Monday, December 18, 2006

Tamworth & Refugees - broader lessons

The refusal by Tamworth City Council to accept five Sudanese refugee families under a Commonwealth Government program has received world wide coverage.

I dealt with this issue in an initial way in a post on my New England, Australia blog. Since then, I have had a chance to dig further.


On 11 December 2006 under the heading "Report recommends refugee go-ahead", The Northern Daily Leader provided details on the proposal.

In April 2006, the Department of Immigration approached Tamworth Regional Council with a proposal to establish a humanitarian refugee resettlement centre in Tamworth. Similar programs had already been successful in Coffs Harbour, Inverell and Armidale.

One of the key criteria for the proposal to progress was that "the community [of Tamworth] is aware and is welcoming of the resettled refugees".

Following an extended consultation process, representatives from a broad spectrum of community-based groups discussed the proposal in November. DIMA, Anglicare, Hunter New England Health, Community Settlement Services Scheme, TAFE, Centrelink, Department of Community Services, police, Tamworth Real Estate Agents Association and the North West Slopes Division of General Practice were all supportive of the proposal for five families to arrive next year.

Council staff then prepared a report recommending that Council seek agreement from the NSW Government for Tamworth become a humanitarian refugee resettlement centre, accepting a maximum of five families in the first year.

This report was considered by Council at its meeting on the evening of 11 December, with the Northern Daily Leader reporting on the meeting next day.

Council rejected the proposal by a 6 to 3 majority, with those voting against all saying that public opinion demonstrated Tamworth was not ready to host a refugee resettlement centre handling five families in its first year. There were also a number of specific criticisms of both the consultation process and the report.

While the staff report to Council had concluded that the community was broadly supportive, the majority of submissions from the public during the consultation process had been negative, while those attending the public gallery during the discussion were split for and against.

Five speakers in total made a case on the issue from the public gallery during the meeting.

Those in favour of the recommendation spoke of the success of current refugees living in the city, of a quiet but willing network of volunteers and support people, and of Christian and religious values. Those in opposition spoke of a lack of services, and demanded council acknowledge an earlier voluntary survey which returned a 393 to 99 response against the resettlement plans.

Prior to the meeting, Council general manager Glenn Inglis had described his staff's report and the recommendations as fair and balanced. Mr Inglis said the voluntary survey was not a "fair representation" of community views, adding "Unfortunately, in Australia, we only ever seem to hear the opposers the loudest."

Reactions from the public gallery to Council's decision to reject the report covered applause from those opposed, disgust from those supporting.

There was instant community reaction to the decision.

On 13 November the Northern Daily Leader carried a story on responses, two pages of letters in support of the proposed centre, while talk back radio callers were strongly in favour of the proposed centre as well.. In addition, the paper carried a second story on the same day in which it set out the views of each councillor on the reasons why they voted the way they did.

It was this second story that I think really set the cat among the pigeons, ensuring subsequent national publicity. All the opposing councillors referred to public opposition to the proposal, with several commenting that they would have supported it had they felt that a majority was in favour. Councillors also referred to problems with the Department's resourcing of the program when dealing, in Mayor Treloar's words, with severely traumatised individuals.

Fair enough perhaps, but the unfortunate and insensitive use of words guaranteed future trouble.

Councilor Treloar:
  • "I absolutely believe the right decision was made and that this is the honest response the community was seeking. This is the natural reaction to such a plan, after current events. Ask the community in Cronulla, 12 months on if they want more refugees."
  • "Maybe we will be labelled racist, but only for the two days the media harp on about it. Quite frankly its tomorrow's fish and chip wrapping. It should be noted that all the people I've spoken to today have said thank you for the decision we made."

Councilor Tongue, someone who would have voted in favour if he thought that the proposal had majority support:

  • "The decision by council is much bigger than just branding us or the community racist and won't change the status of this town or our friendliness to all visitors. I personally don't want to see the events that are occurring in Sydney happen here, such as the racial slurs, and particularly those against Australian women. "

On 14 December the Leader reported on a possible rescission motion, noting also that the churches were organising a petition. However, Mayor Treloar was digging in, arguing that any rescission motion would likely fail as the voting positions did not appear to have changed. He also argued that the opponents of the project were a silent majority: "What you are seeing is a reaction from a vocal group of people with strong beliefs that others, who are less vocal about it, don't share."

On Friday 15 December, the Leader reported that "if Tamworth Regional Council was unsure of public opinion regarding the rejection of the refugee resettlement proposal on Tuesday it got some answers loud and clear," with city hall deluged with phone calls and emails, the paper with letters, with the letters running 3 to one against the Council decision.

That same day, the Leader carried a story reporting on condemnation of the decision by local community and political leaders, together with a further report on attitudes among the councilors.

