Tamworth, 595 kilometres north of Sydney, each year welcomes more than 50,000 people to its music festival. The town boasts it is the Australian equivalent of "Nashville", albeit on a small scale.
But in the lead-up to this year's country and western extravaganza, which began on January 19, Tamworth hit the headlines for its less welcoming attitude towards five Sudanese refugee families who were to be resettled there.
On December 15, Tamworth Regional Council decided by a vote of eight to four against resettling the Sudanese families under a program organised and partly funded by the department of immigration (DIMA). The new arrivals would be Category 200 visa holders; they have full refugee status and their airfares are paid for by the Australian government.
Mayor James Treloar led the opposition. Various arguments were put as to why the Sudanese families would not fit in, including water shortages and inadequate community services. The mayor told some media that having more Sudanese in the town could lead to "a Cronulla-type situation", referring to the December 2005 race riots in which white youths attacked youths of Arabic background. It was reported in the media that Treloar also questioned DIMA's ability to screen African refugees for infectious diseases.
Widespread protests followed, including from refugee-rights and church groups. Many townsfolk who were vox-popped by the media said they could not understand why Tamworth couldn't accommodate five war-weary families. Even federal Coalition MP for Cook Bruce Baird weighed in, criticising the council's decision, and offering his electorate as an alternative.
Immigration minister Amanda Vanstone said she would not force the council to change its mind, but the outcry, which continued over Christmas, seems to have pushed the council to revisit its decision. The council decided on January 16 to investigate Tamworth becoming a resettlement centre, and to undertake a year-long trial.
While Treloar insists the decision was not a backflip, Paul Power from the Refugee Council of Australia (RCA), which had been urging the change, said: "The experience across the country shows that Australia is well-equipped at supporting refugees through the adjustment phase … The debate in Tamworth has highlighted the many local people and organisations willing to play a part in this."
Last year, DIMA accepted around 3700 Sudanese out of a total refugee and humanitarian intake of around 14,000. In 2005, there were approximately 24,000 Sudanese living in Australia.
Around 25 Sudanese people are already living in Tamworth on a similar resettlement program. Many more Sudanese have successfully resettled in other regional centres, such as Toowoomba in far-north Queensland and Wagga in NSW.
Armidale in NSW has become home to six groups of Sudanese since 2003. Jan Wyles from Armidale Sanctuary is proud of her group's efforts in helping the African refugees make a new life for themselves, but she worries that there is not enough federal support for the resettlement process.
"In the cities, full physical and mental health screening is provided for refugees on arrival. Country areas have lagged behind", Wyles told Green Left Weekly. "One of our GPs, in particular, has put in a wonderful effort and, at his urging, Hunter New England Health recently held its first refugee clinic. But what of mental health checks for people who have come from backgrounds that most certainly include trauma and possibly torture?"
Jerzy Zubrzycki, who worked on government immigration advisory bodies for three decades from the 1960s, also argues that the Howard government is not spending enough on migrant resettlement programs, especially on Africans who have fled war zones and often spent years in refugee camps. Michelle Grattan in the January 2 Age quotes Zubrzycki criticising the government for "dumping" people in rural communities without providing services, including health, trauma counselling and education.
Some Tamworth councillors did not bother to disguise their racism. In December, Treloar insisted that the Sudanese in Tamworth were responsible for a mini crime wave, even though the local police disputed this.
BBC reporter Phil Mercer on January 15 quoted one Tamworth resident as saying: "They [the Sudanese] don't know our laws and what our culture is like and they are just plonked here, they are going to react as they would in their own country, which is totally different to the Australian way of life." Another told the ABC's AM program on January 16: "We should not be slow to learn from the lessons of history. It is a fact that too many people from a different culture being dislocated from their usual cultural surrounding too quickly leads to problems."
There is a renewed push by the likes of Pauline Hanson and Andrew Robb, parliamentary secretary to the immigration minister, to legitimise a divisive and mean-spirited approach. On December 6, Hanson accused new arrivals from Africa of spreading disease and said they were of no benefit to Australia. The RCA criticised her ignorance and cowardice, and called on all political parties to condemn her comments.
Robb, who is pushing the controversial new citizenship test, told the Herald Sun's John Masanauskas on December 29 that if African refugees are to be an "effective" part of our community, "they need to quickly come up to speed with our way of life in Australia".
Since World War II, more than 675,000 refugees have settled in Australia. According to RCA, more than 1 million people have experienced life as a refugee, or have a parent or grandparent who has.
Howard and Robb may want to take us back to the 1950s, but, as the Tamworth council's backflip signals, these reactionaries will have a struggle on their hands.