Alex Demetriadi: Australia’s peak imam body has urged the NSW opposition to withhold cross-party support for Premier Chris Minns’s plans that the government says will strengthen and “streamline” laws against religion-based violence and incitement given a rise of anti-Semitism since October 7.
However, the group have said they are not alone in sharing “concerns” that the proposals were being “rushed”.
On Monday, NSW Liberal leader Mark Speakman and his shadow front bench met with multi-religion group Faith NSW, where the main point of discussion between Mr Speakman’s team and faith leaders was the government’s proposed amendments to section 93Z of the state crimes act, which would “streamline” the process by dropping the need for police to seek Director of Public Prosecutions approval before tabling charges.
The section outlaws threats or incitements of violence, made publicly, based on race or religion, but there has been no successful conviction under the act.
The proposals followed The Australian’s coverage of southwest Sydney clerics posting hate-fuelled sermons online, of which NSW Police continue to investigate, and legal commentary on the high threshold inherent in the existing laws.
At that meeting, Australian National Imams Council spokesman Bilal Rauf raised concerns and the body’s opposition to the proposed amendments.
Mr Rauf called directly on Mr Speakman to withhold cross-party support to the amendments when they pass through parliament.
One source present at the meeting said Mr Rauf “appealed to the (Liberal) leader” to not support the Minns legislation.
That source alleged Mr Rauf said “leave it (decision making) with the DPP”, before another voice in the meeting – not Mr Rauf’s – aired their own concerns with “a sergeant having those powers”.
Mr Speakman’s response was, this publication understands, “dead bat”.
The Australian understands ANIC’s spokesman was the only faith leader to raise concerns. High-profile imam Shadi Alsuleiman is ANIC’s president and has joined the board of an advisory faith council to the Minns government.
However, speaking to The Australian, Mr Bilal refuted ANIC was alone in having concerns and disputed that it wanted to water-down legislation, instead saying he relayed to Mr Speakman that the amendments were being “rushed”.
“There’s an acceptance 93Z has to be looked at, but carefully done and not rushed,” he said.
ANIC’s spokesman said the removal of the DPP would “not address” the issue or have the “intended benefit”, as it wouldn’t fix the high threshold of the section, and could create problems seen with Covid-related laws.
“If all you’re doing is removing the DPP, suddenly various other people are making inconsistent decisions,” he said.
“That could create anxiety, with different people applying the law differently. If it’s not applied properly, down the track it creates uncertainty.”
The Australian revealed in early November how the Minns government was seriously considering amending the laws and tabled legislation last week that would drop the requirement for police to seek DPP approval, in a bid to quicken the process.
The amendments are set to be debated in state parliament on Tuesday.
NSW Attorney-General Michael Daly told parliament last week, when announcing the proposals, the section was “not fit for modern society”, given the events seen domestically since October 7.
“Some of the alleged behaviour we’ve seen on Sydney streets has caused us within government to look at this provision and come to the conclusion it could be better improved,” he said.
It comes as influential Sydney-based Lebanese Muslim Association said on Tuesday it was “deeply concerned” that the proposals were being “rushed”.
“We can only conclude that this is a knee-jerk reaction to pressures being applied from others, and the NSW government is meant to represent all,” a statement read.
“While we acknowledge there has not been a single successful prosecution under section 93Z, we have absolutely no reason to believe the amendment will fix this problem.”
NSW Civil Liberties Council president Lydia Shelly said her organisation had “concerns” the legislation would be “rushed through parliament without scrutiny”.
It is understood the first meeting of the government’s Faith Affairs Council is set for tomorrow, where the changes to section 93Z would also likely be brought up by faith leaders.