Police union calls for ban on neo-Nazi marches after ‘hateful’ rally in Ballarat

<span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Victoria’s police union says neo-Nazi demonstrations should be banned after a group of masked men chanting “Australia is for the white man” marched through the streets of Ballarat over the weekend.

Social media footage shows a group of men, dressed in black and wearing balaclavas, holding a banner reading “Australia for the white man” and chanting “hail victory” on Sunday.

On Monday the premier, Jacinta Allan, said the government condemned the “hateful” behaviour.

Wayne Gatt, secretary of the state’s police association, told the Nine network that officers were limited in what they could do about such rallies under existing state laws.

Related: Victoria to ban public display of Nazi salute by end of the week

“If it were up to us, it would be illegal, you wouldn’t be able to do it. But it’s not,” he told the Today program. “It’s up to governments to determine if they want this happening.”

Gatt said police would only act when behaviour was illegal.

In October, legislation came into effect banning the intentional displaying of Nazi gestures or symbols in public, such as the Hakenkreuz symbol and the Nazi salute. The legislation was sparked by neo-Nazis performing the salute on the steps of Victorian parliament earlier this year.

Those in breach of the law face fines of more than $23,000 or up to a year in prison.

Footage does not show protesters displaying the Nazi swastika, also known as the Hakenkreuz, or performing the salute on Sunday.

Josh Roose, an extremism expert and associate professor at Deakin university, said the group was exploiting gaps in the state’s legislation.

“They are effectively daring police. They know what they can and can’t get away with under current legislation,” he said.

Roose said the government could make legislative changes to prohibit people protesting while concealing their faces.

“It creates obviously an environment which can be intimidatory to the wider public and community and can also enable and empower these groups and movements to make such statements,” he said.

“If someone wants to put their hand up and protest in public, then put your face to it. That’s part of citizenship and it’s a key element of democracy.”

In Victoria, police can direct masked demonstrators and rioters to remove face coverings but only in a “designated area”, which was often used for planned protests.

Dvir Abramovich, chair of the Anti-Defamation Commission, urged the Victorian government to introduce laws that would prohibit the glorification of nazism.

“This is a fight we have to win,” he said.

Allan said such “disgraceful and cowardly acts have no place in Victoria”.

“Ballarat is one of the birthplaces of our state’s rich multiculturalism – people came to the gold fields from every corner of the world in search of a better life,” she said in a statement.

The opposition leader, John Pesutto, said the government needed to crack down on the increasing number of protests that were “talking about potential violence and hate”.

“We can’t sit quietly by and say that’s OK,” he said.

The protest was reportedly held to coincide with the anniversary of the Eureka Stockade – a clash in 1854 between goldminers and police in Ballarat – on Sunday.

The Ballarat mayor, Des Hudson, said the march did not reflect the regional city and that he believed the protesters were not part of his community.

“We are a refugee-friendly city. We absolutely embrace multiculturalism. For this type of statement to be in the main street of Ballarat was very disappointing,” he told Today.

Victoria police said they were investigating the unplanned protest and would review any vision.

“Our top priority was keeping the peace to ensure the event did not impact the safety of the broader community,” the spokesperson said.

“Everyone has the right to feel safe in our community regardless of who they are. We understand incidents of antisemitism can leave communities feeling targeted, threatened and vulnerable. Hate and prejudice has no place in our society.”

A Victorian government spokesperson said the “disgraceful and cowardly acts” had no place in the state.

The spokesperson said consultation was underway to strengthen and expand Victoria’s anti-vilification laws.

“These laws are incredibly complex – the last thing we want is for any changes to inadvertently end up working against the people we’re trying to protect,” the spokesperson said.

“They must be carefully balanced between protecting communities against hate speech and respecting people’s right to freedom of speech.”