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SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia launched a new anti-racism campaign on Wednesday, two days after national Australia Day celebrations were marred by drunken, racist violence on two Sydney beaches.
Drunken youths, draped in Australian flags and wearing Australian flag tattoos, clashed with police at Manly Beach after harassing Asian beachgoers on January 26.
Some youths drew Australian maps on their bellies and chanted "if you're Australian clap your hands," "if you're white, clap your hands."
Another group clashed with police at Cronulla, site of race riots in 2005, after predominately Anglo-Saxon residents attacked anyone of Middle Eastern appearance, believing they were Muslims intent on taking over the beach.
Authorities and media on Wednesday warned that Australia Day, which celebrates the beginning of white settlement in Australia in 1788, was being hijacked by drunken louts.
"The flag is the symbol of our nation, it's not an excuse to get drunk and do loutish behavior," Don Rowe, head of the Returned and Services League of Australia which represents soldiers, told local media on Wednesday.
"People have fought and died under that flag."
Australia's Parliamentary Secretary for Multicultural Affairs, Laurie Ferguson, launched the "Diverse Australia Program" on Wednesday, saying it would support communities to tackle cultural, racial and religious intolerance.
"The activities funded are aimed at bringing Australians from all backgrounds together in a positive and productive way," Ferguson said in a statement.
"A key element of the Diverse Australia Program is ... to empower a local response to issues of racism and intolerance."
Harmony Day on March 21 will be a key event in the new program, Ferguson said. Under the program, the government will also offer grants of up to A$5,000 ($3,330) to fund activities aimed at increasing tolerance.
Racism has always been an undercurrent in Australian society and periodically bubbles to the surface.
From 1901 to around 1973, Australia restricted non-white immigration under a White Australia policy.
Australia's indigenous Aborigines were only counted in the population in 1967, prior to that they were legally classed as part of the country's "flora and fauna."
Australia is a migrant nation, but in the late 1990s there was a flare-up of anti-migrant feeling when the One Nation party ran on a platform of restricting Asian migrants.
And relations between non-Muslim Australians and Muslims have been strained since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Australia deployed troops to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Police have said the racist flare-up on Monday was an "ugly, mutant form of nationalism."
The rise in national pride has led to a boon for tattoo parlors, which report a big increase in demand for Australian flag or southern cross tattoos.
"The truth of Australia Day was the Australian flag became a symbol of the mob," columnist Paul Kent wrote in Sydney's largest selling newspaper the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday.
Editing by Dean Yates