Bendigo reacts to council shutdown | ROLLING COVERAGE

LAST NIGHT: Bendigo council meeting shut down | Video, photos

PERISCOPE: Rewatch the live feed from today’s press conference below

7.30pm: Chapman and Leach respond to Thursday morning press conference

Councillors Elise Chapman and Helen Leach say they are disappointed not to have been included in a press conference in which the rest of the city’s councillors addressed protests which shut down Wednesday’s council meeting.

Cr Chapman said she would have attended the conference on Thursday morning had she been invited.

“I was in the same building, in fact I was in the room next door studying my Diploma of Local Government, other councillors were also there,” she said.

“I wasn't even informed that a press conference was being held.”

Cr Leach said she would also have attended the media update had she been aware it was occurring, saying she had not enjoyed Wednesday night's interruption to council proceedings.

"I feel a bit left out now," she said on learning the conference had taken place.

"I had hoped to have some business done last night."

Cr Leach said she did not know why she had not been asked to attend.

"I have no idea because I had nothing to do with the protests, of course maybe they’re annoyed with us because we were cheered," she said.

"The only reason we were cheered is because we originally voted against the mosque, and we originally voted against the mosque application on planning grounds, purely on planning grounds, and I would still vote against it on planning grounds."

Cr Chapman said while she did not condone everything that happened at the meeting she was overwhelmed and surprised by the level of support she received.

Mayor Peter Cox defended his decision not to invite councillors Chapman and Leach, saying they did not agree with the city’s formal position on the proposed mosque.

"I didn’t invite Helen and Elise basically because they didn’t support the mosque application,” he said.

"If we’ve got the national media focusing on Bendigo my primary concern is that we deal with the position of council and I felt that I was able to do that with the support of six of the councillors who support the position.”

5.45pm: Minister weighs in to safeguard city’s governance

Local Government Minister Natalie Hutchins held talks with City of Greater Bendigo mayor Peter Cox and chief executive officer Craig Niemann today to help safeguard the continued governance of the city.

“We’ve been on the phone this morning with the mayor and the CEO just asking what they think they need to ensure they can continue with the council’s business uninterrupted,” she said.

“They’re coming back to us with a range of options and we’re also seeking departmental advice around what we can do to further support the council so they can go forward in getting their work done.”

Ms Hutchins described the disruption to last night’s council meeting as “shocking” and “based on racism”.

“The work of the local council in representing their local community should not be disrupted by the actions of a few in a minority and I’m concerned that the actions of that minority group are based on racism and that’s not how we operate in Victoria,” she said.

“We’re a proudly multicultural state and we enjoy, both sides of the house, protecting and strengthening multiculturalism so I’m particularly disappointed that the council meeting had to be ended and that the democratic process was thrown off the rails.”

The comments came as the Victorian parliament debated a bill which would impose stronger councillor conduct standards.

"What that (bill) is looking at doing is ensuring that inappropriate behaviour and the breach of the council's code of conduct does not affect the working of a good council," Ms Hutchins said.

"We want to make sure all councillors understand there is as standard of behaviour and if they step outside of that and they breach that then there will be consequences."

Ms Hutchins said she had provided full support to the council throughout the controversy over the planned mosque.

"I've met with them over this issue in previous months and I’ve heard the unique situation they’re facing and part of that is reflected in the legislation we’ve got in the house today being debated,” she said.

“I think I’ve certainly demonstrated my support for both the mayor and the CEO at the council.”

5.10pm: Bendigo business leader says ‘hateful vitriol’ bad for economy

'It is imperative the broader community understand how welcoming and accepting a community Bendigo is,' Bendigo Business Council ceo Leah Sertori said.

'It is imperative the broader community understand how welcoming and accepting a community Bendigo is,' Bendigo Business Council ceo Leah Sertori said.

Bendigo’s business leaders have joined the chorus of voices condemning the events of last night’s council meeting, describing it as “hateful vitriol” which was both unwelcome and bad for business.

The message from ‎Bendigo Business Council chief executive officer Leah Sertori today was simple: “enough is enough”.

“The behaviour of those opposing the Mosque is now damaging not only Bendigo’s reputation but our businesses,” she said.

“BBC supports the mosque development, just as we support the development of the [buddhist] Great Stupa of Universal Compassion and the Aspire Foundation’s plans for a multi-faith centre at the front of Sacred Heart Cathedral.

“The BBC l wants Bendigo to be the regional business capital of Australia, a vibrant and prosperous place to live and do business.

