Peter FitzSimons presents the TV series The Great Australian Race Riot.
Peter FitzSimons presents the TV series The Great Australian Race Riot. SBS

Peter FitzSimons rakes up our rioting past in new TV show

TEN years on, the Cronulla riots are a spate of violence the country would rather forget.

But author Peter FitzSimons is out to prove Australia has a long history of race riots, and there are plenty of things we can learn from them.

His three-part SBS documentary series The Great Australian Race Riot shows how the clashes at Cronulla Beach in 2005 were not an aberration on the country's timeline.

 But rather than feel shame over the past, FitzSimons says these bloody outbursts are often followed by reconciliation and reform.

"The fascinating thing is we reel back in horror, but after many of these events decent Australia rises up and says 'we're not going to live like that'," FitzSimons told The Guide.

"Ultimately that strengthened the country. It's not that I advocate race riots, but one upside of a shocking time is that it gives the country its bearings."

Over the month-long shoot FitzSimons travelled from Broome and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia to Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney to trace events spanning 170 years.

"One of my great passions is for Australia's history and what I try to do in my books is bring it to life," he said.

"In the show I tried to use whatever storytelling skills I have to put the viewers in the moment."

Early examples include the Orange riots between Irish Catholics and English Protestants in 1849 Melbourne and anti-Chinese riots at Lambing Flat in the Victorian goldfields in 1860.

"The thing that fascinated me in Melbourne in 1849 was that The Age wrote an editorial saying 'This is stuff for the old world. We are building a new world, and we don't want that stuff here'," he said.

He even met a survivor of the Kalgoorlie race riots at the mining town of Dingbat Flat, where white Australians destroyed the homes of hundreds of Italian and Yugoslav families.

"It was incredible talking to somebody who was there, as a kid in 1934, remembering all these things," he said.

"He said, 'My father knelt down, picked up a piece of corrugated iron, brushed it off and started to build'. It's an impressive scene. What can they do but build again?"

FitzSimons expects to cop some flak for the warts-and-all documentary series, made with the support of Screen Australia's National Documentary program.

"I suspect this may be a bit controversial here and there," he said.

"But this is what happened. It's the good, the bad and the ugly."

The Great Australia Race Riot also features expert commentary by sociologists, political philosophers, researchers and a riot psychologist who explains the science of mob mentality.

The Great Australian Race Riot premieres tomorrow at 8.30pm on SBS 1.