Australian State Moves to Ban Nazi Salute After Clashes at Rally
It was a startling sight on the stone steps of Parliament House, the grand seat of state government in Melbourne, Australia: more than two dozen people dressed in black, many with their faces covered, each extending an arm in an unmistakable Nazi salute.
The 30 or so people, who later identified themselves as members of the Australian neo-Nazi group the National Socialist Network, appeared on Saturday amid a crowd of about 300 people at a protest against transgender rights that was led by the British anti-trans rights campaigner Kellie-Jay Keen-Minshull.
The display shocked political leaders in Victoria, the southeastern state of which Melbourne is the capital, who on Monday said they would move to ban Nazi salutes in the state. A local lawmaker from Australia’s center-right opposition party was facing expulsion after she attended the rally on Saturday.
Neo-Nazis have shown up at a number of events in the past few months in Melbourne — which has a longstanding reputation as a progressive, multicultural city — including in neighborhoods with historically large Jewish populations and at events honoring Indigenous Australians, while concerns about far-right extremism have rippled across Australia.
In rural Queensland, a state in northeastern Australia, two police officers and a resident were killed in December by three people who were part of a fringe “sovereign citizen” movement. The attack stunned the country and was later declared “domestic terrorism” by the authorities, with Prime Minister Anthony Albanese announcing last month that he would review Australia’s terrorism laws because of it.
The Australian government has identified nationalist and racist violent extremism as a threat to the country’s security, particularly “the potential for these groups to radicalize individuals who then go on to undertake attacks, potentially without any warning,” according to a post on the government website.
The rally on Saturday featured Ms. Keen-Minshull, a British anti-transgender rights campaigner who is also known as Posie Parker. She is on a tour of Australia, with rallies planned in other cities across the country, as well as in New Zealand. Between 300 and 400 supporters attended the event in Melbourne, with nearly twice as many counterprotesters. The two groups clashed during the event and had to be broken up by the police.
Moira Deeming, a lawmaker from the center-right Liberal Party, was among those protesting against transgender rights on Saturday, though she did not participate in the Nazi salute. On Sunday, John Pesutto, the Liberal Party leader in Victoria, said he intended to call a vote to expel her from the party this week for “organizing, promoting and participating” in the rally, including remaining at it after the appearance of neo-Nazis.
“Her position is untenable,” Mr. Pesutto said of Ms. Deeming. “The violence, prejudice and hate that these protesters conveyed by their odious actions will never be acceptable in our state.”
Ms. Deeming said on Monday that the masked individuals had “gate crashed” the event and said that the motion to expel her was “unjust” and went counter to “shared Liberal traditions” of “robust freedom of thought and speech.”
Ms. Keen-Minshull said in an interview with The New Zealand Herald that the people giving Nazi salutes were “absolutely not associated with me whatsoever,” adding: “I absolutely abhor anything to do with Nazis.”
In a post on Twitter on Sunday, Daniel Andrews, the state premier of Victoria, affirmed his support for transgender rights and said the neo-Nazi group had “gathered to spread hate” in the city. He added: “Their evil ideology is to scapegoat minorities — and it’s got no place here. And those who stand with them don’t, either.”
Jaclyn Symes, the attorney general of Victoria, said the government would introduce legislation to ban Nazi salutes within a few months. “The behavior we saw on the weekend was cowardly,” she said. “It’s clear this symbol is being used to incite hatred against a variety of people, a variety of minority groups.”
The straight-armed gesture, used in Nazi Germany to salute Adolf Hitler, is banned in Germany, Austria, Poland and Slovakia, as well as other jurisdictions.
After a sharp rise in antisemitic incidents, Victoria became the first Australian state to ban displays of the Nazi swastika late last year, with violators facing up to 12 months in prison and a fine of 22,000 Australian dollars, around $15,000.
The swastika ban appears to have already had an effect, said Josh Roose, a sociologist and researcher on the far-right at Deakin University.
“They’re keen to avoid a detrimental impact, from a legal perspective, of what they say they are prepared to fight and die for,” he said. “In some ways, it may well shut them down. We didn’t see any swastikas at that rally.”
A protest targeting transgender people and their rights was a natural fit for neo-Nazis, both in terms of their beliefs and because of the opportunity to recruit others to their causes, said Matthew Sharpe, also a researcher at Deakin University.
“This is a way of reaching more conservatively minded people,” he said. “They’re intersecting with an audience, potentially, of people who, although they are absolutely not anywhere near neo-Nazis, might take this single issue as a way of starting a dialogue.”