“BBC is disgusted at the behaviour of a small number of people whose ill- perceived anti-Islam campaign has highlighted Bendigo for all the wrong reasons and last night went a step too far in closing down the work of our city council.

“BBC supports Bendigo as a welcoming community and sees the building of a Mosque in our city as an important step in the development of Bendigo.”

Ms Sertori said while BBC welcomed “considered and reasoned debate” on local government issues, the scenes at last night’s council meeting demonstrated that this has gone far beyond a reasonable discussion.

“The recent rally hosted in Bendigo was disruptive for traders and highly damaging for Bendigo’s reputation on a national stage,” she said.

“We have a world class regional hospital near completion, expanding tertiary sector and thriving business community.

“It is imperative the broader community understand how welcoming and accepting a community Bendigo is.”

4.45pm: Bendigo’s Muslim community responds to council meeting drama

Bendigo Muslim community spokesman Heri Febriyanto has expressed concern over the aggressive behaviour of protesters “interfering in the democratic process of the council”.

“Any peace loving person in the city would condemn (Wednesday) night’s incident at Bendigo council,” he said in a statement.

“We fully support the mayor and the council and condemn such aggressive behaviour, which gives Bendigo a bad image not only in Australia but worldwide.”

Mr Febriyanto said he was concerned the spread of misinformation and hate was leading more people to oppose the mosque in Bendigo.

“We feel we have majority support and incidents like this pose a threat because Bendigo is such beautiful place,” he said.

“Such incidents give a false image of the city of Bendigo as being racist.”

Mr Febriyanto said opponents to the mosque were using the issue to further their own political agenda.

“At the end of the day we are Australian Muslims of Bendigo and we would like to live in peace, respect and harmony with others in the wider Bendigo community,” he said.

“I believe it can happen in Bendigo.”

4.25pm: Councillor ‘blown away’ by hate as council meeting closed down

Councillor Lisa Ruffell said she would be discussing steps to prevent last night's events from ever repeating.

Councillor Lisa Ruffell said she would be discussing steps to prevent last night's events from ever repeating.

A Bendigo councillor said she was blown away by the hate of anti-Islamic protesters who last night stormed council chambers and put an end to a public meeting in protest to the construction of a mosque.

“In today's society, to see people's hate for human beings... that just blows me away,” Cr Lisa Ruffell said.

“To see so much hate in them – that’s what stood out last night.

“This small group say they want to be heard, well we heard them but they carried on  yelling and ranting with absolutely no respect.

“They need to respect us if they want us to respect them.”

A councillor since 2008 and former mayor, Cr Ruffell said the city now needed to take steps to ensure the events were not repeated.

“This can’t happen again, we should not be bound to stop a meeting and we need to address a lot of issues for our community and what we will discussing now is how to continue with the business of council,” she said.

“The thing that people didn't realise last night was that you had that small noisy group, but public question time is for everybody and there was quite a few residents who really wanted to ask questions and were stopped because we had to close the meeting when they wouldn't let other voices be heard.”

Cr Ruffell said live footage from the meeting had lead to an outpouring of support from the community.

“It is coming out from it going live last night, we were getting texts of support from a lot of different people, not just community leaders but just normal, everyday residents,” she said.

“Today I walked to work and a lady came up and hugged me and said ‘we support you to stay strong’.

3.37pm: Chesters adds her voice to those condemning Wednesday night’s protests.

Federal Member for Bendigo Lisa Chesters has condemned the “aggressive and intimidating behaviour” of protesters at Wednesday night’s council meeting.

Ms Chesters said while she had been involved in her fair share of protests and freedom of speech was critical to a robust democracy, the protesters’ behaviour was unacceptable.

“The angry scenes at (Wednesday night’s) City of Greater Bendigo council meeting were not free speech or an exercise of democratic rights,” she said.

“Aggressive and intimidating behaviour, threats of violence and hate speech should be condemned and never tolerated.

“Those involved should respect and treat others how they wish to be treated themselves.”

3.24pm: Mayor defends exclusion of councillors Chapman and Leach from media conference.

City of Greater Bendigo mayor Peter Cox has defended his decision not to invite councillors Helen Leach and Elise Chapman to Thursday's media conference, saying they did not agree with the city’s formal position on the proposed mosque.

"I didn’t invite Helen and Elise basically because they didn’t support the mosque application,” he said.

