Victorian report recommends tightening laws protecting communities from vilification

March 3, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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A State parliamentary committee has recommended Victoria should extend its anti-vilification laws to cover a range of attributes not currently specified in legislation including the display of Nazi symbols.

Shopper wearing nazi armband [supplied]

This should include attributes relating to gender identity and sexual orientation, disability and HIV status, in addition to race and religion already covered by current laws.

The Legislative Assembly’s Legal and Social Issues Committee inquiry into anti-vilification protections explored the effectiveness of the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 (RRTA), a key component of Victoria’s human rights framework, alongside the Equal Opportunity Act 2010 and the Charter of Human Rights and Responsibilities Act 2006.

“Symbolically, the RRTA sets the standards of appropriate behaviour for a harmonious, multicultural society,” said Committee Chair Natalie Suleyman.

“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,” she said.

The Committee found:

  • there is a lack of awareness in the community of Victoria’s anti-vilification laws
  • there is frustration about the inaccessibility and ineffectiveness of these laws
  • a significant under-utilisation of the Act as reflected in the low number of vilification-related queries,complaints and prosecutions
  • the legal definition of incitement differs from the common understanding of vilification in thecommunity and does not reflect the hate and abuse that people experience in-person and online.

    The inquiry received more than 70 submissions and held seven days of public hearings in Melbourne, both in person and remotely via video link.

    The Committee has made a total of 36 recommendations aimed at preventing vilification, strengthening law enforcement and addressing the rising problem of online vilification.

    Recommendations relate to:

• lowering the legal threshold for incitement-based vilification and introducing a harm-based vilification provision to make it easier to substantiate a complaint

  • supporting individuals and communities affected by vilification and to help them navigate the reporting processes
  • strengthening the regulatory and enforcement powers of the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to shift the burden away from the individual
  • prevention initiatives in the areas of school-based education, responsible media reporting, public awareness campaigns and banning the public display of Nazi symbolism.

“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,” Ms Suleyman said.

“Addressing the causes of discrimination, prejudice and hatred towards minority groups is complex, and efforts to do so in the past have often fallen short. It is essential for the Victorian Government to implement legislative reform and to also develop complementary prevention-based strategies to reduce and eliminate vilification in Victoria,” she said.

The Online Hate Prevention Institute has welcomed the report of the Inquiry into anti-vilification protections which was tabled today in the Victorian Parliament.

The Inquiry undertook extensive consultation. Committee members were deeply engaged and worked in a spirit of cooperation to ensure the best possible outcome could be reached for the Victorian community.

The report recommends the law protect against vilification on the basis of race, religion, gender and/or sex, sexual orientation, gender identity and / or gender expression, sex characteristics and / or intersex status, disability, or HIV/AIDS status. It also recommends extending coverage to vilification against the partners, children and other associates of those who would be protected. It also recommends lowering the barriers so the law can be more readily used.

The expansion of coverage and lowering of barriers is just the start of the critical work undertaken by this Inquiry. The report provides an in-depth understanding of the problem faced by many in the community who are targeted with hate and vilification because of their identity. It charts a way forward to address this growing problem. The hate has been fed by online culture, but increasingly manifests not only online, but also on our streets, in our workplaces and in our schools. It is feeding extremism and puts the safety of the community at risk. The action proposed in the report protects not only the victims of vilification, but in reducing the fuel for extremism, it will protect the whole community.

The Online Hate Prevention Institute provided two written submissions to the Inquiry and gave evidence in person. A number of our concerns and our recommendations are reflected in the Inquiry’s report and we thank the committee for their detailed consideration of our engagement with their work. We particularly welcome recommendation 35 in the report:

“That the Victorian Government work with relevant agencies, community organisations and stakeholders (such as the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Office of the eSafety Commissioner, the Online Hate Prevention Institute and others) to develop a strategy to reduce and prevent vilification online. The strategy should include steps to build digital literacy and online safety skills, data collection and publication and raising awareness of the application of the anti-vilification laws to online settings.”

The recommendation calls for an approach to online hate which will build community resilience, ensure transparency and accountability of online platforms, and which will promote greater use of anti-vilification law to directly tackle the threat posed by online hate. Most importantly, this recommendation will future proof the efforts to tackle online hate by ensuring there is active data collection and publication so that government agencies can respond to changes in the source of hate as technology changes, and the targets of hate as society changes.

We thank Ms Natalie Suleyman MP, Mr James Newbury MP, Ms Christine Couzens MP, Ms Emma Kealy MP, Ms Michaela Settle MP, Mr David Southwick MP and Mr Meng Heang Tak MP and the staff who supported them for all their efforts. We commend the Inquiry on its work and urge the government to adopt the recommendations and to provide sufficient funding, both for government agencies and civil society organisations, to enable a full and meaningful implementation.

The JCCV welcomes the recommendations in this report including that the display of Nazi ideology, such as the swastika, be treated as a criminal offence”, said Frank Greenstein, Acting President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria.

Liberal MPs David Southwick and Neil Angus stated: “The Victorian Liberal Nationals welcome the recommendation from the Parliamentary Inquiry into Victoria’s Anti-Vilification Protections to establish a ban on the public display of the Nazi swastika.

In February 2020, the Liberal Nationals announced a policy position to ban the public display of the Nazi swastika as an important step against rising incidents of racial and religious intolerance across Victoria.

In recent times, Victorians have seen examples in Geelong, Beulah, the Grampians, Cranbourne and Kyabram where the Nazi swastika has been used in a deliberate attempt to intimidate others, with the Executive Council of Australia Jewry finding a significant increase of cases of serious anti-Semitic incidents across 2019-20.

It is also important the Committee has acknowledged the significant failings within the education system to identify and reform attitudes of intolerance of anti-Semitic bullying and recommended a focus on early education to address these issues.

These findings follow recent warnings from ASIO Director-General, Mike Burgess that Neo-Nazis are emerging as one of Australia’s most challenging security threats, with small cells across the country meeting to salute the Nazi flag and share their hateful ideology.

Today’s report is an important step forward, yet after more than 14 months of inaction the Andrews LaborGovernment must now work with the Victorian Liberal Nationals to see an effective ban urgently introduced as law.”

David Southwick added: “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.

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.”

Minister for Multicultural Affairs, Neil Angus continued: “These long-overdue reforms represent a blueprint towards stronger anti-vilification protections and a more tolerant, cohesive community.

No Victorian should be the victim of hate because of who they are and their heritage – the government must now implement a ban on the inappropriate use of the Nazi swastika as a priority.”

The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) is pleased that the committee has recommended lowering the legal threshold for incitement-based vilification and commends introducing a harm-based vilification provision to make it easier to substantiate a complaint.

AIJAC’s Executive Director Colin Rubenstein said “At a time of rising racist extremism, the Committee’s review is critically important to ensure that Victoria’s anti-vilification laws become more effective, which in turns helps foster a more harmonious multicultural society.”

AIJAC also supports in principle the recommendation to call on the Victorian Government “to establish a criminal offence that prohibits the display of symbols of Nazi ideology, including the Nazi swastika with considered exceptions to the prohibition.”

AIJAC’s Director of International and of Community Affairs Jeremy Jones affirmed “AIJAC supports the Committee’s recommendation to ban Nazi symbols where they are used with the intention of promoting hatred.”

“The Nazi swastika is a symbol of immense evil. Giving the police power to act where it is being used for racist and extremist purposes will complement other measures aimed at combating racist organisations”, he noted.

“Legal action is part of a holistic approach to combatting racism, which also must include educational programs and affirmation of democratic values” Mr Jones concluded.

 

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