Local council elections have traditionally revolved around the three Rs: rates, roads and rubbish.
But for Casey Council, a rapidly expanding and multicultural municipality in Melbourne’s south-east, a new R appears to be taking centre stage: religion.
It came to a head in April.
With police officers stationed at the door, a ban on public questions and photographs, the air rippled with tension at Narre Warren’s council chamber the night the mosque was rejected.
What was supposed to be a straightforward planning matter had become so much bigger.
More than 1000 objections to the mosque had been received. The council chamber was so full that dozens of residents and anti-racism protesters had to waitoutside.
Inside the chamber, the mosque’s proponents, the Saarban Islamic Trust, were not given time to speak. But the mayor, Sam Aziz, used his address to slam the group.
Cr Aziz told the group that their response to a planning report on the mosque was unacceptable and the group had not endeared themselves to anyone.
“For you to claim that you are now shocked by the content of the planning report, is either at best mischievous or at worst malicious – either way it is unacceptable,” Cr Aziz said.
The mayor said the council would fight any appeal to its decision to reject the mosque with “every resource required”.
Afterwards, as those who managed to get a seat filed out of the chamber, Cr Aziz tried to get police to move them away.
“I now ask police to remove people from the public gallery please,” he said, as the protesters chanted “the mosque is welcome, racists are not”.
For Casey Council, a rapidly expanding and multicultural municipality in Melbourne’s south-east, elections are no longer just about rates, roads or rubbish.
Religion is also taking centre stage.
Key councillors with strong anti-Islamic links are seeking another term and questions remain about the way the mosque application for Narre Warren North’s green wedge zone was handled.
James Randall, a Muslim convert and Islamic Research and Educational Academy spokesman, said while there were good planning reasons to reject the mosque, he worried about the “air of complete hostility” towards the Muslim community.
“I have never heard of a council ever saying they would dedicate all council resources to try and reinforce their decision,” he said. “That is beyond bad.”
One councillor, Rosalie Crestani, was a Senate candidate for the hard-right Rise Up Australia Party. She believes Australia should ban Muslim immigration, except for cases of family reunion.
Cr Crestani’s 2016 council election platform includes “concerns around Islamic Sharia Law”. If re-elected she wants to ban the council from buying Halal food.
“I’ll be requesting that all food that Casey purchases with ratepayers’ money should not have an Islamic tax associated with it,” she said.
Cr Crestani said she hoped to become Casey’s new mayor, putting to one side her opposition to Islam to represent the region’s 14,000-plus Muslims.
“I want all the Muslims to know that I would like to represent them, so much as that they have the right to live in safety and peace, and abide by Australian law,” she said.
In early 2013, Casey council approved an Afghan mosque in suburban Doveton, next to a planned church of evangelical Pastor Danny Nalliah, who has described Islam as a “death cult”.
In the lead-up to the vote, Cr Aziz, then deputy mayor, filed a motion asking Pastor Nalliah to address the council on his views, specifically the dangers of “indoctrinated religious intolerance” to democratic societies.
Cr Aziz, a Christian of Egyptian background, also reportedly sought to impose a special planning condition, requiring that the mosque not “preach hatred from the pulpits”.
Although he said he voted based on planning issues alone, Cr Aziz has aligned himself with the “Stop the Mosque in Narre Warren” group, which rallies against the “Islamisation” of Australia.
He has posted on its Facebook page thanking his “friends” for their support, following a story in Fairfax Media where he accused local doctor Belal Haniffa, who joined the “Casey Against Racism” Facebook page, of dressing up “to look like a terrorist in his spare time”. Dr Haniffa’s profile picture was taken on a hunting trip.
Last week, Cr Aziz, when asked if he would he approve a mosqueif it ticked all the planning requirements, said: “I will vote for places of worship according to their planning merits.”
When asked if he said that meant he would grant approval for a mosque, Cr Aziz repeated the answer: “I will vote for places of worship according to their planning merits.”
One of the key reasons Casey council gave for the rejection of the Narre Warren North mosque in April was an “objection” by VicRoads to the plan.
However, VicRoads disputes that account.
VicRoads’ metro south east regional director Aidan McGann said that while the mosque proposal did need work around access, the road authority had been willing to work through the issues with the applicant. At the same time, the mosque was shot down at council.
Mr McGann said it was disingenuous to suggest VicRoads’ objection to the mosque’s initial access plan gave the council no choice but to reject the whole proposal.
“We are upset that impression has been attributed to VicRoads,” he said.
Mr McGann said that with safe access, the site could accommodate a mosque for 150 to 200 people (the original plan was for 470 people).
The Saarban Islamic Trust has recently hired a new architect to work on a new design for its site at 365-367 Belgrave-Hallam Road.
“I think the trust could go for a different approach with the design – one that is more Australian and a bit more pastoral in its outlook,” said Mr Randall, of the Islamic Research and Educational Academy.
Concern around a “crime wave” of home invasions and burglaries recently prompted Casey council to call for laws requiring dual nationals jailed for gang violence to be deported.
At the same time, the Muslim community is reporting a rise in Islamophobic attacks, including women having their hijabs pulled off and being run off the road.
This week the City of Casey has refused to answer any questions put by Fairfax Media, despite repeated attempts to seek comment.