"I didn’t want the national media focusing on the negative side of things and asking questions of both councillor Chapman and councillor Leach in relation to, firstly the construction of the mosque, and then secondly of the democratic process that’s taken place over the months surrounding that application.

"I had questions in relation to the mosque at the media conference and anyone could have been asked a question in relation to the mosque, I had the responsibility to present the position of the council and their views differ from what the official position is."

Cr Cox said he would have liked to have invited councillors Chapman and Leach but decided it was in the best interests of the city that he did not.

“If we’ve got the national media focusing on Bendigo my primary concern is that we deal with the position of council and I felt that I was able to do that with the support of six of the councillors who support the position,” he said.

"It was our job to present the position of the city, they don’t agree with that so it’s logical that they wouldn’t be included."

Cr Leach expressed disappointment at not being invited to the conference, saying she had not enjoyed Wednesday night's interruption to council proceedings and would have preferred to have been included.

"I feel a bit left out now," she said on learning the conference had taken place.

"I had hoped to have some business done last night."

Cr Leach said she did not know why she had not been asked to attend the media update.

"I have no idea because I had nothing to do with the protests, of course maybe they’re annoyed with us because we were cheered," she said.

"The only reason we were cheered is because we originally voted against the mosque, and we originally voted against the mosque application on planning grounds, purely on planning grounds, and I would still vote against it on planning grounds."

But Cr Cox hosed down the suggestion he had not invited councillors Leach and Chapman in reaction to the cheers of the protesters.

"It’s the official position of the council that I was more concerned about and that was what the national media conference was all about,” he said.

Cr Chapman has been contacted for comment.

2.20pm: Bendigo Community Health Services CEO Kim Sykes has labelled council protests “unacceptable”.

Bendigo Community Health Services chief executive officer Kim Sykes has responded to calls for community leaders to condemn the actions of protesters at Wednesday’s council meeting, labelling the behaviour “unacceptable”.

“Our council must be allowed to make informed decisions on important issues without being subject to such intimidatory behaviour,” she said.

“The danger with this is now anyone who doesn’t agree with something on a council agenda can turn up and yell and shout and cause mayhem – that’s not freedom of speech and it’s certainly not a democratic approach.”

Earlier Member for Bendigo East Jacinta Allan called on anyone in a leadership role in the Bendigo community to condemn the protests as an “insult to councillors who were carrying out their duty”.

Ms Sykes said the city’s potential adoption of the Safe Haven Enterprise Visa program for refugees was a debate that should be heard but had been lost in an “irresponsible showing by a minority”.

My experience of Bendigo is a kind and generous one, a Bendigo rightly proud of great achievement,” she said.

“We cannot let what happened (on Wednesday) night define us. That behaviour brings shame on our city at a national level and I have no doubt the majority of residents in this community would be appalled by that.

“Hopefully we can return to talking about making our city better as soon as possible.”

2.10pm: Anti-mosque protest could cost city more than $500,000, cancel festival: council

UNCORKED: A food and wine festival which injects hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy is 'highly likely' to be cancelled as it is held on the same day as a planned anti-mosque rally.

UNCORKED: A food and wine festival which injects hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy is 'highly likely' to be cancelled as it is held on the same day as a planned anti-mosque rally.

Bendigo’s economy could be slugged with more than half a million loss as council says it is “highly likely” the Heritage Uncorked festival will be cancelled in the face of increasingly disruptive anti-Islamic protests.

Council City Futures director Stan Liacos told the Bendigo Advertiser that an anti-mosque protest planned on the same day as the wine festival carried too great a risk for the hundreds of tourists who visit the city for Heritage Uncorked.

“Five of the notable eight or so venues that are part of that great event are right smack bang on Pall Mall and surrounds and there’s simply too much risk for us to see some 1000 people, mainly tourists, enjoying a quality food and wine event at the exact same time as potentially a major disruptive rally,” he said.

“The last thing we would want to do it to is bring so many tourist to town at a time they could potentially get caught up, through no fault of their own, right in middle of that rally.”

Police used pepper spray to subdue a crowd of when violent scuffles broke out in a similar rally and counter-rally last month which drew about 650 people.

Last night, a crowd of more than 100 anti-mosque protesters stormed council chambers and put an end to a public meeting in an incident which Mayor Peter Cox said “crossed the line” from protest to shutting down the democratic process. 

Mr Liacos said the incident escalated concerns about the Heritage Uncorked festival, which he said generally injected more than $400,000 directly into the economy through ticket sales, wine and food purchases and accommodation from tourists alone.

