CANBERRA - A decade-long study has uncovered a disturbing level of ill-will towards Muslims, Jews and Asians across Australia.
The study, which identifies ethnic and racial tensions by state, suburb and rural areas, was released as divisions continued to emerge over anti-Muslim feeling within the federal Coalition.
It also follows appeals by Immigration Minister Chris Bowen for tolerance against a background of rising fear of homegrown Islamic terrorism, and continued criticism of Australia's asylum seeker policies by human rights groups.
The study by the University of Western Sydney (UWS), involving other universities, sought the views of 12,500 people on cultural and ethnic groups, marriage between different races and religions, and their experiences of racism.
The study said Australians were largely tolerant people. But it found that while most Australians were secure and comfortable in a multicultural country, they also believed that racism was a problem, with more than 40 per cent holding a narrow view of who belonged in the country.
One in 10 said they were prejudiced against other cultures.
"They believe that some races are naturally inferior or superior, and they believe in the need to keep groups separated," the study found. "These separatists and supremacists are a destructive minority."
Feelings were strongest against Muslims, with 48.6 per cent of respondents admitting anti-Islamic feelings. Almost 28 per cent harboured anti-Aboriginal views, and about 24 per cent were anti-Semitic and anti-Asian.
Anti-Muslim feelings were deepest in New South Wales, where more than half of the respondents expressed views against Islamic migrants, rising to as high as 60 per cent in western suburbs.
But in even the most tolerant areas of Tasmania and the Australian Capital Territory, anti-Muslim feelings were held by 41 per cent.
Earlier research by the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission also found widespread anti-Muslim sentiment, with many Muslims experiencing racism, abuse or violence.
More than 70 per cent in the commission's study said they had been targeted because of their religion.
In the new UWS study, about 87 per cent of respondents agreed a society made up of different cultures was a good thing, and 78 per cent felt secure. But more than 40 per cent believed Australia was weakened by people of different ethnic origins sticking to their old ways.
In Canberra, splits in the Opposition continue to publicly widen over Muslims and asylum seekers.
They first appeared when immigration spokesman Scott Morrison attacked federal funding of the funerals of victims of last year's asylum-seeker shipwreck at Christmas Island.
Morrison was forced to apologise for the timing - but not the substance - of his remarks after shadow treasurer Joe Hockey attacked him in public.
Morrison was later reported to have urged the shadow cabinet to use widespread concern about Muslims to bolster Coalition popularity, followed by further derogatory remarks by Opposition leader Tony Abbott's parliamentary secretary, Senator Cory Bernardi.
Abbott has since reaffirmed the Coalition's support for multiculturalism.
But yesterday, in an article written for the Sydney Morning Herald, shadow attorney-general George Brandis compared anti-Muslim views with attacks on Italian children during his schooldays in the 1960s.