Councillor opposes Latrobe Valley as ‘refugee welcome zone’

Latrobe City Councillor Christine Sindt has drawn criticism from her fellow councillors and community groups after revealing she does not want the Valley declared a ‘refugee welcome zone’ because of “concerns” about Shariah Law.

One group has labelled her comments unjustified and unfounded, following a tense council meeting on Monday night in which Cr Sindt launched into an argument about religion and had to be warned by mayor Dale Harriman.

The Latrobe Valley Asylum Seeker Support Group had requested council make a public statement about its “already strong track record” for accepting and supporting migrants and refugees, by declaring the region a ‘refugee welcome zone’.

Following comments on Monday night by members of the group about refugees, including cultural and religious diversity, Cr Sindt attempted to steer the discussion towards Shariah Law.

“It would appear to me Shariah Law does not treat women appropriately,” Cr Sindt said.

Councillors Kellie O’Callaghan and Sandy Kam raised points of order and the Mayor told Cr Sindt council would not tolerate religious discussion.

During debate over the matter Cr Sindt referred to a group known as Rights for Bendigo Residents, which opposes construction of a mosque in the town.

Councillors again raised points of order, but Cr Sindt continued her argument, saying “I’m concerned we don’t have a ‘Rights for Latrobe City Residents’ group”.

Cr Harriman asked Cr Sindt to move on to a different point or stop speaking.

“This council has a charter that states we do not discriminate on religious or ethnic grounds,” he said. She then ceased her argument.

The motion to declare the welcome zone was passed with support from all councillors except Cr Sindt.

On Tuesday, she took steps to get the decision overturned.

However, the chief executive officer could not accept a rescission motion, because council’s decision to declare itself a refugee welcome zone had already been ‘acted upon’, that is, statements had been issued to the media.

Among claims expressed in the would-be motion were that “Islamic teachings and Shariah Law support and promote 

activities inconsistent with western democratic values including child brides, polygamy, wife beating, female genital mutilation and inequality of men and women”.

A local Muslim group has disputed many of these claims.

Cr Sindt said the region had always been a welcoming place for refugees, but by putting it into writing “there is potential for the spirit of the proposed recommendation to be abused”.

A council officer’s report on the welcome zone request stated a declaration did not confer any formal obligations and 110 such zones were not required to uphold any statutory responsibilities or financial commitments.

It described the declaration as a “commitment in spirit to welcoming refugees into the community, upholding the human rights of refugees, demonstrating compassion for refugees and enhancing cultural and religious diversity”.

Cr Sindt told The Express her views were about “preserving Australian values, Australian law and our constitution above all other legal systems” and she believed refugees should be welcomed on a case-by-case basis.

“The price of democracy is eternal vigilance and you’ve got to make sure you don’t have things slipping past the radar, you’ve got to keep your eyes open all the time,” Cr Sindt said.

“A glib statement of welcoming refugees does not take into account it’s a complex matter to protect our community.”

The president of the United Muslim Sisters of Latrobe Valley – a group which has actively tried to build ties and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims locally – said Cr Sindt’s comments highlighted the need for community education to demystify commonly-held stereotypes about Islam.

“The Muslim community generally condemns all forms of violence especially toward women and children,” Khatija Halabi said.

She said the actions of religious extremists were not accepted by mainstream Muslims.

Ms Halabi said one of the elements of Shariah Law, or Islamic Law – the religious code followed by Muslims – was that people who migrated to another country were required to abide by that country’s laws.

She said child brides and female genital mutilation were not Islamic practices and were culturally based rather than based on religion.

She said “wife beating” was “completely forbidden” in Islam.

“Domestic violence issues are a huge social problem and it’s got no basis in Shariah,” she said.

Polygamy is allowed under Islamic Law, but Ms Halabi said she had not come across any cases in Australia.

She said Polygamy was originally written into law as a way of protecting women such as widows.

Ms Halabi said women were not prevented from working.

She said under Shariah law, the primary role of a married woman with children was to take care of their family and domestic chores were shared between husband and wife.

“The bottom line is, once families move to another country, you have to abide by that [country’s] law,” she said.

Latrobe Valley Asylum Seeker Support Group convener David Langmore said he was “perplexed” by Cr Sindt’s behaviour at Monday night’s meeting.

“I’m really not quite sure what she was trying to indicate,” he said.

“Issues can emerge from small sections of any community, everyone’s aware of that, but the vast majority of people are very keen to work cooperatively within our community.

“It’s a matter of all of us accepting each other’s backgrounds and cultural positions and religion’s one aspect of that.”

He said Cr Sindt’s fears were unjustified and unfounded.

“Our group, and I’m sure the council, are concerned to ensure all human beings have their human rights and safety properly protected,” Mr Langmore said.

Cr Kellie O’Callaghan said Cr Sindt’s views were not a broadly held belief within the community.

“We have over many years welcomed people who are migrants and refugees,” Cr O’Callaghan said.

“Some of her comments are oversimplifying highly complex issues. We are talking about our community’s capacity and preparedness to welcome refugees and Cr Sindt is reducing this to a debate about Shariah Law.”

Mayor Dale Harriman said it was important to remember council was welcoming of all people.

“Part of our council multicultural diversity documentation states we will accept people of all race, religion and gender.

“Councillors have to be aware of where the line in the sand is and work within those guidelines and parameters.”