Ballina Shire Council opened yesterday’s meeting with a proposal from Cr Kiri Dicker that welcome packs be offered to local international refugee families. These would include a three month family pool pass, a Richmond Tweed library card, and temporary memberships to Ballina Indoor Sports Centre and Northern Rivers Community Gallery.
Marilyn Leeks from Ballina Region for Refugees spoke in support of the motion, explaining that the Community Refugee Integration and Settlement Pilot (CRISP) initiative was inspired by a successful Canadian model.
Cr Kiri Dicker said she’d been surprised to discover that Ballina was declared a Refugee Welcome Zone in 2015 by former mayor David Wright.
‘We have had two families settled in the Ballina Shire under this program, one from Syria and one family from Venezuela,’ she said.
Cr Dicker noted that she had grown up in an environment with ‘deep compassion for refugees’, as her mother Anna Dicker (now known for her work with Australian Seabird Rescue) had been a humanitarian aid worker for many years.
‘I think that leveraging our community assets is one of the best ways that we can support the refugee community,’ she said. ‘It comes at no cost to ratepayers, and it can make a really great contribution to helping people feel connected when they arrive in this country.
‘I can’t think of anything more difficult than having to resettle in a new country and build those social networks,’ she said. ‘The kind of places that you do that are at the pool, at the library and playing sports and engaging in artistic and cultural events.
‘So this is one small way that we can put into practice our status as a Refugee Welcome Zone, and I hope that you find it within yourself to support it today,’ said Cr Dicker.
Mayor Sharon Cadwallader downplayed former Mayor Wright’s gesture, saying that it merely signified that Ballina extended a welcome to all refugees.
Cr Rod Bruem wondered how many potential recipients there might be for the welcome packs. (Cr Dicker’s motion specified a limit of three per annum).
He went on to claim that Australia was the most welcoming country in the world when it comes to refugees, congratulating BR4R on their growth at a time when other community organisations are struggling for volunteers.
Cr Bruem said he supported the idea of welcome packs, but had some concerns about handing out free pool passes.
Wardell’s Cr Nigel Buchanan spoke against the welcome pack idea, asking where it would stop. ‘The argument that it’s not a cost is incorrect,’ he said. ‘Anything that we give away is a potential loss in revenue, which is a cost to Council.’
Cr Eoin Johnston spoke in favour of the idea, making a long speech about his compassion for people he’d encountered over the years who had escaped war zones and found new homes in Australia.
He said that it was untrue that migrants were taking all the Australian jobs, as in many cases they were doing jobs local born Australians didn’t want.
‘This is Ballina Council giving away a pittance, he said. ‘We’re saying welcome to this country, we’ll give you a little bit of a kickstart, and help you make a success of your transition.’
Cr Johnston noted that the motion was limited to three welcome packs a year. ‘If we can’t do something to help three immigrants coming from dangerous situations to our shore, and be made to feel welcome, then something’s wrong with us, I suggest.’
A useful token
Cr Steve McCarthy also spoke in support of the motion. ‘At the end of the day, it’s just a token,’ he said, also noting the large number of immigrants and refugees dying in Australia each year because they cannot swim. Cr McCarthy said the pool passes could help address that problem.
Cr Jeff Johnson also spoke in support, saying ‘we should be focusing on the benefits of this rather than the perceived financial costs for giving out a swimming pool pass which would otherwise just be sitting in the council administration building.
‘I see benefits in assisting people who come to our community, who have clearly suffered, and had a very traumatic experience. I think this is the least that we can do. I’m not sure why it’s limited to three offerings per year,’ said Cr Johnson.
Mayor Sharon Cadwallader spoke about meeting the local refugees with the Governor General when they were visiting Lennox Head, supporting the idea of swimming lessons for newcomers, and noted that Australia had welcomed 165,000 new citizens to Australia in the last year, from over 200 nationalities.
She said the Lions Club had previously distributed care packs to new citizens in Ballina but that had fallen by the wayside, saying information about Ballina Council’s activities would also be a useful part of the welcome packs.
Facebook vitriol vs community warmth
Cr Kiri Dicker closed the debate, welcoming the support of fellow councillors and noting the ‘unfortunate comments’ on social media surrounding the issue.
‘There were also some really positive comments,’ she said. ‘Someone who owns a swim school is already wanting to donate swimming lessons, which is fantastic.’
Cr Dicker told the story of a flood-affected resident of Wardell who supported the welcome pack idea, and said she would personally welcome refugee families to a cooked lunch as soon as she was able to get back into her home.
‘People who actually suffer or witness suffering firsthand, I think it makes you more compassionate, not less compassionate,’ she said. ‘So thank you to everyone who spoke, and thank you for your support.’
The motion passed with support from all councillors except Cr Buchanan.
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