Sewerage, traffic, roads. These are the constant reasons residents use in any dispute regarding the building of any kind of infrastructure related to the Islamic community. Whether it’s Camden in 2008 or Penrith in 2014, that’s what is used. This is why the story of the veiled racism of sewerage and traffic concerns needs to be told wherever it occurs.
So it came to pass that last night, Monday, November 24, a meeting was conducted by Penrith Council to decide whether to pass a Development Application (DA) for a community centre for the Muhammedi Association. (Disclosure here – I was present at the meeting as a member of the Greens as well as a supporter of the association’s desire to have the community centre built). It was a fairly revealing meeting, which has been catalogued in my Storify of the tweets I made at the meeting.
The DA was placed ostensibly for a Community Centre for social gatherings, birthdays, that kind of thing. It is also proposed to be somewhere that could be used for prayer when the situation requires it. It is for this reason that the DA needed to deem “place of worship”. This is a key phrase. As was pointed out continuously by the association at the council meeting, it is proposed to be a community centre where food is served – which means it cannot be a Mosque. The other point to make at this point is that the Muhammadi Association is registered in Granville, but its members live across greater western Sydney, in places like Campbelltown, Blacktown and Penrith.
On the other side of the argument was Penrith Councillor and Blue Mountains resident, Marcus Cornish. Cornish ran, like all other Penrith Liberals, in the 2012 Council election as an “Independent”, though in Cornish’s case, he ran as a “Conservative” and featured “No Mosques for Penrith” as a core part of his campaign. He’s been a fairly controversial character in and around Penrith politics (for one, he’s close to former Liberal member and now independent Jackie Kelly). For this meeting, Cornish had whipped up community outrage about the building of what he continually called a Mosque.
Before the meeting even started, there was a fair amount of tension and anger outside the council, with a group of locals standing with a variety of signs opposing Mosques, including my personal favourite – “Bikini’s or Burqas – You Choose”.
One of these people was making comments such as “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam”. There was also a man walking around with a flagcape continually declaring that he wasn’t a racist. There was also a group of local anarchists who didn’t mind a shout either, and between these groups, there were a couple of minor scuffles that were easily quelled by the considerable number of police present.
[It was good that there was a decent police presence this time around. In a previous extraordinary council meeting two weeks earlier, supporters of the DA had to be escorted to their cars by the smaller number of police present, dodging kicks being thrown by the opponents.]
The police were helpful later, as it was decided that each side’s leader would make sure 5 members of each “side” were let in at a time. This didn’t stop some of the opponents of the DA trying to sneak in as supporters of the DA – though it was fairly obvious who the opponents were, based on cultural background and age – most opponents were over the age of 60.
Then it came time for the meeting. The supporters of the DA represented three different views, so we first heard about how the hall was to be used from Dr. Atiya Zaidi. Blue Mountains resident Cornish’s first question to her was where she lived. When she answered Campbelltown, this was replied with anger and hollering from the opponents. It seemed that, according to Cornish’s logic, that no-one from outside Penrith should be allowed to go to things built in Penrith.
The second speaker, Ian Rufus, town planner spoke of how the building passed all of council’s checks and regulations in regards traffic, sewerage and the like. This didn’t stop the likes of Cornish ask Rufus how many from the Penrith LGA would be using the facility. It also didn’t stop independent Councillor Kevin Crameri ask about sewerage. He used the knowledge of his own sewerage arrangements on his property as a way to question the ability of the sewerage system to cope with the demands of the community centre. Rufus answered that the sewerage system had been taken into account, as council officers repeated later in the meeting.
Indeed, Councillor Crameri continually asked about sewerage throughout the night and stated that was why he would vote against the proposal, leading to this tweet of mine:
The last supporter to speak was Abbas Alvi, who has been one of the chief proponents of the centre. He spoke of being made to feel welcome in the community and how the association just wanted to build somewhere for people to come. He spoke of emotion and passion for the country into which he migrated from India in 1989. When this emotion was clear in his voice, the hollering and hoots from the opponents of the centre were loud and particularly offensive.
Alvi ended his speech with an open invitation for anyone in the community to visit the new centre when it opened – it wasn’t going to be just for Muslims. This last comment seemed to confuse Cnr. Crameri, who later asked just how many people would be driving to this place, now that “Hindus and whatever could go”. I was left wondering whether the fact that Alvi was an Indian Muslim confused Crameri.
Cornish’s question was how many people who would go to this centre would be from Granville and “how many of your supporters here tonight are from Granville”. Variations on a theme. What wasn’t a variation was the threatening finger pointed by Cornish at Alvi as he went back to the audience.
