Banning Nazi symbols won’t make the far right go away

Successful 2015 counter protest against "Reclaim Australia" in Melbourne
Successful 2015 counter protest against "Reclaim Australia" in Melbourne. Photo: Alex Bainbridge

State governments are legislating to criminalise the public display of Nazi symbols. Victoria was the first state announcing a ban to come into effect in six months.

This flows from a parliamentary inquiry which began this year into the rise of far-right extremism in Victoria in the wake of the large right-wing “freedom” movement which grew in response to the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The law creates a criminal offence for anyone who intentionally displays the Nazi symbol, with fines of up to $22,000 or 12 months in prison.

New South Wales, Tasmania and Queensland are considering similar laws.

The law is being promoted as a challenge to racism and the growth of the far right. However, banning the Nazi symbol will not stop them.

Germany has long banned the public display of the swastika and the dissemination of Nazi material. This has done little to stop right-wing parties such as Alternative for Germany (AFD) which includes far-right extremists and now has MPs in government.

The still small organised far-right in Australia is empowered by Liberal and Labor governments’ racism towards refugees and attacks on First Nations’ rights. These racist ideas become “acceptable” when government policies institutionalise them.

One Nation began advancing racist policies such as boat turn-backs that the major parties initially deemed unpalatable, but have now embraced.

Banning the swastika also raises civil liberties and free speech concerns. Any state-sanctioned ban sets a precedent for restricting other symbols, such as those used by left or ethnic groups.

The Victorian government is also criminalising protests in state forests, showing it is no friend of civil liberties.

Michael Stanton of Liberty Victoria argued at the parliamentary inquiry “that any reform needed to ensure free speech was balanced with people’s right to live without discrimination and violence”.

Banning Nazi symbols also allows the far right to portray themselves as victims of repression. This diverts attention away from their reactionary politics to the secondary question of whether or not they deserve “free speech”.

Further, any ban of this kind will need to be enforced by state institutions including the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation and the police.

Progressives should not rely on these organisations to counter far-right extremism. Instead, we should seek to build bigger and stronger anti-racist movements — and progressive campaigns more broadly — that attempt to mobilise people in defence of our rights.

We should also seek to counter-mobilise whenever far-right political forces organise. The far-right has to be defeated politically. It can’t be criminalised out of existence.

[Jacob Andrewartha is a national co-convenor of Socialist Alliance.]