Northam WA hall meeting: a hotbed of racism?

World refugee day rally. Perth. Photo by Alex Bainbridge.

If you relied on only mainstream media reports of the November 4 town hall meeting in Northam, you would conclude the Avon Valley town, one hour from Perth, is a seething hotbed of racism of the most vicious kind.

The meeting was called to discuss the federal government’s plan to use the Northam army barracks as a detention centre for 1500 refugees seeking asylum.

The reports showed women wearing shirts with the slogans “bomb their boats” and “sink their boats”.

Mainstream media reported resident John Edwards saying: “If they jump that fence, they're going to steal my car, they're going to attack my wife and make their way to Perth and join in with groups of their kind [sic].”

State director of the immigration department (DIAC) John Moorhouse responded: “It isn't an offence under Australian law or international law for a person to seek protection.”

If the local head of the government body that oversees and justifies the inhumane treatment of refugees seemed sympathetic by comparison, how racist must the 700 other people have been?

But Perth Refugee Rights Action Network member Marcus Roberts attended the meeting and said there was another aspect to the meeting that didn’t get the same airplay.

Roberts told Green Left Weekly: “Racism is definitely there in Northam — we shouldn’t pretend that it isn’t. But the comments I heard in Northam, I’ve heard in Melbourne and Perth as well.

“What you’re seeing in Northam is a reflection of the diverse opinions that could be found in any part of Australia.”

One alternative view in Northam was put by 83-year-old farmer Eric Fox, whose farm is next to the barracks. (See )

Fox called for people to seek more information and to get to know the people from refugee backgrounds.

Fox told GLW he was disappointed by the coverage of his views by The Australian, which buried his comments deep in an article under a headline about opposition to refugees.

Roberts said the racist element at the meeting was a lot louder, but the crowd was split between supporters and opponents of the detention centre.

The November 10 Avon Valley Advocate said: “Despite the media’s portrayal of the meeting, there was a general feeling that at least as many people were prepared to accept the facility as those opposed and probably more if the large contingent not from Northam were discounted.”

Prominent WA “shock jock” Howard Sattler had broadcast his radio show from the local pub just before the meeting, which served to focus and amplify the racist element.

Far-right groups from outside Northam also attended the meeting.

There were three anti-racist events in Perth on the same evening as the Northam town hall meeting, including the Megan Sassi Memorial Lecture presented by Western Australians for Racial Equality. None of these anti-racist events were reported.

Roberts said: “If Julia Gillard expressed concerns the same way that Eric Fox did, we’d be having a much more sensible debate.

“[What we need to do is] oppose the detention centres, but welcome refugees.

“We can do that by housing them and making them part of the community rather than imprisoning them and cutting them off from the community.”