Displaying symbols of Nazi ideology could be banned in the Australian state of Victoria following a parliamentary inquiry into the state’s anti-vilification laws.
The potential ban would include the Nazi swastika, but it was not clear from the report whether this would encompass other uses of the swastika by Eastern faith groups which for thousands of years have recognised the symbol as one of divinity and spirituality, such as those in the Buddhist traditions.
The state’s inquiry into its anti-vilification protections (pdf), put forward on March 3, also called for the laws to be extended to cover race and religion, gender identity, sexual orientation, HIV status, and disability.
Put forward after eight months of inquiry, the report found the state’s Racial and Religious Tolerance Act legislation to be “under-utilised” and not effective in “promoting racial and religious tolerance and providing redress to victims of vilification.”
It also said that vilification would be easier to prove if the legal threshold for incitement-based vilification was lowered, thereby making it easier to substantiate a complaint.
The inquiry followed warnings from the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) that far-right groups such as neo-Nazis were a growing threat in Australia. It was also revealed that ASIO directed up to 40 percent of its counter-surveillance at far-right extremist activities in 2020.
For instance, in 2020 Victoria police had to negotiate with a regional council to have a Nazi swastika removed from a property because it “did not meet criteria of an offence under the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act,” The Australian reported.
On Jan. 26, members of the National Socialist Network were seen performing Nazi salutes and chanting related slogans in the Grampians. The group’s leader also posted images on social media of members posing in front of a burning cross, The Sydney Morning Herald reported.
Shadow Minister for Police and Community Safety David Southwick said the Nazi swastika, which was recently displayed in other locations in Victoria such as Geelong, Beulah, the Grampians, Cranbourne, and Kyabram, was used in a “deliberate attempt to intimidate others.”
“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,” Southwick said.
But Dara MacDonald, a research fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs, told a public hearing on the matter that incidents of vilification mostly occurred on the “fringes” of society and, in her observation, had decreased over time.
“At the fringes, you are always going to have people that are not tolerant, but I do not think that those numbers have increased over time. I would argue that those have become more marginal,” she said (pdf).
MacDonald noted that anti-vilification laws were already in place, yet incidents, like the one in Beulah, still happened.
“No-one is disputing that this a bad thing and that we need to stop it, but the question is what the role of the law should be,” she added. “And the second question is—even if we do have speech codes, whether they are actually effective.”
“From what I have seen, you cannot actually stop people from holding views because of a law, basically. If they are going to hold an abhorrent view, they are going to hold it, regardless of whether the law says it or not,” she said.
She suggested the solution is for civil society to use education to “inculcate” young people, rather than a “top down” approach whereby people are told what can and cannot be said or done.
The committee, which was made up of three Labor MPs, two Liberals, and two independents, recommended that the Victorian government make it a criminal offence to display symbols of Nazi ideology, including the Nazi swastika, “with considered exceptions to the law.”
“This would allow Victoria Police to immediately remove Nazi symbols that are on deliberate display to vilify targeted communities,” the report read.
The Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission would also be given more enforcement powers.
Dvir Abramovich, chairman of the Anti-Defamation Commission, said the report was a “triumph” for the victims of the Holocaust, survivors, and Australian soldiers who fought against the Third Reich regime.
Victorian premier Daniel Andrews on Wednesday indicated his government would support the changes as outlined in the report.
Ancient Origins of the Swastika
Before the right-facing swastika was appropriated by the Nazis, and rotated to 45 degrees to become a hate symbol, for thousands of years, the symbol was venerated by ancient Indian Buddhists and ancient Western cultures as a symbol of light and peace.
It was also used in Ancient Greece and can be found in the remains of the ancient city of Troy, which existed 4,000 years ago. It was used by the ancient Druids and the Celts, and is reflected in many artefacts that have been discovered. It was also used by Nordic tribes and even early Christians as one of their symbols.
As recently as WW1, swastikas were often printed on the sides of planes and kept by soldiers as symbols of good luck.
The word “swastika” is a Sanskrit word (“svastika”) meaning “It is,” well being,” “good existence,” and “good luck.” However, it is also known by different names in different countries—like “wan” in China, “manji” in Japan, “fylfot” in England, “Hakenkreuz” in Germany, and “tetraskelion” or “tetragammadion” in Greece.
AAP contributed to this report.