Attorney general Mark Speakman says there ‘are no present plans’ to amend Anti-Discrimination Act
New South Wales drops pledge to reform state’s racial vilification laws
The New South Wales government has quietly dropped plans to reform the state’s racial vilification laws, prompting anger from Jewish leaders, ethnic groups and the Labor opposition.
The state government had previously pledged to fix the laws, which are widely seen as deficient. The laws, set out in section 20D of the Anti-Discrimination Act, have not led to a single successful prosecution in 30 years, despite examples of incitement to racial violence.
The former attorney general Gabrielle Upton conceded the laws were not working in 2015 and promised to introduce a bill early last year to strengthen and streamline section 20D.
She did so after the director of public prosecutions was left unable to charge Ismail Al-Wahwah, the leader of the fringe Islamic movement Hizb ut-Tahrir, after he described Jews as the “hidden evil” and called for a “jihad against the Jews”.
Upton said at the time: “It’s too hard to get a prosecution for a criminal offence.”
But no bill was ever introduced.
The current attorney general, Mark Speakman, has confirmed to Guardian Australia that there is now no intention for reform.
“There are no present plans to amend section 20D of the Anti-Discrimination Act,” he said. “Apart from section 20D and its analogues, existing general criminal law provisions, including in the Crimes Act, are capable of covering conduct of the kind in question.”
The position has outraged Labor’s shadow attorney general, Paul Lynch. Lynch said change had been blocked by “rightwing ideologues in the Liberal party”.
“NSW is a successful multicultural society,” Lynch said. “That has happened and will continue only if we get our institutions and laws correct. Reforming section 20D is part of that.”
An alliance of 31 ethnic community groups and prominent individuals – including the Indigenous leader Warren Mundine – formed in 2015 to lobby for change to the “weak and ineffective” laws.
A spokesperson for the Keep NSW Safe campaign, Vic Alhadeff, said it was “a great disappointment” that the NSW government had not honoured its commitment to reform.
“Just recently a religious leader addressed a rally in Sydney and called for the murder of people of another faith – yet the law did nothing,” Alhadeff said. “Worse, by failing to act, it effectively told him he was free to do it again.
“It is because of such incidents that so many communities combined forces, from Armenians, Chinese, Greeks, Hindus and Copts to Indians, Assyrians, Muslims, Jews, Christians and Vietnamese.
“It is unconscionable that one can incite violence against fellow Australians and the law is powerless to respond.”
In 2013, a cross-party parliamentary committee recommended that procedural changes be made to make 20D more effective. That included improving the timeframes for lodging and referring complaints, allowing the president of the anti-discrimination board to refer serious racial vilification complaints to police and authorising police to prepare briefs of evidence for the director of public prosecutions on racial vilification responses.
Lynch said the government had ignored the recommendations.
“The government has ignored the unanimous cross-party parliamentary recommendation made four years ago,” Lynch said. “They’ve refused to act on recommendations their own members agreed with.”
The Federation of Indian Associations of NSW president Yadu Singh said he “strongly believes that NSW government should act and fix 20D without further delay”.
“There is a strong feeling that the actions in regards to 20D are overdue,” Singh said.
Alhadeff is also the chief executive of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. Speaking on behalf of that organisation, he said the board “cannot work out what the government is afraid of”, given the near universal support for change.
“The only people in NSW who don’t want to make the promotion and advocacy of violence on the basis of race illegal appear to be in government,” Alhadeff said.
“The government can talk about social cohesion but when the time came for real and meaningful action, it has fallen short, and all the citizens of NSW will be the worse off for it.”