11 September 2019

Bega Valley refugee signs to stay - "We won't bow down to vandals"

| Elka Wood
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Bob Arthur, Sky Etherington and Angela Robbers attended the Bega Valley Shire Council meeting of March 13 in support of the ‘Welcome Refugees’ signs. Photo: Elka Wood

The Bega Valley’s ‘Welcome Refugees and Asylum Seekers’ signs will stay, following a 6 – 3 vote by Councillors.

Deputy Mayor Mitchell Nadin brought a motion to remove the orange metal signs to yesterday’s meeting.

“It would seem the community is divided on the issue; since the signs were installed they have been damaged, vandalised and even one sign has been stolen,” Cr Nadin told the meeting.

The signs were erected in June last year at the Shire’s four libraries, but they have been the subject of intense community debate.

“I’m sure Councillors’ intent was to create harmony in the community but it would appear they have also highlighted a deep division on this issue,” Cr Nadin said.

“It would seem sensible to withdraw the signs and instead leave the task of welcoming refugees or asylum seekers in the hands of individuals, business owners and community groups whose actions will far outweigh any gesture that Council could hope to accomplish through a sign.”

Cr Nadin argued that with a limited budget, it was time Council took a new approach.

“Spending $600 repairing or replacing these signs is not sustainable.”

Referencing a NSW Roads and Maritime study about the effectiveness of signage, Cr Nadin said that there is no evidence that such signs change social behaviour and suggested that as the public was not consulted when the signs were erected, there was clearly “social disharmony” on the issue, and Council should start again and consult more widely.

“I felt shame as a councillor seeing this social disharmony and the surge of vile commentary online,” Cr Nadin told the meeting.

Each councillor who spoke commented on “the barrage” of communications they had received about the issue, much of it inflammatory and insulting.

One of the Bega Valley's 'Welcome Refugee' signs. Photo: Ian Campbell.

One of the Bega Valley’s ‘Welcome Refugee’ signs. Photo: Ian Campbell.

Offering a countering point of view, Cr Cathy Griff suggested that council should not appear as though “we bow to vandals and criminals,” by removing the signs and offered her support for keeping the signs.

“I would like to offer reassurance that I understand the potency, the importance and the symbolism of the signs.”

Cr Griff also noted that the sign for Goats Knob Road at Mogareeka is continually being stolen and there is no question of not replacing it.

Tathra resident Angela Robbers spoke in favour of the signs.

“Current and future generations need these positive words,” Ms Robbers says “conversations about refugees may be challenging but it is time to start listening. For those of us who are displaying prejudice, such as vandals, it’s even more important. We can prevent further vandalism with education.”

Deputy Mayor Mitchell Nadin. Photo: Facebok

Deputy Mayor Mitchell Nadin. Photo: Facebok

In speaking for the motion, Cr Robyn Bain tried to convince the room that this need not be a debate about “whether or not we like refugees,” but simply a matter of deciding whether to maintain four signs.

“These signs have done the dead opposite to what they set out to do – which is to encourage inclusion. Why isolate refugees? We are who we are because of immigration and we welcome everybody, I don’t believe we need a sign for that.”

At the end of the discussion the Mayor called for a show of hands, only Crs Nadin, Allen and Bain voted for the motion. The majority of Councillors voted to keep the signs in their current locations and repair them as needed.

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