Warning: This article deals with the topic of targeted violence against Jewish communities, Muslim communities, LGBTQIA+ communities, and First Nations communities. It may be triggering for some readers.
The Federal Government is making moves to ban the public display of symbols representing the fascist Nazi party and its ideology. You know, the guys who decisively lost the Second World War and became a byword for evil?
You would have thought that, in 2023, we’d be beyond this — or at least that this argument was decisively settled in 1945 when the ‘glorious leader’ of the German National Socialist party ended up on fire in a ditch.
Sadly, recent events have demonstrated that there is a vile subset of people who want to associate themselves with this evil.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus has announced the Counter-Terrorism Legislation Amendment (Prohibited Hate Symbols and Other Measures) Bill will be introduced in Parliament next week in an effort to combat this rise.
The bill will ban the display of symbols relating to the Nazis or the SS, both online and in public, including clothing and banners.
“This bill is going to complement the work of the states and ensure that there are no loopholes and we will have all governments working together to ban the display and trade of these evil symbols,” he said in a statement.
However, the ban won’t actually cover the swastika, or ‘Hakenkreuz’, because of its association with religion. It also won’t cover the Nazi salute or ‘Seig Heil’. This… seems like an odd choice.
“The Nazi salute is an offensive gesture that has no place in Australian society, but we think that the burning of these gestures is a matter for State and Territory laws,” Dreyfus said.
“We need to make a start. This may not be the end of what we do to criminalise hate speech, this kind of conduct — we need to make it absolutely clear that there’s no place in Australia for Nazi symbols that glorify the horrors of the Holocaust.”
Implementing bans on such behaviour seems like a straightforward and logical thing to do. Many states and territories have already made similar moves in response to recent public displays of fascist ideology.
However, critics have said that the policies may be ineffective, complicated, and superficial in that they don’t actually address the root cause of the problem.
Still, there are places in our country where it is currently perfectly legal to fly the red and white flag of a disgraced 1930s German political organisation under whose symbol millions were killed. Here’s what you need to know.
Banning Nazi Symbols
Australia has, depressingly, had to come to grips with the growing threat of far-right extremism in recent years. The mass killing of Muslims in their place of worship in Christchurch, New Zealand, perpetrated by an Australian man, shocked much of the nation into action and brought governments out of complicity by ignoring this danger.
Multiple states and territories have laws on the books, or in the works, to ban the Nazi swastika or ‘Hakenkreuz’. Exceptions are made for displays of the symbol in the context of the Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain religions, where it has been used to signify peace for millennia before being co-opted by a bunch of wrong’uns in Germany.
People indoctrinated by far-right extremism also use other symbols, like the black sun or ‘sonnenrad’, the lightning bolt ‘SS’ letters, the number 14, and the number 88 as coded references to their warped ideology.
Bans on Nazi symbolism also have to take these and other symbols into account, as previous international efforts to clamp down on them have seen far-right groups change tactics and start using other signs and symbols like the divers ‘OK’ sign. Critics even warn that by banning their use, it will become harder to identify and police such groups.
The Nazi salute, originally a Roman gesture, also continues to be used and is much more difficult to police. Experts have said that legal restrictions need to be specific in targeting this gesture as one used to intimidate or threaten.
Efforts to outlaw banned public symbols and gestures have been implemented in places like Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic to mixed effect. Punishments for their use range from minor fines to three years in jail.
Here’s where Australia currently stands.
In an effort to tackle a rise in antisemitism, NSW outlawed the public display of Nazi symbols in August of last year. There is no definition in the legislature for what defines such a symbol, as it was kept intentionally broad for maximum effect.
Anyone caught displaying a Nazi symbol faces a maximum penalty of 12 months in jail and/or an $11,000 fine.
The legislation was drafted in April following a parliamentary inquiry into Nazi symbols which recommended the change. The inquiry found that there were 31 displays of Nazi symbols reported to the police in the state in 2020 alone.
NSW Jewish Board of Deputies CEO, Darren Bark, said at the time that the laws would prevent people from being recruited by far-right groups.
“Banning their display is a long-overdue and much-needed law in our state. The perpetrators will finally be held to account,” Bark said.
Nazi salutes may well come under the definition, as three Sydney football fans were charged at the start of the month for performing the salute, becoming the first people to do so under the new laws. The case, which is set to appear in court on April 19, will be a test case for how the new legislation will work in practice.
Victoria, which has become the recent forefront of this debate, already has in place legislation that outlaws Nazi symbols. Its laws were introduced in June last year, making it the first Australian state to do so. However, the laws did not come into effect until December.
These laws state that the Hakenkreuz specifically is banned and that its public display carries a penalty of $22,000 and/or 12 months in prison.
However, the law does not cover other Nazi symbols, tattoos, or the Seig Heil.
Following the display of neo-Nazi activists in Melbourne on 18 March, Premier Dan Andrews moved to ban the Nazi salute as well. However, experts have warned that the kneejerk banning of symbols one-by-one just isn’t practical and that there needs to be work done to address the social conditions allowing these ideologies to spread.
Currently, it’s perfectly legal to fly a flag bearing the Nazi swastika in Queensland, although it’s not actually tolerated.
A Nazi flag flown over a Synagogue in Brisbane in 2021 was confiscated, and the owner was charged with public nuisance, but there aren’t more specific laws for this kind of hateful display. Similar charges were handed to three men who were found to be in possession of a large range of Nazi paraphernalia, including banners, stickers, and uniforms.
