Chorus of condemnation after neo-Nazi march in Ballarat
The lack of arrests at a white supremacist march in regional Victoria has been defended by the local mayor, despite him dubbing the group cowards.
The men, masked and dressed in black, marched down Sturt Street in Ballarat on Sunday chanting and holding a banner reading “Australia for the White Man”.
There were police cars behind and in front of them as they walked.
Videos and photos on social media pages show the men shouting and holding signs. There are also images of them posing for photographs outside the Ballarat police station.
The demonstration was unplanned and police say they are investigating reports a Nazi salute was performed.
A 15-year-old boy who was not attached to the group was spoken to by police. Charges are yet to be laid.
Ballarat Mayor Des Hudson condemned the balaclava-veiled group of 20 or 30 men, calling them out as hateful “cowards” for hiding their faces. But he did not criticise police ushering them down the road, especially given the ad-hoc nature of the demonstration.
“Everyone was caught by surprise,” he said.
“At the time, escorting them through and getting them out of town has probably been a fairly effective strategy, rather than taking them to task, which I probably think is what they were looking for.”
Hudson earlier told the ABC he doubted the men were local to the area.
“This group, whether they have targeted Ballarat because of Spilt Milk [festival at the weekend] or the 169th anniversary of Eureka … I doubt these people live in our community,” he said.
“I had an email from a concerned member from our African community [who] said, ‘How do I know? It could be my bank teller, it could be the person I buy coffee from …’
“I would suggest Ballarat has had a visit from these people, and now they will target other areas.”
Victoria in October outlawed Nazi gestures and symbols in public, with fines of more than $23,000 or 12 months in prison.
The change was triggered by the same group performing the salute outside Victorian parliament in March.
When the ban was first announced, Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation director David Slucki said it would do little to eradicate Nazism.
Sunday’s march was entirely unsurprising and police could have used racial discrimination and incitement laws to arrest the group, Slucki said.
“Maybe a situation like this calls for arrests because it feels like that becomes protected speech,” he said.
While alarmed as a member of the Jewish community, Slucki stressed the group were a “very tiny group of loudmouths”.
“I also caution a little restraint that we don’t look at these clowns and thinking that it’s 1938 Germany,” he said.
He questioned the feasibility of banning demonstrators from wearing facial coverings but flagged some members remained unidentified, potentially avoiding consequences from their employers.
“There’s protests and then there’s rallies that incite hatred and violence and a blanket ban on face coverings, I don’t know how you enforce something like that when you’re on the back end of a global pandemic,” he said.
Police Association secretary Wayne Gatt said officers were limited in what they could do to counteract the protest.
“If it was up to us, it would be dead-set illegal,” he told Nine’s Today show.
“But it’s not – it’s up to the government.”
Premier Jacinta Allan condemned the “hateful” behaviour, noting Ballarat was one of the birthplaces of multiculturalism in Victoria as a gold rush town.
“Every Victorian deserves to live free from fear of racism and bigotry,” she said.
“These disgraceful and cowardly acts have no place in Victoria.”
Local MP and federal infrastructure minister Catherine King MP was similarly scathing.
“Bigotry, racism and Nazism are never welcome in Ballarat,” she wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Ballarat Community Alliance said the “blow-ins” had come to co-opt the legacy of the Eureka Stockade, a rebellion of gold prospectors in the 1850s, on the anniversary of its end.
The group, which is an association of progressive community organisations, said Ballarat was proud of its multiculturalism.
“We condemn this group of blow-ins and their message of hate,” the alliance said in a statement on Facebook.
But it also questioned why police hadn’t used the laws outlawing Nazi gestures and symbols.
“Why weren’t these laws enforced by police who instead helped the neo-Nazis by making safe passage through the street for their protest?” it wrote.