Matter of Public Importance - Community Safety

15 November 2023

Martha HAYLETT (Ripon) (17:21):

I rise to speak on the matter of public importance submitted by the member for Malvern today. I want to begin by saying how proud I am of our state’s diverse multicultural and multifaith communities. There are many Muslim and Jewish people across my electorate of Ripon, including the proud Muslim community of Ararat and the Jewish community of Ballarat. As a government we are committed to taking action to stamp out racism, faith-based discrimination and hate in any form. Racism and discrimination, including antisemitism and Islamophobia, are unacceptable and have no place in our great state. There is no place for violence or inciteful behaviour in Victoria, and it is never acceptable for any faith-based community to feel unsafe in their own neighbourhood and at their place of worship.

The scenes we saw last Friday in Caulfield were shocking. They go against the fundamental values that we hold in this place and in this state. We treasure our multicultural fabric in this state. Our diversity is our greatest strength, and it is crucial that we protect it to make sure every single community can live safely and securely in Victoria. We must protect every Victorian’s right to practise their religion, beliefs, traditions and festivals freely and without fear. Last Friday night, though, members of our Jewish community in Caulfield did not feel safe to practise their religion.

Friday night marks the beginning of Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest, a holy and sacred day celebrated by Jewish people around the world every week for millennia. I have joined Jewish friends of mine for Shabbat dinner, and I know how joyous it is. But last Friday there was no joy for the Central Shule community in Caulfield South. Their service was cancelled and evacuated due to a protest that should not have ever happened in that place and at that time. For any religious prayer service to be cancelled because it is not safe to go ahead is wrong. It would be wrong if it was a service for the Islamic, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist communities. In Caulfield, where around one in four residents are Jewish, it is obvious that we should not be seeing protests descend on a park outside a synagogue. We saw clashes and fights, spitting and arrests made. This is not what a Friday night should look like anywhere in our state or our nation, let alone in the heart of our Jewish community at the start of Shabbat.

The conflict in the Middle East is causing serious anxiety and distress for our Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Jewish and Islamic communities. My deepest thoughts are with them at this time. What we do not want to see is that anxiety being compounded by the conflict abroad turning into conflict here at home, and the member for Bentleigh spoke of that previously. In these challenging times we must stand together against attempts to sow the seeds of hate and division in our communities and make sure that our state remains a place where everyone can live harmoniously side by side in peace.

I want to acknowledge that there has been a lot of bipartisan work with the member for Caulfield on this issue, because there should be no partisan divide when it comes to keeping our community safe. Of course our government has provided significant funding to our Jewish community to ensure its safety, security and wellbeing. This includes funding last year of $3 million to combat antisemitism, $900,000 to help fund the Community Security Group’s vital work, $1 million towards a Jewish community safety infrastructure program and more. We have also strengthened legislation to outlaw Nazi hate symbols and salutes, and as the member for Albert Park noted, we are working towards big improvements to the Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 to make it easier to prosecute any individual who incites hatred or bigotry based on someone’s religion, race or ethnicity.

I want to take this opportunity to back in the Premier’s calls, as the member for Albert Park did, requesting that all Victorians show love, care and support for one another in these difficult times. It is important to also emphasise how Victorians all have the right to come together and support one another and the right to peaceful protest, but this must not be at the expense of the safety and wellbeing of others. I want to be very clear that the Allan Labor government is not in the business of preventing peaceful protest. There have been almost 90 community rallies involving police presence in recent weeks, and most of them have been completely peaceful. Victoria Police are engaging closely with Victorian Jewish and Islamic community leaders as well as organisers of last Friday’s protest to make sure that they can plan an appropriate response to uphold community safety.

I want to take this moment to thank the Chief Commissioner of Police Shane Patton for all that he is doing to lead this work. He is backed by a strong workforce, with more than $4.5 billion invested in Victoria Police since 2014. We are delivering more than 500 new police officers and 50 protective services officers, which builds on the more than 3000 additional police already on our streets. I remember back in early 2014 when those opposite introduced changes which had the effect of potentially restricting legitimate protests in this state. The once great Liberal Party, the party of Menzies over there, attempted to restrict the rights of everyday Victorians. The coalition’s move-on powers did not apply solely to violent or unlawful protests. Their move-on laws meant the police and PSOs could move on any protests of any kind. Victoria Police do a fantastic job under difficult circumstances every single day to keep us safe, and we give our thanks to them for that. It is vital that police have appropriate power to do their jobs effectively, but these laws simply went too far. They were too heavy-handed. They interfered with the rights of working people to assemble. This side of the chamber will always support the right for Victorians to peacefully protest, and it is frankly disgraceful that today those opposite are shamefully exploiting the Israel–Gaza conflict as an opportunity for political point-scoring.

Our government understand that move-on powers are an important tool of Victoria Police, but we also know that it is really important that these powers strike the right balance. Police can currently tell a person to move on from a public place if they reasonably believe that a person is breaching the peace or likely to do so, putting another person in danger or likely to do so, likely to injure someone or damage property or likely to be a risk to public safety. Police may tell an individual to stay away from the public place for up to 24 hours, and if that individual does not move on or stay away, police can give them an on-the-spot fine or arrest them. In other words, the police have move-on powers, appropriately, where there is a risk to safety or violence.

I want to close my remarks by reiterating that this government is completely committed to protecting our multicultural and multi-faith communities from harm and distress in these difficult times. Our diversity is at the very heart of the Victorian success story. We will always stand up for the harmony that is so precious to our state. We do not want to see what happened last Friday night in Caulfield ever happen again. While conflict rages abroad, we must not let it divide us at home. We know that our community is at its strongest when we support each other, and every Victorian must have the right to practice their faith and celebrate their culture without fear.