This is all about to change however as Queensland announced at the end of March it would introduce legislation to criminalise Nazi symbols, including tattoos, swastikas, and other insignia used to incite hatred and violence.
Penalties will also be increased for offences that are “motivated by hatred or prejudice” against specific groups of people.
“People armed with hate and prejudice and extreme ideologies won’t be tolerated in Queensland,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said in a statement at the time.
“Our government promised to review and strengthen serious vilification and hate crime laws, and this Bill is delivering on that promise”.
The laws were discussed in June last year but will likely take at least six months to come into effect.
The ACT also does not have specific laws banning the display of Nazi symbolism. They too are looking to change that with new laws that were introduced into the Legislative Assembly in November last year.
Proposed legislation will make it a crime to display the Hakenkreuz in public, including at events, on clothing, and even posting the symbol online.
Exceptions are made, as with all of these laws, for cultural, educational, and other genuine reasons that aren’t related to being a fascist.
It’s unclear when the new laws will actually come into effect.
Tasmania has been making overtures at a ban for some time, announcing in March that legislation had been tabled in state parliament.
Attorney-General, Elise Archer, said that the symbols were in breach of community and moral standards and that the government is keen to update its laws to reflect that.
“This is an issue that is deeply concerning to me as attorney-general, as well as many Tasmanians,” she said.
A public consultation on the matter was opened in January and closed in February for the government to work out the best way of implementing the laws.
The newly tabled legislation will see anyone charged with the offence pay $3,600 in fines and/or face three months in jail.
Nazi salutes are specifically covered by the legislation, making Tasmania the first state to criminalise the gesture.
Western Australia has also made similar moves to the above states and territories, updating its hate crime laws to specifically target the display of Nazi symbols.
In May of last year, WA MP Kate Doust called on the government to ban the insignia following a rise in its display in the state as well as “an increase in hostile actions against members of the Jewish community.”
Although Doust said the problem was not as great in WA as it was in other states, the government agreed to look into it and, in January of this year, legislation was introduced to ban the display of the symbols.
The ban extends to ownership of materials containing the symbols and to tattoos. Punishment for doing so will result in fines and/or jail time.
Since January, however, there has been no update on the progress of the legislation, and it is unclear when it might come into force.
South Australia hasn’t escaped the rise in far-right activity in recent years either. In September 2022, members of the National Socialist Network, ie, Nazis, gathered outside the Holocaust Museum-Steiner Education Centre to perform the Seig Heil.
One Nation MP, Sarah Game, who is Jewish, led a Parliamentary investigation into Nazi symbols and far-right activity, which was brought forward following the increase in incidents. Game introduced legislation that would make the public display of Nazi symbols illegal in the state.
“That symbol is just so evocative and so distressing to many people in the Jewish community that this is worthwhile doing,” she has said.
Anyone doing so faces a $20,000 fine and/or 12 months in jail.
However, SA Police have recently pushed back on the law, saying that it is too “narrow in scope” and fails to “capture other symbols or behaviours or concern.”
“If you limit it to one symbol, it just creates the opportunity for other symbols to be embraced, and it also allows for actions as well,” SA Police Assistant Commissioner Stuart McLean has said.
“In addressing this particular issue, it should be concerned with behaviour, actions, spoken word, written word, wherever it is displayed, including online; that its purpose is to incite violence, incite hatred”.
Jewish groups have said that the law should incorporate the Nazi salute as well, while other advocates say that far-right discrimination should be broadly considered as the LGBTQI+ and Indigenous communities have also been targeted by such groups.
The inquiry continues for now.
The Northern Territory is the only jurisdiction that has no laws either in the works or on the books to outlaw the display of Nazi insignia.
In 2020, a neon swastika was erected on a fence in the inner-city Darwin suburb of Stuart Park. Although outraged residents brought its presence to the attention of the local council and the police, authorities did not have the power to ask the owner to take it down.
Since then, there has been no discussion of such laws being introduced.
The NT does appear to have at least some neo-Nazi activity, with an Australian man hailing from the region helping to found and organise far-right groups before fleeing the country in 2019.
Nazi Symbols in Australia
Overall, it is currently legal to fly the Nazi flag in six of Australia’s eight states and territories. In addition, seven jurisdictions cannot prosecute someone specifically for having Nazi tattoos or performing the Nazi salute.
By the end of the year, the former will hopefully only be the case in two states, depending on how fast these laws can be brought in. Much of this action has been propelled forward by the experiences of Victoria.
As Dreyfus said in announcing Federal laws to target this kind of behaviour, the changes seek to complement existing and developing state and territory laws.
In March, the government rejected Opposition Leader Peter Dutton’s attempt to rapidly pass legislation to outlaw Nazi symbols.
His private member’s bill was dismissed as it was argued that the government did not have enough time to consider the laws or the scope of their implementation. They appear now to have changed their tune on this subject.
Hopefully, the ban has some effect, if only to criminalise people delusional enough to buy into this hateful ideology. However, as academics and researchers have pointed out, unless the government can tackle the deep-rooted causes of these issues, it may ultimately be little more than window dressing.
If this article brings up any issues for you or anyone you know, or you have experienced targeted violence, please contact Lifeline (13 11 14), Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800), both of which provide trained counsellors you can talk with 24/7. If you are in immediate danger, call 000.