The government has shut down a spontaneous push to ban Nazi symbols nationwide after Opposition Leader Peter Dutton attempted to force a debate in federal parliament, backed by the Greens and a number of independents.
Dutton moved to suspend normal parliamentary business so shadow attorney-general Julian Leeser, who is Jewish, could introduce a private member’s bill to ban swastikas, Nazi salutes and Nazi uniforms, among other associated symbols.
The Victorian and NSW governments last year banned the public display of Nazi symbols, and on Monday the Victorian government pledged to ban the Nazi salute after dozens of black-clad people from the neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Network attended an anti-trans rights rally outside the state’s parliament on Saturday.
Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull, the campaigner who led the “Let Women Speak” rally, is set to speak outside Parliament House in Canberra on Thursday. She has denied associating with neo-Nazis and criticised those men who attended.
Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus accused Dutton during question time on Tuesday of being silent on the protest, prompting the opposition leader to condemn the attendees, accuse the government of politicising the issue, and offer his support for any future legislation to ban Nazi symbols.
“Nazi symbols are, of course, associated with one of the most heinous regimes in history. Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany carried out the deliberate, calculated and organised mass murder of six million European Jews as well as five million prisoners of war and other victims,” Dutton said on Wednesday.
“We owe it to all those who were victims of one of the greatest crimes ever committed that such crimes are never repeated. As a parliament, as a people, ours is a duty to the present and the future informed by one of the greatest sins of the past.”
He said, under the bill, the punishment for displaying Nazi symbols would be up to 12 months in prison, adding there was no greater issue for discussion in parliament that day.
“We don’t seek to divide, we seek to unify through this action in parliament today,” he said. “We seek to work together to send a very clear message, particularly to young Australians … who may be influenced online.”
Leeser urged the government to support the bill, labelling the rally attendees cowards “with steroid arms and stunted minds”.
“Part of what we saw in Melbourne on Saturday is … part of a trend across our country,” he said.
“The director-general of security [Mike Burgess] has spoken about the growth of grievance-motivated violent extremism. He said as a nation we need to reflect on why some teenagers are hanging Nazi flags and portraits of the Christchurch killer on their bedroom walls, and why others are sharing beheading videos.
“There must be no place in Australia for Nazi-style flags, uniforms, salutes and boycotts. Because they are the means by which this sickness seeks to perpetuate and promote itself. Such actions should be and must be a crime.”
However, parliament voted down the opposition’s move, 73 votes to 70. Greens leader Adam Bandt and several teal independents, including Zali Steggall, Allegra Spender and Dr Monique Ryan, sided with the Coalition.
Leader of the House Tony Burke earlier said the government wouldn’t support the push to ban Nazi symbols because it hadn’t seen the legislation, let alone had the chance to put it to cabinet or the caucus.
Burke said no government in the history of the federation would have suspended normal parliamentary business to vote on a bill in such a way.
“That doesn’t go against the principle in the private member’s bill in any way,” he said, adding he didn’t want anyone to interpret the division in the house as support for Nazi symbols by some.
“They are symbols that are horrific … symbols can be bullets, words can be bullets, and the horror of that salute is, in real terms, an act of violence in itself,” he said.
“Those are views that are shared around this room, and so there are particular reasons why no government has ever agreed to a private members bill in the form that it is here.”
A spokesperson for Dreyfus said the Attorney-General’s Department had been “considering matters relating to the prohibition of Nazi symbols for some months” but declined to say more.
Burke referred to attempts by the Coalition over the past decade to amend racial discrimination laws. The Abbott government in 2014 backed down from plans to wind back section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which makes it illegal to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people because of their race or ethnicity.
Deakin University political sociologist Josh Roose said if Nazi salutes and symbolism was banned, extremists would come up with “some other form of offensive gesture or symbolism”, adding some people were talking about a broader law prohibiting the glorification of the Nazi regime or Hitler.
“That’s going to be very difficult to police,” he said.
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