A national determination to tackle hate crime

Australia must seize the opportunity before it’s too late

John Coyne

National security, Arts, culture & society | Australia, The Pacific, The World

28 June 2019

Following the recent Christchurch massacre, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission Board finds itself with an important opportunity to target hate crime in the country, John Coyne writes.

A little over three months have passed since the murderous assault on Christchurch’s Al Noor Mosque and Linwood Islamic Centre were live-streamed for the world to see.

In the first few days after the attack, Australians – like their Kiwi neighbours across the ditch – were in a state of shock over the barbarity of the attacks that took 51 lives while injuring 49. Later, they were even more horrified by the idea that their nation had become an exporter of hate and terrorism.

While this was allegedly the action of a radicalised Australian, more than a few outspoken lobbyists, politicians, and media outlets argued that it was symptomatic of a wider racist trend.

Behind the scenes, Australia’s Home Affairs Portfolio agencies, the Australian Federal Police, and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, have been assisting New Zealand authorities. Because that’s simply what good friends do.

More on this: The Christchurch Call to Action – so close, yet so far

Publicly, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been focusing on new anti-tech legislation to force social media companies to be proactive in preventing terrorists from spreading their messages of hate.

Shortly after the attacks, Nick Kaldas and I both argued for a national hate crime unit. Nick said that Australia needs one to promote intelligence sharing between its eight police forces. I felt that the Council of Australian Governments and the Department of Home Affairs’ National Counter-Terrorism Coordinator need one to inform the development of targeted anti-hate crime programs.

At the time, however, I had been remiss in not highlighting the important work that Professors Michele Grossman and Greg Barton and Senior Lecturer Matteo Vergani had been doing at Deakin University to build a hate crime database.

Through their work, the three are trying to bring together reporting from a range of government and non-government sources to build an empirical database of hate crime that has both validity and reliability. This is no easy task, with challenges lying in finding clear definitions and managing data quality.

High-quality academic work like this takes time. Moreover, with a dearth of empirical evidence on the scale and scope of Australia’s hate crime problem, policymakers are reticent to introduce new policies. So, with neither a hate crime unit nor any new information, little has changed in terms of our national understanding of hate crime in Australia.

More on this: Is Australia fooling itself on countering extremism?

An opportunity to change this situation could reside with the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) Board. The board was established to be a ‘unified force against nationally significant crime’. And there’s no doubt the Christchurch massacre has reinforced to all Australian jurisdictions that hate crime is nationally significant.

In response to this serious crime, the ACIC Board could establish a determination for a special hate crime operation in Australia.

A determination is a direction from the board to the ACIC to make an inquiry a work priority. One made for a special operation focuses on amassing relevant intelligence used to gauge the severity, influence, and associated risks of a particular kind of crime.

In the first instance, the ACIC could focus on regularly collecting information on reported hate crimes in each of Australia’s eight law enforcement jurisdictions.

There is no doubt that there are some inconsistencies in how such crimes are defined in the legislative frameworks of each jurisdiction. Regardless, this information could be useful in producing quarterly analytical reports that would monitor for changes in the number and severity of offences.

The ACIC Board could also determine to use special powers – such as coercive hearings – to enhance governments’ understanding of the white supremist and right-wing extremist landscape in Australia.

More on this: Australia and ASEAN's evolving counter-terrorism regime

Unfortunately, this work would not negate the need for the collection of data relating to hate speech, including that used on social media in Australia. Nor will it be able to consider causality between hate speech and hate crime. But it would provide policymakers with an invaluable evidence-based starting point.

Three months on from the Christchurch massacre, after a period of mourning, life in Australia is moving on and the news cycle continues to bring us new and outrageous stories. In the meantime, Australian policymakers are still without a litmus test to understand the state of play and impacts of hate crime in Australia.

As further time passes, and the immediacy created by the Christchurch massacre further recedes, we may lose an important opportunity to ask ourselves and our nation some tough questions. The policy momentum to prioritise the issue may well be lost.

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