Bendigo mosque clears first legal hurdle
The site for Bendigo’s proposed mosque looks, in the classic phrase, like a place that’s helping the police with their inquiries. A patch of clay among scrubby bush on the industrial outskirts of the city, it’s not far from a Rebels bikie hangout and a white-shrouded nursery. The bitumen in front of it is crisscrossed with black burnout strips.
These two hectares are the unlikely setting for a test of tolerance some combatants believe is headed for the High Court. It has also become a place where a wide cross-section of people are standing up for Muslims, opposing what has been a violent reaction to the mosque – possibly the ugliest racist outbreak in Australia since the Cronulla riots 10 years ago.
The local council’s original permit for the mosque was supported by the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). An attempt to temporarily stop construction has been thrown out by the Victorian Court of Appeal, although a full hearing of the Supreme Court is due next month to consider an application for leave to appeal VCAT’s decision.
On one side of the dispute is the mayor, Peter Cox, a trained mediator and conciliator, who needed police protection after he was forced to shut a riotous council meeting last month.
Wheelchair-bound councillor Rod Campbell had to leave by lift. He has the nerve disorder Guillain-Barré syndrome and a tartan rug draped his legs. “What are you hiding under your blankie?” demanded protesters.
Sri Lankan-born councillor Mark Weragoda, who when speaking at the council was met with loud Middle Eastern music played in protest, has had black balloons hung outside his home.
In a city that needs kindliness, supporters of tolerance group Believe in Bendigo also include the local Buddhist group constructing the Great Stupa of Universal Compassion and the Bendigo Chinese Association, its Kuan Yin Temple home to the Goddess of Compassion. About 2000 people used the AFL grand final holiday to support a Believe rally.
UPF and fellow opponents
Against the mosque is a group led by Julie Hoskin, who has worked in the council’s planning section and says the campaign has taken over her life and forced her to take in boarders to support her efforts.
Hoskin’s barrister, Marcel White, was rebuked by the Supreme Court for failing to raise legal points in an appeal, which he described himself as being an “alphabet soup”. He also apologised for being legally “underdressed”, saying, “I have no better excuse than the dog ate my robes.”
Hoskin broke with fellow mosque opponent Monika Evers, who wept in VCAT in July when she failed in a bid to have her name suppressed. Her website describes her as a brand specialist, and refers to work she has done for Victoria Police and the state Department of Justice.
These women were originally linked with councillor Elise Chapman, who earned a measure of notoriety by tweeting a gruesome picture of genitally mutilated babies to a woman who supported the mosque, adding the comment, “Oh we could have this here too? Would you like your fanny sliced off?”
Another councillor, Helen Leach, says a Muslim told her the $3 million two-storey mosque was larger than locals wanted.
Also in the fray are the extreme flag-wavers of the United Patriots Front (UPF), a Melbourne group that split from right-wing organisation Reclaim Australia, and whose website states as one of their aims: to “provoke a violent response from the far Left…” One member, Neil Erikson, 29, was among those on the UPF’s hired minibus to Bendigo in August for protests against the mosque. He was given a community correction order for making threatening and abusive phone calls to a Melbourne rabbi and was ordered to undergo psychological assessment.
A UPF leader’s online diary of his sojourn in Bendigo notes meeting at the home of a woman “with a determined and slightly insane personality”.
In Bendigo the UPF had to be separated by police from members of the Socialist Alliance, who also made the trip from Melbourne. To spruik another rally planned for this Saturday, October 10, members of the UPF staged a mock beheading, squirting fake blood on the council offices. Flyers for an anti-racism rally to be held two hours before the UPF’s gathering have appeared across central Victoria.
Tensions over the mosque burst into the open on Saturday, August 29, when about 400 protesters led by the minibus-load of UPF members from Melbourne tried to storm Bendigo Town Hall, closed at the time. Confronting them were 250 people under anti-racism banners, and 350 police. Pepper spray burnt eyes as officers struggled to separate the brawling groups.
Inside Town Hall two-and-a-half weeks later a public meeting was conducted during which a decision was being sought on havens for refugees. Soon, however, the councillors themselves needed protection. Scarcely had the meeting’s opening prayer and acknowledgement of country finished than the air was full of the sound of chanting, fists thumping timber, and cries of “Traitor!”
Cox had initiated a question time, but it was lost in the uproar of about 100 protesters from the floor, many draped with cards bearing postcodes to show they were locals, shouting and swearing and edging towards violence.
Reporters on the scene were abused. One senior journalist reported asking police to look after a young colleague from a rival paper. A motion of no confidence in Cox was proposed. “You’ve told a lot of lies, and now you can piss off,” said the mover, to applause, handing up 300 names on a petition. As the tumult grew Cox adjourned the meeting. It had lasted 42 minutes. Soon police asked everyone to leave and escorted Cox from the building.
Nine days later, 67-year-old Cox sits in his office, still distressed. “When respect breaks down and you have 100 people yelling at the top of their voices, no one could be heard, least of all the demonstrators,” he says. “I never, never thought it would happen here.”
His previous experiences as a councillor in Melbourne’s middle-class suburb of Hawthorn did not prepare him for a confrontation with taunting cries that the mosque would lead to sharia law.
Mosques or prayer areas in Victorian country towns such as Ararat, Horsham, Ballarat and Shepparton have not been targeted, he says. However, an extremist website shows a plan to move on Albury and Orange in New South Wales after Bendigo has been dealt with.
Cox is convinced the opposition is driven from outside Bendigo. Security will be in place at the next council meeting on Wednesday. On police advice, the public will not be allowed into the council chamber. Instead, proceedings will be seen on a video screen downstairs in the building’s main hall.
The seeds of violence, Cox says, are the year’s delay in getting a VCAT hearing and the council’s failure to communicate with the community.
The Court of Appeal’s decision cheered Bendigo’s estimated 300 Muslims, including those at local Eid al-Adha celebrations. Their local connection is reflected in the story that another Muslim celebration, also in a Bendigo park, was called off more than 100 years ago when news arrived of the death of Queen Victoria. Despite an apparent absence of veils on the streets, Bendigo is home to mixed cultures, including 400 Karen people, originally from Myanmar.
Venezuelan-born Noemi Cummings runs migrant support group Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services. She was booed and shouted down at the aborted council meeting, when she began talking about refugees and Bendigo being a welcoming place. “Who’s paying you?” protesters yelled.
Cummings says a young Muslim woman was afraid to be in public in Bendigo wearing her hijab. Cummings resolved this by having the woman even more visible by giving her a job as a receptionist.
All of this leads to the question of whether Bendigo’s violence and division can end. To local newspaper editor Peter Kennedy the council simply did what the law required of it in approving the mosque. But now, he says, a public meeting is needed to explain what is happening. “The Islamic community should feel comfortable that there is support – dogged and persistent support – that this will be done.”
Thirty-eight kilometres away in Castlemaine, a flyer touts the next protest. Hands have ripped most of it away.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 10, 2015 as "Mosque heat goes". Subscribe here.