JEWISH leaders have welcomed recommendations from a Senate inquiry that Australia should have laws prohibiting public displays of Nazi symbols, but there are fears that the proposed legislation might have loopholes.
The Senate committee has recommended the federal government introduce a bill banning Nazi symbols “as a matter of urgency”. But it noted “legislation alone will not be sufficient to stem the growth of nationalist and racist violent extremism … To be effective, such legislation should be accompanied by a broader suite of measures, including education and awareness raising.”
Ahead of its recommendations, the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee took evidence from Jewish community groups, as well as the Online Hate Prevention Institute, and Muslim and other faith communities.
The committee rejected a bill introduced by the Coalition in March, saying that while it “wholeheartedly supports the intent of this bill”, its lack of definition of what would constitute a Nazi symbol created issues of enforceability.
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton last Friday urged the government to act immediately on the committee’s recommendations and said the Coalition would support a government bill. “The government has the full resources of the Attorney-General’s department, they have scores of lawyers, they can come up with a bill today.”
Meanwhile, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ) has endorsed the committee’s recommendations – with qualifications. ECAJ co-CEO Peter Wertheim told The AJN, “It is gratifying to note that there is cross-partisan support for the Jewish community’s call to introduce federal legislation to ban the public display of Nazi symbols and performance of Nazi gestures. In this respect, the Senate committee’s report is to be welcomed.
“Yet the majority report includes some highly questionable conclusions. The most problematic of them is the suggestion that the legislation needs to specify each and every symbol that is to be proscribed, supposedly in order to avoid punishing people for displaying symbols for innocent purposes that have nothing to do with Nazi ideology.
“The test should be whether the display of the symbol or performance of the gesture in all the circumstances promotes Nazi or neo-Nazi ideology. Courts and juries are perfectly capable of making that assessment based on the evidence.”
Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council executive director Colin Rubenstein said his organisation was reassured to see the government and opposition supporting the intent of the bill. “This is about putting aside differences, working together and creating the toughest and most effective laws possible. These laws are too important to delay.”
Emphasising the impact of symbols, Breann Fallon, manager of student learning and research at the Sydney Jewish Museum, who had presented to the committee, said this week, “Antisemitism and discrimination is in part fuelled by symbols, language and stereotypes. Symbols are not mere representations or images, they carry ideology.
“One of the Sydney Jewish Museum’s recommendations to the Senate was the specificity of symbols in the amendment. It is important the understanding and definition of ‘symbol’ is clear and includes all abhorrent symbology from Nazism, for example, gestures and forms of greeting in addition to written symbols.”
Melbourne Holocaust Museum CEO Jayne Josem told The AJN this week her organisation “continues to support attempts to legislate against the Nazi symbols of hate which have sadly become increasingly prevalent and visible in public”.
However, she added, “We are mindful that this measure alone will not eliminate this scourge. Accompanying measures to educate the public are vital to achieving results. We understand that there are some challenges in drafting the legislation to ensure it is enforceable and effective, and we follow this debate with keen interest.”