That figure did not include money spent by locals at the festival or its “very significant” flow-on economic benefits.

“It is a great event which showcases the great food and wine from region within and against a glorious backdrop of outstanding heritage buildings,” he said.

“We will be talking with wine growers and will confirm over the next few days... it would be so sad to see such a great event that brings so many valuable dollars into our community to be called off, but it does appear highly likely as the risk to visitors safety and the reputational damage for CBD appears too high.”

However, the City Futures director said he was still concerned about the city’s reputation as the region of Greater Bendigo was hosting a series of events that weekend.

“On the same weekend we have a whole suit of outstanding major events happening, including a wine and food festival in Heathcote and major netball and cycling events, and whilst only Heritage Uncorked would be directly impacted it is also really disappointing to know that there probably would also be another 1000 to 2000 thousand tourist circulating in the city on that day.”

1.10pm: Anti-mosque demonstrators crossed line of protest and disrupted democratic process: mayor

Bendigo’s mayor has said Bendigo needs to stand up to racism and maintain its reputation as a welcoming city in the face of a “noisy minority” who made national headlines last night after they stormed council chambers and put an end to a public meeting in protest to the construction of a mosque.

“Last night was a point whereby it moved on from a debate about whether Bendigo has a mosque to an issue about whether councillors are able to practice their democratic right,” he said.

“We are elected representatives of the wider community, we had an agenda last night about 200 pages dealing with strategy, policy and planning matters and were unable to conduct that meeting, not because we didn’t have the right processes in place but because we had a noisy public gallery and that through their noise nobody could understand or hear any part of the agenda.

“I still sincerely believe that the vast majority of people – and the number of texts and emails I ve got over the last ten or twelve hours just demonstrates it – that there is great support out there in the general community.

However the mayor said the city did need to be concerned about the damage to its reputation and the impacts these protests could have on the local economy.

“We have to be concerned about [Bendigo’s image] we have big branding through Bendigo Bank, the Bendigo Spirit national women's basketball team and people know Bendigo as a peaceful, welcoming, historical town and I would hope that visitors won't be discouraged… but you’ve got to ask the question,” he said.

“It is a strength that we speak up about racism, it is a strength that we maintain that we are a welcoming city, so along with all the attractions that Bendigo has another bow to the tie is that we feel very strongly that we care about being a multicultural community.”

12.15pm: Mayor flags fines, increased security to prevent repeat of councils shutdown

'What we know need to ask is how might we excerices that democtatic right in conduting the next council meeting?' Mayor Peter Cox said.

'What we know need to ask is how might we excerices that democtatic right in conduting the next council meeting?' Mayor Peter Cox said.

Mayor Peter Cox has denied Bendigo City Council cannot continue to get on with its job of governing the city despite the fact that two councillors were not invited to a press conference this morning to condemn the anti-Islamic protest which shut down a council meeting last night.

Cr Cox described the events of last night as unprecedented and that a vocal minority were damaging Bendigo’s reputation as a welcoming community in the press conference at which seven of nine local councillors were present.

“I feel well supported by councillors, by the staff and very proud to be the mayor of Greater Bendigo, particularly in a situation like this because it allows me to express the firm policy that we are a welcoming city and we can grow to greater strengths in situations like this,” the mayor said.

However, Cr Cox confirmed that councillors Elise Chapman and Helen Leach were not invited to the press conference.

Both were given standing ovations by the crowd of protesters who forced a shutdown the council meeting last night. In contrast, the mayor, other councillors and members of the executive, were forced to leave in a police escort for their own safety.

The mayor said that he was not currently aware if council would be looking to press charges against members of the public gallery who physically intimidated councillors and hurled abuse, shouting things such as “Islam wants you dead Cox,” and “there’s worse to come yet”.

However, Cr Cox said the city was currently investigating how it could prevent such an incident from occurring again, such as increasing security at public meetings, issuing fines of up to $350 and his right as chair to name and shame individuals who engaged in disruptive behaviour.

REWATCH THE LIVE PRESS CONFERENCE HERE:

11.50am: City of Greater Bendigo councillor James Williams says protests are “a distraction”.

City of Greater Bendigo councillor James Williams has condemned the actions of protesters at Wednesday night's council meeting, describing it as "over the top".

"It’s very disappointing and certainly not the way to voice your opinion and not the way democracy works, it’s fine to have a view but it needs to be expressed in a reasonable way and it didn’t happen last night," he said.

