THE Muslim community has thanked Bendigo for its support after Victoria’s planning tribunal brought the city a step closer to its first mosque.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal found on Thursday there was no reason to reject the mosque on planning grounds after analysing its location and the need for the building in Bendigo.
After an emotive hearing spanning almost 12 months, including allegations of bias against the tribunal president, the City of Greater Bendigo’s initial decision to approve the mosque was upheld.
In his ruling, VCAT president Justice Greg Garde said negative social, economic and environmental impacts had not been demonstrated and there was a genuine need for a building of its type in Bendigo.
Objectors have confirmed they will launch an appeal in the Supreme Court on grounds of allegations of bias and failures of due process from both VCAT and the City of Greater Bendigo.
The decision to appeal means an outcome on the mosque proposal is unlikely to be finalised this year.
The group of 15 objectors have 20 days to launch the appeal.
Without an appeal, the Australian Islamic Mission would just need a planning and building permit before construction could begin, unlikely to be opposed by relevant departments.
Bendigo’s Muslim community welcomed VCAT’s decision, releasing a statement saying the construction of the mosque was still likely to take some time, but the community would continue to support each other to “live with peace, harmony and respect”.
The City of Greater Bendigo also released a statement supporting VCAT’s ruling.
Objectors to the mosque proposal will launch an appeal in the Supreme Court with further claims of bias and allegations of a failure to adhere to due processes from the state’s planning tribunal.
The Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal upheld the City of Greater Bendigo’s initial decision to approve the Bendigo mosque, but the issue is unlikely to be resolved with an appeal to be launched.
In a statement, lawyer Robert Balzola – who acted on behalf of the 15 individuals who took the matter to VCAT – confirmed the decision to make an appeal in the Supreme Court was made early in the VCAT proceedings.
Mr Balzola said VCAT’s ruling was a “death knell for public interest and citizens rights in Victoria”.
The statement also outlined the possibility of a Victorian parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of both VCAT and the City of Greater Bendigo in relation to planning approvals.
The group has 20 days to launch the appeal in the Supreme Court.
In his ruling, Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal president Greg Garde said arguments against the mosque had been unclear.
“Alleged social, economic and environmental impacts have not been demonstrated as being significant or likely with respect to the proposed mosque,” he said.
“There is no such place of worship currently available to those practising Islam in the region.”
Mr Balzola had attempted to argue against aspects of the mosque proposal on planning grounds.
He had initially tried to have the tribunal president removed on claims of bias, while their main argument focused on the demand for a mosque in Bendigo and its position near residential areas.
His argument also included that “a mosque has specific and different attributes to other places of worship”, that there are “concerns about Islam and its integration with western culture” and a fear of the “Islamification of Bendigo”.
But in the ruling, Justice Garde said there was evidence of between 120 to 125 families of 25 different nationalities of Islamic faith in Bendigo.
He said general population growth was likely to be the greatest driver of an increase in people of Islamic faith in Bendigo, with the city predicted to grow by 40,000 people in the next 20 years.
The Australian Islamic Mission believes the approval of the Bendigo mosque in the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal is a positive step for the city as a whole.
The mission, on behalf of the Muslim community of Bendigo, released a statement on the decision.
While final planning and building permits are still to be granted – and an appeal in the Supreme Court appears highly likely – the community’s statement outlined their vision for harmony and respect in Bendigo.
“The establishment of the Bendigo Islamic Centre will take some time, until then we as a community will continue to support each other to make it a success and live with peace, harmony and respect,” the statement read.
“The Bendigo Islamic Centre will integrate with all other Bendigo residents, communities and faiths and will promote tolerance, harmony and understanding, thereby positively contributing to the city of Bendigo.”
The Muslim community thanked City of Greater Bendigo mayor Peter Cox, councillors, local members of parliament and other religious leaders for their support during the VCAT proceedings.
The statement said the Muslim community wanted the mosque to “set an example for multiculturalism, the true essence of Australia”.
They also thanked the broader community for its support.
Mayor Peter Cox addressed the media soon after the outcome was made public.
He said it was a “great day for Bendigo”.
“We need to acknowledge that there is a diversity within our community and that we have the emphatic belief that everybody needs to be able to practice their beliefs,” Cr Cox said.
He said it was “a small minority” of people in Bendigo who had a problem with the mosque.
The City of Greater Bendigo approved the mosque in June last year after receiving no objections from relevant planning authorities.
Between 250 and 450 objections were submitted to the project.
Relevant planning authorities did not oppose the overall construction of the mosque.
Cr Cox said the appeal, and any future appeals, were costly for the council but he appreciated the democratic rights of citizens in Bendigo.
“The independent umpire has given their decision and I’m hoping that people will respect and accept that,” he said.
“If the objectors want to go a step further, in our democratic society, that’s their right to do that, but I hope that it’s done in a respectful way.
“It certainly is costing council dollars – not only in dollar terms, but in time as well.”
City of Greater Bendigo planning manager Ross Douglas said objectors were able to appeal the mosque on social grounds as part of the Planning and Environment Act.
“The tribunal found that there were no social issues that this proposal would cause,” he said.