What if the leader of a religious group addressed a public rally in Sydney and openly called for the murder of people of another faith?Unlikely in our democratic society, where we abide by the rule of law? Wouldn’t or couldn’t happen in the greatest country on the planet where 200 cultures live side by side in peace and tranquillity, embracing diversity and respecting each other’s right to be different? Think again. It does and it did. Right here in Sydney. A virulent outpouring of hatred. A chilling torrent of bile and abuse from a religious leader. All the while warning the targets of his venom about the fury and wrath – and violence – which would be heaped upon them, all 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 acts of violence against the target group? Here was a prominent community leader, in a vicious harangue dripping with vitriol and condemnation, publicly whipping up a crowd to do his bidding and carry out violence against fellow-Australians, and the law turned its back. Worse yet – by completely failing to act, it effectively told him he was free to do it all over again the next morning. Which he and his colleagues have done. More than once.
It is because of such incidents – and there are many – and the deliberate promotion of violence against particular Australian community groups that 23 communal organisations, supported by prominent political personalities of varying stripes, have combined forces under the banner ‘Keep NSW Safe’. It is because of the ease with which such incidents can and do occur in New South Wales that about 35 leaders of these organisations – ranging from Armenians, Chinese, Greeks, Copts, Kurds and Indians to Sikhs, Koreans, Philippines, Assyrians, Jews, Christians and Vietnamese – convened in Room 815 at State Parliament recently. Our objective was and is far-reaching, yet simple: to ask the New South Wales government to honour a public commitment to make the promotion of violence a crime. Specifically, to outlaw the promotion of violence against other Australians on the basis of their race, colour, ethnic origin, gender or sexual preference.
The reality is that it has been proven time and again 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 publicly acknowledged this failure and has committed to introduce legislation to fix the law. But it has not acted on that commitment, despite inviting and receiving submissions on this issue from community groups late last year. The problem is that the current law is unworkably convoluted. According to Section 20D of the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act, a prosecutor is required to prove that there was 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 that of the afore-mentioned religious hate preacher, it has been impossible to prove these elements.
The result is that not a single prosecution has occurred under this law, Section 20D, despite attorneys-general from both sides of the House referring 12 matters for investigation over the years. We believe the law should be simplified to make it an offence to promote violence against people on account of any of these categories. As with all crimes, such an offence should be placed in the Crimes Act.
In present-day Australia we don’t just have a problem with those who carry out acts of violence; we have a 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 ill-equipped to respond to the latter, even though they are no less dangerous, no less harmful. To all of us. It is unconscionable at any time – yet so much more so at this time of heightened concern for our security – that a public figure can brazenly and outrageously incite violence against fellow Australians and the law is powerless to respond in any meaningful way. And it is disappointing that the New South Wales Government’s commitment to fix the law has not yet been honoured.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 now, before we again see serious racist violence in New South Wales that could otherwise have been prevented. It is all too easy to talk about communal harmony, but another matter altogether to enact meaningful laws that actually protect it. All people of goodwill have an obligation to speak out on these issues, to ensure that they do not remain just a blip in the public consciousness. We are either opposed to giving platforms to bigotry and violence or we are not. Because we all remain at risk if the law is unable to protect us. There is a stark choice to be made.
Vic Alhadeff is spokesperson for Keep NSW Safe and chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. Twitter: @VicAlhadeff