What if the leader of a religious group addressed a public rally in Sydney, Australia, and openly called for death to the Jews? Unlikely in this democratic society, which abides by the rule of law? Couldn’t happen in a fiercely secular democracy where over 200 cultures live in peace and tranquillity, embracing diversity and respecting each other’s right to be different?
Think again. It did. Right here in Sydney. A virulent outpouring of hatred. A chilling torrent of bile from a religious leader, warning the target of his venom about the fury, wrath and violence which would be heaped upon them, supposedly in the name of truth and justice. The hate preacher’s version of truth and justice. And the most disturbing aspect of this appalling display of bigotry and blatant incitement to listeners to unleash violence against the target group? Here was a community leader, whipping up a crowd in a vicious harangue dripping with vitriol, and the law turned its back. Worse – by failing to act, it effectively told him he was free to do it all over again.
It was because of such incidents that 31 Australian communities and leaders, supported by prominent political personalities and media identities, formed an alliance under the banner ‘Keep New South Wales Safe’. It was because of the ease with which such incidents occur that these organisations – ranging from Armenians, Chinese, Greeks, Copts, Kurds, Hindus and Indians to Sikhs, Koreans, Philippines, Assyrians, Jews, Muslims, Christians and Vietnamese – combined. Our objective was simple, yet far-reaching: to urge our government to honour a public commitment to make the promotion of racist violence a crime. Specifically, to outlaw the promotion of violence against other Australians on the basis of their race, colour, gender or sexual preference.
The reality is that it has been proven repeatedly that the current law is weak and ineffective and does not deter the deliberate promotion of violence against others on the basis of these categories. In fact, the NSW government has acknowledged this failure and publicly committed to introduce legislation to amend the law. The problem is that the law as it stands is unworkably convoluted. According to Section 20d of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, a prosecutor is required to prove that there has been incitement of hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule by means which included a threat of physical harm or incitement of others to threaten physical harm. However, even in the most obvious cases, such as the above-mentioned preacher, it has been impossible to prove these elements. So much so that not a single prosecution has occurred under this law in the quarter-century since it was introduced, despite attorneys-general referring 31 matters for investigation over the years. We argued that the law should be simplified to make it a crime to promote violence against others on account of any of these categories.
In present-day Australia we don’t just have a problem with those who carry out acts of violence; we have a very serious problem also with those who encourage others to carry out acts of violence. While the law responds swiftly to the former group, it is hopelessly and inadequately equipped to respond to the latter, even though they are no less dangerous, no less harmful.
A few days ago, the NSW Cabinet convened in a regional part of the state – and it threw out the proposed new bill, which would have made the intentional or reckless advocacy of racist violence a crime. It didn’t call for the proposed bill to be tweaked or amended or adjusted or changed; it quite simply – and incomprehensibly – threw it out. It is unconscionable at any time – yet how much more so at this time of universally heightened concern for security – that a public figure can brazenly and outrageously incite violence against fellow-Australians, and the law is powerless to respond in a meaningful way. Despite the government having acknowledged that the law is inoperative, despite the government having committed to overhaul it.
Our society comprises a tapestry of cultures living overwhelmingly in peace in an environment where civility, respect and diversity are the norm; but we dare not take those norms for granted. Our government needs to act before we again see serious racist violence that could have been prevented. It is all too easy to mouth articulate platitudes about social harmony, but another matter altogether to enact meaningful laws that actually protect it. Either one is categorically opposed to giving platforms to bigotry and racist violence or one is not. Because we all remain at risk if the law is unable to protect us. And right now, it is unable to protect us.
Vic Alhadeff is chief executive of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies in Sydney, Australia, and spokesperson for the Keep New South Wales Safe campaign. Twitter: @VicAlhadeff