COMMUNITIES grappling with rightwing extremism need to stay a step ahead, a Bendigo resident has told a parliamentary inquiry.
Believe in Bendigo co-founder Margot Spalding says her city was caught on the hop when aggressive anti-mosque rallies kicked off in 2015.
"We had nothing, no diversity plan, no interfaith council ... because Bendigo's been traditionally a white, Anglo-Saxon city," she said.
A Victorian upper house inquiry is delving into the pandemic-era rise of rightwing extremism and on Tuesday heard alarming evidence Victoria's response since 2001 has been "myopic".
Investigative reporter Nick McKenzie, who infiltrated the National Socialist Network, told the inquiry that children as young as 10 were being radicalised online, and that extremists viewed adult jail deradicalisation programs as a joke to be exploited.
Ms Spalding gave testimony on lessons and experiences from the hostile anti-mosque protests of the mid-2010s, and the group she helped found to rally the community in Muslims' support.
She recounted her horror as anti-Muslim protesters descended on Bendigo's city centre in August 2015.
"It was an aggressive, violent, hate-filled rally attended by hundreds and hundreds of people. Many were from out of town," she said.
Ms Spalding lived a short distance away from the protest site at the time.
She knew that there were several groups of good people trying to put on positive counter activities and attended one event, but did not see the city's leaders stand up.
"That didn't happen," Ms Spalding said.
Believe in Bendigo was born at her house and quickly became a rallying point for people who wanted to support Bendigo's Muslim community.
"Initially it was about leadership, because leadership was lacking in the early days of this debacle," Ms Spalding said.
"I don't think people knew what to do and they hoped it would go away."
It did not.
Rightwing extremism has changed since the 2015 rallies in Bendigo.
Experts recently tracked that evolution from events like the anti-Mosque protests through COVID-19 as extremist groups united, often temporarily, over the same grievances - and as different groups became more or less prominent.
"COVID-19 was used to buttress preexisting ideological beliefs, and further highlight the alleged peril posed by Asian immigration, globalism, left-wing opponents, and Jews," the Charles Sturt University researchers said.
But Ms Spalding told the parliamentary committee there were still eerie parallels between what happened in Bendigo and what has taken place in more recent times.
She was struck by how similar the storming of the Capitol building in Washington last January was to the day anti-Mosque protesters disrupted a council meeting, forcing police to escort elected officials out of Bendigo's town hall.
"I get really tearful about this. That storming of the Capitol in the US, that's what happened in Bendigo but at a smaller scale," Ms Spalding said.
Inquiry members asked for lessons they could take from the Believe in Bendigo movement.
"The number one thing is to realise these people really are there ... and you have to stand up immediately and take action," Ms Spalding said.
"It's very confusing for people within the community. You really don't know who is for and who is against.
"In the case of Believe in Bendigo, we were very planned and targeted, so we had a broad reach very swiftly."
That helped unite people and reach specific groups where anti-Mosque messages were gaining traction.
"We would do education sessions and, quite truly, when people attended there was an enormous turnaround," Ms Spalding said.
Believe in Bendigo also began talking to the Muslim community about ways to better demonstrate the contributions it made to the city.
Muslim people were already doing good things many did not know about, Ms Spalding said.
For example, many Bendigo GPs are Muslims.
So Believe in Bendigo worked with Muslim leaders on public picnics and Ramadan celebrations, Ms Spalding said.
"A lot of people learned a lot more about Muslims and ... [that] they are not terrifying people," she told the inquiry.
One parliamentarian asked what drove the people behind the anti-Mosque rallies.
Ms Spalding said she had invited one anti-Mosque campaigner met several times for coffee. She had hoped to find out more about that person's concerns and see if there were ways to allay them.
Ms Spalding said she helped set up meetings between that person and the mayor, police officers and others, after it became clear they felt they had no voice.
She hoped that the more anti-Mosque campaigners knew about Muslim people, the less worried they would be.
"Over a period of time I met several people in the anti-Mosque group and I realised I was never going to turn [them] around," Ms Spalding said.
"Fundamentally, they just hate everyone. They hate the council, hate authority, hate the government, hate their friends."
Muslims were simply their flavour of the month, Ms Spalding said.
She said the anti-Mosque campaigners she met were not open to listening or the truth.
"The nonsense that was made up and spread about the mosque here in Bendigo was just absurd," Ms Spalding said.
She came to see many "absolutely loved" the obvious misinformation thriving on social media.
"Things like '300,000 Muslims were going to come to Bendigo'. Like, really? 'There are 22,000 houses being built for them in Bendigo'. Really?"
Ms Spalding said she could not tell the inquiry what it should do to solve those particular problems.
"There are people much more versed than me on that," she said.
That said, she believed more education programs in schools could help alleviate some of the fear of the unknown.
Asked about Believe In Bendigo's independence from the council and other levels of government, Ms Spalding said a deliberate decision had been made.
The group based its position on the idea Anti-mosque advocates were so antigovernmental, and that key Believe in Bendigo members had no background with government.
"We wanted to be totally from the community but we felt it important to inform them about things we were doing in Bendigo," Ms Spalding said.
She said the city's council had taken the lead on diversity plans and interfaith work, but Believe in Bendigo was independent.
Asked what she thought the state government could do to improve cohesion, Ms Spalding said it started with leadership.
"The Andrews government has been very good in this regard," she said.
"Leaders have to stand up and speak publicly about the value of cohesion."
Ms Spalding said community groups and minority groups also needed to get out there and be inclusive, to help build those bridges.
She did not fear for her safety when out in Bendigo, though in the past she had referred threatening letters and emails on to police.
Those officers had been extremely helpful and in her experience had the training and insights needed.
Ms Spalding said anti-Mosque protesters would probably be dismayed to know the fuss they caused triggered the opposite reaction to what they wanted.
Not only is the Mosque being built, but their actions galvinised the community and led to a range of new ideas.
The council took a more strident role and a host of community groups to intensify their work, Ms Spalding said.
"Now we have a wonderful multi-faith council, a great diversity plan and thousands of Karen people," she said, referring to the growing number of Asian immigrants making a home in the city.
"Bendigo's probably a step ahead now."
Parliamentarian Samantha Ratnam thanked everyone linked to Believe in Bendigo.
"It's a lesson for us all and a template, I think, for the rest of the country," she said.
With Australian Associated Press
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