The Australia state of Victoria will become the first in the country to ban the public display of the swastika and other Nazi symbols, as part of a planned boost of anti-vilification laws announced on Thursday.
The proposed laws, expected to be introduced to the state parliament in the first half of 2022, will also broaden anti-vilification protections – which currently only cover racial and religious characteristics – to cover sexual orientation, gender identity and disability.
Victoria’s Attorney-General Jaclyn Symes said that there would be public consultation to determine the parameters of the ban on hate symbols, but that it was clear there was broad public support for outlawing the swastika.
She said it was likely the legislation would include exemptions for symbols to be displayed in particular settings, like museums. The issue of how to treat memorabilia would likely be complex, she said, adding that she intended to discuss with her state and federal counterparts about whether similar measures could be adopted elsewhere in the country.
The move follows a call from Australian federal police in April for a ban on hateful insignia and propaganda, amid rising concerns over extremism. While Islamist extremism is still assessed to be the country’s most significant threat, there has been growing attention paid to white supremacist extremism following a string of recent incidents.
Brenton Tarrant, the extreme-right terrorist who attacked two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019, was an Australian citizen, while in January, dozens of neo-Nazis gathered in Victoria’s Grampians national park, performing Nazi salutes, chanting "white power" and "heil Hitler,” and burned a cross. While police investigated the situation, they found no crime had been committed.
That incident involved a group called the National Socialist Network, whose activities were detailed in a major media expose in Australian media last month, and prompted Victorian premier Daniel Andrews to warn that anti-Semitism was on the rise. It followed an earlier incident last year when a Nazi flag was flown over a home in the northwest of the state, but authorities were unable to take action because no crime was being committed.
News of the move was welcomed by the Australian Jewish community, with Dvir Abramovich, chair of the Anti-Defamation Commission, calling it "a day for the history books".
“I will be lying if I didn't admit to shedding tears of joy," he told Australian national broadcaster ABC.
"Above all, this announcement is a resounding triumph for the victims of the Holocaust, the survivors and our brave diggers [soldiers] who died to vanquish the evil Third Reich regime, and a defeat of homegrown neo-Nazis who seek to keep Hitler's legacy alive."
The planned ban also drew applause from Jewish groups abroad. Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Centre in the US, said the ban was a positive development.
“Every democracy is going to deal with issues differently, but if the laws allow for it, I think from a symbolic point of view it’s a positive step,” he told VICE World News, calling the swastika “the ultimate symbol of hate and genocide.”
The display of Nazi flags and symbols is protected as free speech in the US, but banned in a number of European countries including Germany, Austria, France, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Poland, Russia and Ukraine.
However, Cooper said, the relatively small number of physical manifestations of the swastika paled in comparison to the proliferation of anti-Semitic and extremist content online. He said the overriding challenge of tackling hate was dealing with online extremist content.
“The next most important steps to be taken are to educate our children and make sure they understand why this is so dangerous,” he said. “We’re all facing a dramatic rise in anti-Semitism. It’s a global virus and there’s no cure other than education.”