A Victorian Parliament report has recommended Nazi symbols be banned from public display and called for new laws to strengthen the powers of police and other agencies to investigate and prosecute racial vilification.
The report was tabled this morning by the Legal and Social Affairs Committee after eight months of inquiry, prompted by what Premier Daniel Andrews called a “deficiency in the law” in 2019 when he was powerless to stop a neo-Nazi music festival from going ahead.
The chair of the bipartisan committee, Natalie Suleyman, said the inquiry found a lack of awareness of Victorian anti-vilification laws, and frustration at their lack of effectiveness – at a time when incidents of racial vilification are on the rise, particularly in schools and online.
“We heard evidence of increased racial threats and vilification throughout the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, particularly directed at Asian communities in Victoria, in addition to the Jewish community,” she said.
“Symbolically, the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act sets the standards of appropriate behaviour for a harmonious, multicultural society.
“But there’s a question over its ability to address the rising problem of hate crime in Victoria, especially for First Nations, multicultural and multifaith groups, women, LGBTIQ+, people with a disability and other minority groups.”
In the 20 years since the act became law, there have been only two successful prosecutions.
The report found that prejudice-motivated crime is commonly under-reported by victims and under-recorded by police officers.
It said part of the problem was the difficulty of making a complaint and reaching the high bar required for a prosecution.
But it also found a lack of awareness and understanding of the laws among police.
It made 36 recommendations to broaden and strengthen the laws, most notably by bringing them into the existing framework of the state’s Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission and applying its powers to deal with discrimination to cases of vilification – including the power to compel information and documents.
It also recommended reviewing the maximum penalties for vilification offences to give police more incentive to prosecute.
Calls for swastika ban to be urgently enacted
The recommendation which could have the most immediate impact if enacted would be the ban on Nazi symbols from public display, at a time when far-right and white supremacist groups are on the rise.
Anti-Defamation Commission chair Dvir Abramovich said he shed “tears of joy” when he heard his campaign to ban the swastika and other Nazi symbols had been heard.
“This is a thunderous day for the history books,” he said.
“This is a triumph for the victims of the Holocaust, the survivors and our brave diggers who died to vanquish the demonic Third Reich regime.
“Law enforcement will now have the tools they have been asking for, and I call on the government and the temple of our democracy, the Victorian Parliament, to rise to the challenge and to enshrine these recommendations into law without delay.”
Committee member and Labor MP Christine Couzens said a ban on the symbols would send a clear message that racism was not acceptable in any form and had wide-ranging, negative impacts.
Shadow Police Minister David Southwick, another committee member, called on the Labor government to work with the Opposition to urgently make a ban on the symbols into law.
“After a long battle we are one step closer to seeing a ban on the Nazi swastika, a universal symbol of hate which has no place in our proudly multicultural state of Victoria,” he said.
“Every Victorian deserves to go about their daily lives free from the spectre of fear, intolerance or hate and the time to ban the swastika is now.”
The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) has said that white supremacist groups now take up about one third of its counterterrorism resources.
The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is investigating whether Commonwealth counterterrorism laws are fit for purpose.
Federal Labor MP Josh Burns said there needed to be “a national approach to this problem”, and called for the federal inquiry to produce a national strategy against right-wing radicalisation and symbols.