Multicultural groups have applauded Latrobe City Council’s decision to maintain the region’s status as a ‘refugee welcome zone’.
On Monday night Cr Christine Sindt moved a motion to overturn the symbolic declaration, but failed to gain a seconder, forcing the motion to lapse.
The public gallery erupted in applause following the outcome.
A group of community members had earlier carried signs with the hashtag #ispeak4respect following an online campaign launched by Cr Kellie O’Callaghan last week.
Latrobe Valley Asylum Seeker Support Group convener David Langmore, whose group originally requested council make the declaration, said he hoped council’s stance reassured refugees they were very welcome in the Latrobe Valley.
Cr Sindt opposed the refugee declaration at council’s 2 March meeting, attempting to steer discussion towards her concerns about Shariah Law.
Her official Facebook page has since featured multiple posts referring to Islam, while last week in an interview with ABC Melbourne radio host Jon Faine, Cr Sindt characterised the Islamic community and radical extremists as “pretty much the same”.
Cr Sindt’s comments have drawn outrage from multiple groups.
“To us, it’s not about Muslims or any particular faith, it’s about supporting diversity and not discriminating against any minority, not allowing anybody in power to make statements about any group in our community that are not true, without being challenged,” Gippsland Multicultural Services director Lisa Sinha said.
Ms Sinha said Cr Sindt’s comments had “caused a lot of hurt in the community”.
“I think all of us would have preferred we didn’t have to have this debate in this community,” she said.
United Muslim Sisters of Latrobe Valley president Khatija Halabi labelled Cr Sindt’s radio comments as “uninformed and hurtful”.
“It tarnishes the reputation of the Muslim community who have lived peacefully in the region and contributed to this society for nearly 30 years,” Ms Halabi said.
“Extremists cast an untruthful opinion over all Muslims, which is unfair.
“People are entitled to their opinions, although people who are educated and hold public office need to be careful that their views do not cause division in a community in which there is harmony and cohesion.”
Centre for Multicultural Youth Gippsland team leader Cate Chaiyot said Cr Sindt’s comments were not reflective of those people the group had worked with.
“She has the right to hold her individual view, but shouldn’t impose those on the community and as a councillor she has a responsibility to the community,” Ms Chaiyot said.
CMY last year worked with 300 young people from refugee and migrant backgrounds in the Latrobe Valley.
Cr Sindt said the outcome of Monday night’s meeting was predictable.
Her concerns about declaring the Latrobe Valley a ‘refugee welcome zone’ remained, saying she feared it could “potentially provide a ticket to all and sundry, particularly extremists”.
There are 110 other refugee welcome zones across Australia and the declaration is seen as a symbolic commitment with no formal, legal or financial obligations attached to it.
Cr Sindt said she had received many emails from people who shared her views and her Facebook page ‘likes’ had tripled.