Photo: Tamworth $14m Equine and Livestock Centre that will include an indoor arena to seat 5000, stabling facilities for over 500 horses and camping, parking, trade, holding and hospitality areas
Note to readers: For those who are interested I have now put up a more detailed story on my personal blog providing more details on the actual events involved.
This is a personal message to James Treloar, the Mayor of Tamworth.
First, some background information for people, especially overseas people, who do not know Tamworth.
Tamworth is one of Australia's major regional cities. The city itself has a population of over 35,000, the Tamworth Regional Council covers a population of 55,000.
In the 2006-2007 financial year Tamworth Council will spend some $144 million including a capital works program of $58 million. Tamworth claims to be the friendly city, "one of the most progressive and exciting places in inland Australia – we combine country living with city style."
Tamworth is a wealthy and entrepreneurial city with one of the lowest unemployment rates in Australia. It is the centre of a major farming area, the regional centre for many facilities, and has a significant industrial base. It has also made itself the national country music centre.
By a six to three vote, Tamworth Council has rejected a proposal to settle a small number - 5 families - of Sudanese refugees in the city. According to media reports, James Treloar, the Tamworth Mayor, is stated as saying that there aren't enough health, education and translation services to support the families. James is also reported as saying that locals fear the arrival of the refugees would spark a violent backlash similar to last summer's Cronulla riots.
There are obviously a range of issues here that I am not fully aware of. For example, one of the Council complaints is that the Immigration Department does not provide sufficient support to help the families once they arrive.
Here The Northern Daily Leader (Tamworth's Daily Paper) reports James Treloar as asking residents to remember councillors did not vote against five refugee families but, rather, the relocation program itself.
"It is the government funded program that we are having problems with," he said. "It has significant failings. We haven't voted against the refugees." Cr Treloar would be more than happy for refugees to come to Tamworth as long as it was, as in the past, part of locally based, managed and supported programs that had the support of the local community.
I know James Treloar if not well. I am sure that he and Council were trying to do the best they could taking community consultation into account, although the wisdom of that process on this issue has to be doubted. I also suspect that the external reporting has been unbalanced. In this context, I noted James' insistence on appearing live on Prime Television to ensure that his words would go direct without filtering or alteration.
All this said, James, in a single stroke your Council has done more damage to Tamworth than any single action by anybody in as long as I can remember.
Had Council limited its response simply to a refusal to participate in a Government re-settlement program on the grounds that the program was inadequate, then nobody would have responded. Indeed, it could even have been seen as a pro-refugee stance. But as soon as words like Cronulla were introduced into the discussion then a media fire storm was inevitable.
The resulting fire storm has been intense. A simple google search on the words Tamworth and refugees generates pages of hits from around the world. There is now no easy way for Council to overcome the damage done to Tamworth's external image. The original arguments no longer matter.
The issue now has to be damage limitation. I think that Council has no choice but to revoke its decision and as soon as possible. I also think that Council as a collective needs to look very closely at its own performance on this issue to determine just how it stuffed up so badly.