Justin Norrie, Sydney Morning Herald, Dec. 15, 2006
A MONTH before Tamworth hosts overseas musicians and fans at its world-renowned country music festival, the NSW town has become embroiled in a racism row over a decision to reject five Sudanese refugee families.
Tamworth City Council voted this week to spurn an offer by the Department of Immigration to resettle the families for fear it could lead to a repetition of the Cronulla riots, said the Mayor, James Treloar.
Cr Treloar told the Herald people were worried that allowing the families to move to Tamworth “could lead to a Cronulla riots-type situation. Ask the people at Cronulla if they want more refugees.”
He added that “of the 12 Sudanese people who live in Tamworth, eight have been before the courts for everything from dangerous driving to rape. These people don’t respect authority … they come from countries where there are outbreaks of TB [tuberculosis] and polio. How can we trust the department to screen those things?”
The council lacked the health services to support the families, he said. Claims that racist elements had guided the vote were “a media beat-up”, he said.
The decision incensed three councillors who voted in favour of accepting the families.
Although an earlier poll of almost 500 residents found that only a quarter supported the move to welcome the families, “the silent majority” of the council’s 50,000-odd constituents did not agree, Cr Warren Woodley said.
“I’m ashamed. I thought we’d moved on from the days of the White Australia [policy], the days of the right-wing guard that ran New England in the 1940s and ‘50s.
“Earlier this month Tamworth won the Best Western Friendly Town award. It’s hypocritical.”
At a meeting where the poll was conducted, several residents had said they did “not want the refugees coming and drinking our water supply, or taking our jobs, that sort of thing”, Cr Woodley said. “I think you would have to say there was a racist element at play there.”
Another councillor and local publican, Robert Schofield, agreed that racism had to “be a part of it. These are people escaping war and persecution. “I’m sickened by the lack of compassion,” he said.
The Department of Immigration has recently embarked on a program of resettling refugees directly into rural and regional areas. A spokeswoman said the department had offered to fund the settlement at Tamworth over five years with the help of agencies such as Anglicare.
The Oxley Vale Anglican Church raised $10,000 to bring the families to Tamworth. Its minister, the Reverend Jon Cox, said he was deeply saddened by the lack of compassion shown by the council.