There’s a disturbing parallel between the City of Bendigo’s approval of a Mosque last month and the Shire of Yarra Ranges rejection of an application for a McDonald’s restaurant in Tecoma in 2011 (since built).
In both cases the developments were consistent with town planning requirements and were approved (ultimately on appeal in the Tecoma case). However they both generated a shitstorm of protest from (some) residents who fundamentally don’t like them for reasons unrelated to legitimate planning considerations.
I’ve discussed the McDonald’s proposal before (Would a McDonalds in Tecoma be all downside?). Council did what local government often does with hot issues like this and baldly refused the application notwithstanding that a convenience restaurant is a permissible use of the land under the Planning Scheme.
McDonalds appealed to the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT) which inevitably found the proposal conformed to the Planning Scheme and set aside Council’s decision. VCAT found (McDonalds P/L vs Yarra Ranges SC) that many of the potential adverse outcomes identified by community members weren’t relevant planning considerations.
As I said at the time, the real problem the Tecoma objectors had with the proposal was their distaste for the idea of a fast food chain.
Residents didn’t think they were signing up to the corporate and consumerist values associated with McDonalds when they chose to settle in this bucolic ex-urb in the charming Dandenong Ranges.
Most of the objections to the proposed mosque in Bendigo aren’t relevant planning considerations either. Although local objectors say the mosque would breach regulations concerning parking, noise and traffic, according to this report in The Age (Anti-Islamic and right wing groups driving Bendigo anti-mosque push) there were 254 objections submitted to council (1),
and of those 171 cited the influence of Islam and its association with violence and terrorism as their grounds for objection, according to council minutes.
This report by New Ltd (Vic pollies stand by Bendigo mosque plans) confirms that many of the objections have nothing to do with town planning problems:
Council documents show the majority of complaints related to concerns over the influence of Islam, citing the threat of terrorism, the introduction of Sharia law and the dilution of “Christian values”.
And this report in the Herald-Sun reinforces the view that legitimate planning issues aren’t the primary worry of many (Bendigo mosque approved despite objections from residents):
Anti-muslim protesters, some holding placards, packed a City of Greater Bendigo meeting last night, heckling councillors and playing middle-eastern music while some members of the gallery shouted concerns the building would be the site of underage marriages. A group of residents demanded to know what “safety measures” had been taken to prevent a terrorist attack in the region.
Aided by an apposite combination of portfolios, The Minister for Planning and Multicultural Affairs, Matthew Guy, had no doubts about the real motivations of many objectors:
People in Bendigo who have this fear that 300 or so Islamic Australians who want to pray in peace are going to disrupt their lives is just plain wrong
Now I don’t think those who opposed the McDonalds restaurant in Tecoma necessarily share the same values as those now opposing the mosque in Bendigo, but in both cases they’re seeking to use town planning law to achieve ends that have nothing to do with planning (2).
That’s hardly new. Commercial rivals like shopping centre developers have been using planning law for eons to try to keep rivals out of the game. It’s been used to try and defeat aboriginal land rights claims and, in the US, zoning laws were a key way to exclude blacks from middle class white areas.
I think the Tecoma McDonalds and Bendigo mosque cases provides some cautionary lessons.
Planning gives communities the right to determine what class of activities are permissible, but it doesn’t and shouldn’t give them the right to determine who can live, work or operate a business in their town.
Those who think the rightness of their view justifies the means should realise that those who have diametrically opposed values will of course adopt the same illegitimate approach. “Tea Party” tactics should be eschewed by all sides of politics.
This might be an underestimate; I’ve seen other reports that the number of objections was as high as 470.
There’s opposition to a proposed mosque in Kalgoorlie, too (Facebook protest against Kalgoorlie mosque gathers momentum).