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We need good vilification laws, not knee-jerk bans on Nazi symbols

Gabi Kaltmann
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Published: 23 May 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

GABI KALTMANN argues attempts to stop neo-Nazis through targeted laws will be ineffective.

I am a born and bred Melburnian. I love this city, and having the good fortune to be born here means that every day I wake up knowing that I won a lottery in life. I raise my kids in peace while working as a rabbi, leading a synagogue and a Jewish community centre.

I am also the grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, the late Joseph Kaltmann, who settled in Australia in the 1950s after his whole family was murdered in Europe. I know that for millennium Jewish people have suffered from antisemitism and in some parts of the world continue to experience discrimination and prejudice. 

As a rabbi who is deeply familiar with ancient texts, the weight of the history of my people is never far from my mind. I certainly don’t take for granted that my children and I walk around freely, while looking identifiably Jewish, without incident.

Of course, I feel very disturbed that the steps of Victoria’s Parliament House have twice in the past few months played host to groups of neo-Nazis.

But I don’t think the Victorian government needs to rush to implement new legislation to deal with these small groups of attention-seekers. 

This government, led by Premier Daniel Andrews and his Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes, is one of the most proactive governments in Australia in legislating protections for minorities. Jewish Australians know that we have a rock-solid ally in this government, which has led the way by becoming the first Australian parliament to ban the Nazi swastika.

In the wake of these disturbing neo-Nazi incidents, there are calls from Jewish community leaders that the government should strengthen the ban to include all symbols and expressions  of Nazi ideology. 

I am not convinced such legislation is needed nor that it would be effective. We do not want to keep playing whack-a-mole, trying to hit a dodging target every time there is another incident.

There is ample evidence that far-Right extremists are skilled at avoiding targeted legislation, using codes such as 88 (for the double H in Heil Hitler) or the SS hand sign. It is impossible to regulate all these symbols. 

In the past 20 years, only one vilification case has been successfully prosecuted under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in Victoria.

Ramming through legislation that will ban the promotion of Nazism, that has not been the subject of sufficient research, consultation and consideration will mean bad policy and bad law. Though passed with the greatest of intentions, these laws will be ineffective. 

No one wants a quashed conviction if an upper court examines hastily passed laws.

The Andrews government has proven its commitment to protecting those who are vulnerable to racism and discrimination at every opportunity. 

As the only Jewish member of Victoria’s first anti-racism taskforce, founded by the Premier in 2021, I know firsthand just how seriously the Premier takes the concerns of our community. 

No government is perfect, but this government has actively consulted with the Jewish community and other minority communities to ensure that their voices are heard. 

This is a government that has sent a clear message to anyone who wants to spread baseless hatred, from neo-Nazis to bigoted racists: your hate and your intolerance are not welcome here.

So, while its disturbing that neo-Nazis are once again on the steps of Parliament, my advice is: don’t jump to demand legislation that won’t work. 

Instead of targeting Nazism, Victoria should strengthen general vilification laws.

At present, under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in Victoria, it’s very hard to meet the bar for a hate crime offence. And because many of these racist actions do not cleanly fit under Victorian Crimes Act, charging and prosecuting these race-hate offences may be overlooked. 

In the past 20 years, only one vilification case has been successfully prosecuted under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act in Victoria. From this statistic alone, it is clear that reform is required.

These processes take time, but the best outcome would be a strengthening of legislation that would protect all minorities, not just Jews, and not just against neo-Nazis, so we can all continue to live safely and securely in one of the greatest places on earth. 

Swastika ban will be easily circumvented (The Jewish Independent)
Some Jewish groups argued for widening the ban on Nazi symbols, other submissions said any restrictions will be easily avoided by extremists adept at adapting offensive symbols.

Senate committee recommends federal Nazi symbols ban (AJN)
Opposition Leader Peter Dutton urges government to act immediately; says Coalition will support a government bill.

Photo: Neo-Nazi protesters face-off with transgender rights supporters outside Parliament House in Melbourne on March 18 (AAP/James Ross)

About the author

Gabi Kaltmann

Rabbi Gabi Kaltmann is the Rabbi of the Ark Centre, a Jewish community centre with a synagogue in the middle. In addition to holding a Masters of Social Work from Deakin University, Rabbi Gabi is an AFL Multicultural Ambassador, the chairman of the Melbourne Fightback Against Parkinsons charity, an advisor to the Scanlon Foundation Research Advisory committee and a representative to the Coronial Council of Victoria Reference Group.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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