Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Albanese government to toughen hate speech laws ‘as quickly as we can’

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Federal hate speech laws need to be strengthened as quickly as possible in order to combat rising antisemitism, Richard Marles has argued.

Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister made the comments on Monday outside one of Australia’s largest Jewish schools, located in Melbourne, which was vandalised with antisemitic graffiti over the weekend

The incident occurred at about 6am on Saturday when a masked individual approached the front gate of Mount Scopus’ Burwood campus, spraying “Jew die” on the adjoining wall.

Mr Marles described the incident as an “appalling act of antisemitism”, which has “no place in our society”.

“It is absolutely critical that in this moment Jewish and non-Jewish Australians alike are standing up against antisemitism,” he said.

“The Jewish community of proud Australians, and they have every right to be able to pursue their life as Australians, to enjoy the benefits of our country to do so in a way where they proudly wear the symbols of their culture, without feeling abuse, without feeling intimidation, without feeling prejudice.”

The Deputy Prime Minister said that “action is being taken” against the increased antisemitism, including the strengthening of hate speech laws that were briefed to journalists over the weekend.

“We are progressing through the parliament laws which will strengthen anti hate speech legislation,” he said.

“We need to have these laws in place as quickly as we can have them in place, without compromising the thorough consultation which needs to be undertaken.”

However, the minister declined to address whether the laws would capture controversial slogans used by pro-Palestinian protesters like “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

Noting there are important “nuances” that “really do matter” when it comes to the line between free speech and hate speech, Mr Marles said the government was consulting with communities on the issue.  

“We want to be thorough in the way in which we do it. But we do want to do this with a sense of pace,” he said.

Mount Scopus Principal Dan Sztrajt said the antisemitic graffiti did not happen in isolation, describing it as the product of “unchecked antisemitism” that had led many in the Jewish community to feel “quite unsafe”.

“We’ve seen a huge spike in incidents of antisemitism,” Principle Sztrajt said.

“We’ve seen it on sporting fields with our teams that we send to inter-school sport. Our students have certainly seen it online… the number of horrendously racist bigoted messages that we receive on a daily basis online is astronomical compared to any other time.

“And we believe it’s a product of being allowed to do it with zero consequences.”

Raising the issue of anti-Israel protests as a major issue of concern for the community, the Mount Scopus Principal said people should be able to discuss international affairs but this should not cross the line into “hate speech”.  

“Part of being in a democracy is that absolutely people have freedom of speech and people are allowed to air their thoughts on what Australia should or should not be doing around global affairs. That’s absolutely everyone’s given right. Where it is a problem is when it crosses a line into hate speech,” Mr Sztrajt said.

This sentiment was echoed by the Deputy Prime Minister, who added that as a country we should be “mature enough” to have a debate about what’s going on overseas” without it being done in a way that challenges our social cohesion and what is “fundamentally wonderful about this country”.

The Albanese government is yet to release details on how it plans to strengthen Australia’s hate speech laws and it is unclear whether they will be supported by the Coalition.

Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has previously called for better enforcement of Australia’s incitement to violence laws to address rising antisemitism. However tougher hate speech laws may face opposition from Coalition MPs, several of whom are on the record opposing section 18C of the racial discrimination act on the grounds it unduly infringes on legitimate freedom of speech.

The Coalition attempted to rebalance the hate speech provision in favour of greater free speech during both the Abbott and Turnbull governments, though neither was successful.

Asked on Monday whether the Coalition would support tougher federal hate speech laws, Nationals leader David Littleproud said there were already laws in place and the government needed to explain why they hadn’t been used.  

“The government to articulate why they aren’t satisfactory and why they haven’t been used,” Mr Littleproud said.

“If they do believe that there needs to be a strengthening of those, then we’ll work through the details. But I’m obviously reticent to give carte blanche support to Mark Dreyfus without seeing those details.

“If they can articulate that, well, that’s fine, we’ll go with open minds. But it’s important we see the detail around getting the balance right and protecting free free speech, but making sure that comes with responsibility and respect.”

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