16 years earlier.

When asked again if he thought racism played a role in the riots by host Nazeem Hussain, Mr Howard replied: "No, I do not."

Tensions simmered in the summer of 2005 after two volunteer surf lifesavers were assaulted when they responded to complaints that young men of Middle Eastern appearance were insulting girls on the beach in the Sutherland Shire.

Former Australian prime minister John Howard is pictured.
Former PM John Howard says he has not experienced a racism problem in Australia. Source: ABC

A week later, thousands rallied in Cronulla and people of Middle Eastern appearance were violently assaulted.

A text message widely circulated in the week leading up to the riots called on people to head to Cronulla for "Leb and Wog bashing day".

Reflecting on the results of the Australia Talks National Survey, Mr Howard was pressed on whether he agreed with 76 per cent of 60,000 Australians who said there was underlying racism across the nation.

Mr Howard appeared on the program after being voted Australia's most popular prime minister of all time in the survey.

"That has not been my experience. I have to respectfully, to that 76 per cent, say I don't think there is underlying racism in Australia," he responded.

While he said he thinks there are racists in Australia, he said it is "supremely pessimistic view" to suggest there is a racism problem in Australia.

His remarks triggered anger online with dozens accusing Mr Howard of being detached from reality.

Police officers surround a group of people during the Cronulla Riots in 2015.
Hundreds of Australians gathered at Cronulla North beach in 2015. Source: Fairfax via Getty Images

Equality advocate Tarang Chawla, the brother of Nikita Chawla who was murdered by her husband in January 2015, said it was time for those who deny there is an issue to listen for the greater good.

"Hearing former PM John Howard say it's pessimistic to think there's underlying racism in Australia tells me that he, like other men with privilege, have little knowledge of what life is like for many of us," he said on Twitter.

ABC radio host Beverley Wang said it was inevitable when asking a white male about racism he would say he hadn't experienced it.

"Yes that can be his answer but it doesn't speak to the reality of systemic racism, which definitely exists," she said.

Many agreed, saying Mr Howard's upbringing meant he was sheltered from such racism.

"Is he suggesting if we ignore it and hope for the best it will go away?" another user wrote.

In response to Mr Howard saying he did not believe there was underlying racism in Australia, one woman called his remarks "bloody arrogant".

Pandemic reignites racism discussion

Racism in Australia has come under the spotlight during the Covid-19 pandemic with reports of an increase in racist abuse and attacks on Asians.

In March, a survey from the Lowy Institute revealed one in five Chinese-Australians say they have been physically threatened or attacked in the past year after the virus first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan.

One in three people felt they had been treated poorly.

In the wake of the results, China's foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin called on Australia to "own up" to its racism problem.

"We hope that the Australian side will own up to the problem, make their people better citizens, solve the problems of racism and discrimination at home and safeguard the safety and legitimate rights and interests of Chinese citizens in Australia," he said.

Twelve months ago, China's tourism and education ministries warned students and other Chinese nationals to avoid travelling to Australia due to a rise in racist discrimination and attacks.

At the time Prime Minister Scott Morrison dismissed the warnings as "rubbish".

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