On Friday as well, the story finally broke nationally creating something of a media frenzy over the weekend. On Sunday 17 December the Leader reported that Councilor Treloar was maintaining his position in the face of calls for his resignation. And that is where things stand for the moment.


Tamworth's problems seem to have begun with the community consultation process. That process, while clearly flawed, appears to have revealed concerns among at least some in the Tamworth community.

I do not have access to the submissions received , but based on the media reports the community concerns appear to be a mirror image of media reporting especially on Cronulla. Here the media presented the riots not as a rare incident reflecting specific local issues, but through a prism set by race and religion. The Tamworth community - or at least those concerned enough to respond - said we do not want a Cronulla in Tamworth.

This view is just plain silly in that five families hardly constitutes a mass invasion. However, my point is that the mind set that people used to interpret the proposal was created by previous media reporting.

The matter then came to Council for decision. Again I do not have full details of Council discussions, but it is clear that from the media reports that there was at least a lack of sensitivity about the media implications of the decision.

I think that this was due at least in part to the big fish, small pool syndrome. Tamworth itself is a small pool by national standards, but the Council itself is a very big fish in that small pool and has the behavioural characteristics of one including a certain lack of sensitivity to external non-Tamworth issues. Mind you, this is not unique to Tamworth Council. Just look at the way our state or Federal Governments sometime behave.

The Leader coverage makes it absolutely clear that the Tamworth community, while divided, was already moving to address the issue in the days following the Council decision as the previously silent supporters mobilised. The coverage also makes it clear that other nearby centres already had resettlement programs in operation.

In these circumstances, the lagged reaction of the national media and the subsequent feeding frenzy was unfortunate. Again, and as with Cronulla, the decision was presented through a racial prism ignoring other issues. Now Council set itself up here through its own lack of sensitivity. But I could not help noticing the irony of the media reporting on an outcome that they they themselves had helped to create through previous reporting.

As happened in the Cronulla case, the nature of local Australian reporting ensured that the issue quickly went international. Again as happened with Cronulla, this ensured maximum damage to Australia as the media prism used by our media in reporting was then reinterpreted to fit various overseas media prisms.

So we began with a mix of local Tamworth views, some which undoubtedly had racial overtones. After all, Tamworth is no different from any other Australian community. We then had a Council decision typed by the Australian media as racist, leading to the unfair attachment of the racist tag to the whole Tamworth community. In turn, this provided further evidence internationally that Australians are racist. In all, a mess.

I feel strongly about this one because it has happened in my own backyard. The controversy is unfair to Tamworth while also nullifying all the refugee work done elsewhere in New England.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for doing us all such a service. I hope lots of people read this.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thanks you for this, Neil, and for the direct plug on your blog.

When I wrote the first comment on this on the New England Australia blog I had intended to leave it at that. Then I thought that I should check my facts further.

This became a very time consuming exercise, one I had not built into my daily plans,but also one that I became very glad that I had done. Not sure about the English there.

With something like this it is very important to check the facts, to try to understand what has happened and why. When, as happened in this case, the real story gets submerged in a single issue message we all suffer.

Part of the real story is the way so many country communities have welcomed refugees. Here I was grateful that you included the link to Rural Australians for Refugees. That is an unsung story in its own right.

But part of the real story is also the way in which the Tamworth community has tried and is trying to work its way through the issues. I think that it is important that this be recognised so that Tamworth as a whole is not typed by the lack of sensitivity of a few.

Lexcen said...

Jim, I found this post interesting not only because it highlighted the "storm in a teacup" issue, but also because it struck a nerve with me. I have a passionate dislike and contempt for local councils. I think their existence is unnecessary. I think they create more regulations than are necessary. I think they are extremely arrogant and insensitive to the communities that they serve. Councils are a joke when it comes to regulations that are inconsistent across council borders. The issue you raise about the council vetting the five refugee families, is just another example of councils sticking their noses into matters that don't concern them. Having dealt with my city council on a number of matters, having disputes with them that have dragged on, and having finally beaten them into submission, I can say that they are arrogant, they are incompetent, they lie, they ignore common sense, they are extremely insensitive to people's needs, they duplicate laws regarding local traffic that is the responsibility of the Road Traffic Authority. They spent money on PC causes that are unnecessary ie Counselling prostitutes that work in the area. An area which comes under state government responsibility. I just cannot emphasize enough how superfluous local councils are.

Jim Belshaw said...

Lexcen, I can understand and sympathise with your reactions to many councils. I do think that country councils are a little different.

City councils are more amorphous and remote, less linked to their areas, less subject to public scrutiny.

If we take the Tamworth case, everybody knows who the councilors are. Council activities are directly exposed to one daily newspaper, two TV station daily news (Prime and NBN) plus local radio news (ABC plus commercial). Council activities are news in a way that does not happen in the city.

Local community responses are also easier to organise.

One effect - not universally true, mind you - is that councils and councilors are less likely to go haring off on private agendas not relevant to their areas.