ISSUES of cultural diversity and community were front and centre of a public forum held in Bendigo this week.
On the panel for the La Trobe University Bold Thinking event were business leader Rob Hunt, multiculturalism advocate Tasneem Chopra, senior lecturer Dr Julie Rudner, and Jimmy Possum co-founder Margot Spalding, joined by facilitator Rob Leach.
It was not long before the discussion turned to the debate that had surrounded the future mosque, and how that affected the panellists’ views of the city.
Ms Chopra grew up in Bendigo and said what she saw did not resonate with the inclusive, welcoming community she knew.
Ms Spalding said she believed a community benefited from diversity, and those who protested the mosque were reacting to lies, hatred and misinformation.
When asked what made other communities different to Bendigo in this regard, Dr Rudner said some, like Horsham, actively wanted to attract migrant workers, while in Ararat, Muslims already worshipped in the centre of town, so the community was familiar when a new mosque was built.
Ms Chopra spoke during the night of the importance of people seeing others like them in the community, and the need to give people from minorities a voice.
When asked by Mr Leach about how to include people happy with a monocultural community in the conversation, Ms Chopra said everyone had a seat at the table, but it had been the marginalised voices that had not been heard.
Mr Hunt said in commerce it was important to focus on similarities and shared goals, and this also applied within the community.
Later Ms Chopra talked about how society kept “othering” minorities, failing to recognise they had shared interests and aspirations.
She said she was often asked where she was from – adding that two days previously she’d been welcomed to Australia – and that carried the assumption that she did not belong.
But Ms Spalding countered that she asked those questions of people because she was genuinely interested.
Dr Rudner, a Canadian expatriate, said it came down to the notion of civility and encouraged people to “just be decent”.
Mr Hunt said despite the issues discussed throughout the night, he was optimistic for the future of Bendigo, wanted the community to “stand up” and participate.
When the discussion was opened to the floor, one attendee was concerned about how much the “average” resident was being included in the conversation, while another attendee wondered how disadvantaged members of the community could be involved into the future.