The opponents of the DA were varied – May Spencer, of Malaysian Chinese heritage, spoke of how this centre was the foundation of a “super Mosque” to be built in the area. She also talked of rapes, murders in relation to Lakemba and Bankstown and the coming of Sharia Law to Penrith. She related her own experience of Malaysia to talk of Islamic suppression. Rick Putra, former One Nation candidate for the seat of Mulgoa opposed any building of “mosques” (even though this wasn’t a Mosque) and questioned traffic, sewerage and the like. Local resident Peter Maltese opposed the fact that more cars would be driving past his property. He also cited that the weren’t many Muslims in the community and how they shouldn’t be allowed to have another community centre in his town. As he said at the end:
The meeting then went to the motion at hand. It was at this point Cornish went into full righteous outrage, claiming that the Mayor, fellow Liberal (but moderate) Ross Fowler, was impinging his right to speak and democracy whenever Fowler called a point of order or held particular votes. Each time Cornish would accuse Fowler of whatever, the crowd was whipped into loud cries and threats thrown Fowler’s way, such “you’re finished” and the like.
The highlight of this exchange was when Cornish stood, hands on hips, staring at Fowler, daring him to act in a way that would make the crowd go into hysterics. Fowler, a mild mannered man generally, stood up and mirrored the gesture in one of the strangest Dirty Harry moments seen in a Penrith Council meeting.
Cornish, when “allowed to speak”, went onto discussions of Mosques and Muslims not assimilating – to this end, he spoke of the Muslim girlfriend of his son, who, aside from hopefully marrying into the family one day, “lives like us” and said that such people should live “the way we want”. His other point was that such a centre would be the start of a massive influx of residents from Lakemba and Granville, which was “what not the local people want”. This was cheered loudly. It was at this point I was heard to shout “you live in the Blue Mountains, Cornish!”
The other opponents on council to speak against the DA was the former Mayor, Liberal Mark Davies (and also husband of the Member for Mulgoa, Tanya Davies), who stated that the community concerns needed to be considered, “whether this is a mosque, community hall, prayer hall, whatever”. Davies appeared to not have listened to every single person who stated clearly that it wasn’t a mosque. Another opponent was the councillor voted as an Australia First member, Maurice Girotto, who left the party some time ago. (As an aside, before the meeting, the leader of Australia First, Jim Saleam, could be seen outside, barking weird accusations about the Greens through a tiny green megaphone). Girotto opposed the DA on the basis of “community concern” and “lack of community consultation” as well, even though the residents near the proposed DA were sent 4 letters about the application. Crameri opposed it because of sewerage.
Another tactic attempted by the opponents was the delay the DA again until they got “the right information” as stated by Crameri (about sewerage in his case). This was loudly acclaimed and supported by opponents in the crowd, especially when it was suggested that the whole Penrith LGA be consulted about the DA. Cornish was suggesting a several month delay well past Christmas “while we still have Christmas” (a comment which got his supporters laughing). This delaying tactic was squashed by people like Labor’s John Thain, who said that the entire community has never been consulted about a DA and Labor’s Greg Davies, who cited the possibility that council could spend another $300,000 commissioning reports and the centre would still pass, because as council’s officers repeatedly stated, there was nothing wrong with the DA on planning grounds.
In the end, it was supported by the majority of council. Of the supporters, most of them were fairly quiet throughout. Councillor Michelle Tormey of the Greens was the most active supporter, asking questions of each of the speakers – even gaining an admission from Putra that, if there was another review, he would support the DA “depending on compromises”. When Tormey stated why she would be supporting the motion, she stated that bigotry wasn’t welcome in Penrith. As can be expected, she wasn’t popular amongst the opponents, who interjected loudly throughout, including for the 30 year old councillor to “go back to school”.
The vote went as follows:
Davies, Car, Thain, McKeon, Greg Davies (ALP)
Hitchen, Bratusa, Fowler (Liberal)
Cornish, Mark Davies (Liberal)
Crameri, Girotto (Independent)
And with that, the supporters of the DA cheered. I shook a lot of hands of the members of the community who were there, probably to the disgust of the assembled Anglo Celtic opposition. Some probably see me as some kind of traitor. But that’s a label I can wear quite happily when applied by such people.
Most of all, however, the main lesson learnt – again – was that if such DAs are watertight in terms of the physical structure and amenity, councils such as Penrith will support them. What was also clear is that there’s a wide schism between the two main factions of the Penrith Liberals – the so called “Group” and “Taliban” (ironic that Cornish is seen as a member of this faction).
Into this pea soup of rancour and scorn will step the new Independent candidate for the seat of Penrith, Jackie Kelly, who is no fan of the Mayor and his faction. So that will be interesting. Meanwhile, the Muhammadi Association can now build their community centre. And I, along with the rational members of the Nepean region, will be happily attending the grand opening.