"In regards to the mosque we ruled on matters of law and they’re trying to make points and issues that aren’t relevant to the decisions made."

Cr Williams said the council would continue to govern effectively despite the interruption.

"We’ll try to get on with our business as much a possible, this is a distraction and always has been and should be seen as such," he said.

"The city’ll just band behind the council."

11.20am: Bendigo Police Senior Sergeant John Dalton said last night’s council meeting did not shed a good light on Bendigo.

Bendigo Sergeant John Dalton has responded to the circumstance at the Bendigo council meeting last night.

“Because of the circumstances and the volatile situation last night they cancelled the meeting and we asked some people to leave, which they did,” he said.

“There were no crimes committed.

“The crowd was boisterous but there was no violence.

“I just dont think its good for the image of the town.

“It doesn’t shed a good light on the town.

“We have got so many good positive things happening for the town.”

10.30am: Mayor to address media day after council meeting shut down by anti-Islamic protesters

Mayor Peter Cox says it would be a shame to have to close public question time but that he will be considering all options after anti-Islamic protesters stormed a council meeting last night.

Cr Cox will be addressing the media at 11am and the Bendigo Advertiser will be streaming the conference via a link on this page.

Speaking to the Bendigo Advertiser shortly the meeting which he was forced to adjourn and from which he had to be escorted by police, along with other members of council and the executive, the mayor said he was a great believer opening up council to the public.

“[But], clearly we had a council meeting, an agenda of about 190 pages of reports to consider tonight which we do in a democratic forum – and that was shut down,” he said last night,” he said.

Cr Cox said he was “shocked” that council would have to consider closing public question time, saying he believed the public should be given an opportunity to hold council accountable over issues of local government.  

“I’ll be inquiring tomorrow what are the process, how we might manage council meetings from now and where we take it from here,” he said.

For more from that interview, see the coverage from last night

10.10am: Bendigo MP calls on community leaders to unequivocally condemn ‘disgraceful’ actions of protesters  

BENDIGO East MP Jacinta Allan says she was “greatly distressed” after anti-Islamic protesters stormed a council meeting last night and has called on all community leaders to unequivocally condemn their actions. 

“I think anyone who is in a leadership role in the Bendigo community who is passionate about seeing Bendigo progress and seeing Bendigo represented in best way would condemn this behaviour as insult to councillors who were carrying out their duty,” she said. 

“The behavior displayed last was greatly distressing to me and I know with absolute certainty that this is behaviour that does not represent the vast majority of our community and it is behaviour that I’m certain will be condemned by the vast majority of our community.”

The state parliamentarian praised the police for their efforts in maintaining order in a night in which threats were hurled from the public gallery towards elected officials and members of the public physically intimidated the town’s elected representatives.  

“There are two issues here, one is behaviour of people attending council meeting and holding protests and how they conduct themselves in those forums and clearly some of these issues rest with Victoria Police who – whether it was couple weeks ago or last night – are doing an excellent job in supporting our community,” she said.

Ms Allan said the Victorian government also had a role to play in responding to the incident, referring to a bill put to parliament by Minister for Local Government Natalie Hutchins, which would strengthen councillor conduct standards.

“Then the other set issues is how councillors conduct themselves and how they behave and we will be debating in parliament today a bill which goes to these issues and, if successfully passed, these reforms are about giving council and government a broader range of powers then they have at moment to deal with councillors who breach their code of conduct,” she said. 

Among other disciplinary measures, the Improved Governance Bill would enable conduct panels to suspend councillors for six months in instances of serious misconduct.

Ms Allan said something needed to be done to allow the functioning of council after the protesters – many of whom were wearing signs with Bendigo postcodes to refute claims anti-mosque demonstrators were coming from out of town – prevented elected representatives from doing their jobs.  

“I have no problem with people having different views and expressing those views in different forums but with the right to expression comes responsibility to behave appropriately and to show respectful behaviour and last night that was clearly not on display,” Ms Allan said. 

“Last night it incredibly disappointing, to see a group of people not being way respectful towards elected representatives carrying out their duty as required under our democratic system, with no regard to the role they were playing and no regard for the democratic process.

“These actions shut down the opportunity for other members to participate and other people in the gallery who wanted to have their say from putting forward their views – they were denied that because of disgraceful behavior of these people.”

REWATCH THE EVENTS FROM LAST NIGHT HERE:

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