THE City of Greater Bendigo is hopeful the construction of the community’s first mosque will be met with less vehemence than the planning process.
Chief executive officer Craig Niemann expressed a wish that the developers be able to carry out their plans in peace, once the project received a final endorsement from council.
“We would hope that people, if they want to protest, do that in a considered way and not with some of the poor behaviour that was seen from both sides last time in terms of rallies and broader public disruption,” he said.
Mr Niemann’s comments were prompted by the release of a study into social cohesion in Bendigo.
The research was commissioned by the Victorian Multicultural Commission in response to protests surrounding the development.
La Trobe University researchers observed that the nature of the protests differed from other “contentious planning scenarios” because they targeted a particular group of people in society, rather than the development itself.
“They aimed to exclude Muslim people from experiencing the same rights and freedoms as others in Australian society to practice their faith,” the study stated.
While Dr Julie Rudner and her team found that the mosque development had created opportunities for “vibrant debates on the politics of diversity, especially around notions of democracy, leadership, social networks and information sharing,” they said there was still work to be done.
“This comprises the creation of new conversations so that people with different views can communicate respectfully and learn from each other,” the report stated.
“This will not be easy, and many will not want to participate due to their world view and the polarisation that has occurred.”
Dr Rudner told the Bendigo Advertiser she was hopeful the research would help the community appreciate that some of their concerns were shared across the board.
“The people in Bendigo, regardless of their views, have a strong investment in the city,” she said.
“They believe in the city, they want to contribute to their community and community life.”
A permit for the mosque was issued in August 2015, valid for two years.
However, Mr Niemann was not aware that final plans had been endorsed.
“The plans need to be formally endorsed, then I expect some works will take place,” he said.
“If the time runs out they need to submit for an extension of time to allow that to happen.”
Loddon Campaspe Multicultural Services executive officer Kate McInnes welcomed the study.
“The findings ring very true with our experiences of the last few years,” she said.
She stressed the importance of understanding and respect, and of building awareness of the violence people had experienced as a result of the controversy surrounding the mosque development.
“It’s important the community is aware this is happening so we can all work together to stop [it] and ensure all our residents feel safe,” Ms McInnes said.
A second study, commissioned by the Research Institute on Social Cohesion, is underway.
Dr Rudner’s study approached the topic from a planning perspective.
“The focus is on understanding how the planning system worked and people’s responses to it,” she said.
The researchers found that there was, at times, a disconnect between people’s expectations of the system and the reality of the obligations planning processes involve.
For the council, one of the positive things to come of the research was the affirmation that the democratic process of governance was upheld.
But the report writers highlighted the frustrations some members of the community might have experienced as a result of the system.
“Planning processes do not assess beliefs, but are bound by law that places rigorous requirements on objectors to provide strong argumentation and evidence to support their claims,” the report stated.
Researchers wrote that the protests in Bendigo distilled national debate about safety, security, multiculturalism and Australian identity.