Bigoted statements earn up to three years in jail under new law
Queensland's Labor government has introduced a new hate crimes bill that would increase the maximum prison sentence for bigoted public acts made against a person’s race, religion, sexuality, or gender identity from half a year to three years.
It was the legislation’s other provisions that produced fears of its passage becoming a ‘slippery slope’ to abuse, however.
Apart from raising the maximum prison sentence for bigoted statements and other hate crimes to three years, the Criminal Code (Serious Vilification and Hate Crimes) and Other Legislation Amendment Bill 2023 gives police the power to charge people for the crimes defined under the bill. It also allows the attorney-general the power to declare a symbol illegal without having to go through Parliament.
Public acts are defined as “any form of communication to the public, including by speaking, writing, printing, displaying notices … or by electronic means” – thus encompassing social media posts.`
The bill also specifically targets the display of Nazi symbols, following the lead of NSW and Victoria, which already outlaw displaying the swastika.
In NSW, however, displaying the Nazi symbol only warrants a year of imprisonment or a $100,000 fine, the Daily Mail reported. And the laws in Victoria and NSW specifically exempt people who display swastikas for religious purposes, considering the symbol’s wide use in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism.
In a public hearing held earlier this week by the Legal Affairs and Safety Committee, which is currently studying the new hate crimes bill, Queensland Council for Civil Liberties president Michael Cope expressed his concern that Hindus – and others using the swastika for religious or cultural purposes – could end up criminally charged for displaying the symbol under the proposed legislation.
While he accepted that the new hate crimes bill excused the use of the swastika for genuine religious, cultural, or educational purposes, Cope pointed out that the decision to prosecute a person under the bill would be “made by some police officer who may not understand” the context in which a swastika was being used.
In that case, Cope said, “at least part of the burden of proof” of raising the ‘genuine religious purpose’ defence against a prosecution would fall upon the people innocuously using the symbol but wrongfully being charged by the police.
“Why should any part of the burden of proof lie upon them?” Cope asked.
Cope emphasised that the bill was giving the state the “unrestrained” power of discretion over who could wind up in prison for up to three years.
“And we don't know who the next government or the government in 10 years' time might be,” he was quoted as saying.
The Queensland Law Society similarly expressed its opposition to penalising hate crimes with a three-year imprisonment term, noting that the bill was prone to subjective bias and misuse.
“Is the display objectively capable of causing offence rather than simply hurting the feelings of a person making the complaint? It needs to be clear that [there’s] an objective test in those circumstances,” criminal law committee deputy chair Patrick Quinn said.
Queensland’s attorney-general, Yvette D'Ath, told the Daily Mail Australia she would consider feedback on the hate crimes bill before making any further comment on it.