WE WERE kicked out of the Wonthaggi Plaza last month. For over two years a local refugee support group, South Gippsland Rural Australians for Refugees, had been meeting outside the plaza for an hour on the first Saturday of each month.
We distribute information about refugees, explaining why they need to flee their birthland, to inform people about the current treatment of refugees, films we are screening, and to have various petitions and letters signed.
But in August the Coles manager came to tell us we had no right to be there, that this was private property and we needed permission from the plaza manager. So much for the community support Coles speaks of on its website.
We chose the plaza as a meeting place as it was public, spacious and had a roof. It had been a great decision. We stand outside but to the sides and away from the doors, usually around the large pillars, making sure we do not block the foot traffic or other traffic.
Between four and ten of us stood quietly with signs such as; “Everybody has a right to a safe home” and “Refugees are welcome here”.
People would come up to speak about refugee issues, take a flier, sign a petition or just have a laugh and a chat. Some would drop a dollar into our collection box to be passed onto organisations that support refugees. Some walked past quickly, looking the other way. Some turned a frowning face towards us and some let us know clearly that they would rather not let refugees into Australia. But the latter were in the minority.
The manager of Wonthaggi Plaza, Joy Huson, responded:
We have recently spoken to a representative of RAR and offered them space within the centre, with a table and chairs, free of charge, where customers can approach them to find out more about RAR and the good work that they do.
For any local group to come into the centre, they must have public liability insurance and we happily accommodate them. To date they have not taken us up on this offer.
Please understand, we do not allow ANY group to hold a rally outside the shopping centre, but they are always welcome (in smaller numbers) to book a space inside the centre.
We wrote to the manager of Wonthaggi Plaza, Joy Huson, telling her who we are, what we have been doing and asking permission to keep meeting at the plaza. She said no. We could, she said, apply each month for permission to have a little table with one, at the most two, people sitting inside the plaza but no, we could not resume the meetings we had been holding for two years. We could be like all the other charities. But we are not a charity. We are a community organisation whose members enjoy interacting with other members of the community.
So much for supporting community unity, interaction and spirit. It seems we are only welcome at the Wonthaggi Plaza if we are spending money there.
I contacted David Whiting, the lawyer on Jon Faine’s morning program on the ABC. He told me that Joy had every right to banish us as we were meeting on private property.
These newcomers have the law on their side but so did Vesteys, the huge pastoralists, when they amassed huge chunks of Australia and did not allow the first people to hunt there.
The Wonthaggi historian, Sam Gatto, told us of a long ago Wonthaggi where people used to gather in town and discuss all sorts of things and life in general. Gatherings in public places were a part of the Wonthaggi community when each was helping the other during the miners’ strike. I feel it remains in the friendly feeling of Wonthaggi I have when I walk the streets, smile at people and have chats. It is even in our Wonthaggi song:
“As I walk down the street
All my pals I will greet
On the same corner where we used to meet.”
Being free to gather in public places is a part of the friendly Wonthaggi community, part of the ethos of the town. Even though the plaza is privately owned it is where the public is invited to spend their money. Then why not to meet one another, to gather and discuss the issues of the day?
Felicia Di Stefano is a member of South Gippsland Rural Australians for Refugees.