An artist’s impression of the proposed mosque in Bendigo East.THE City of Greater Bendigo has welcomed a Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal decision to dismiss a claim of bias against its president and one of his deputies.
VCAT rejected the appeal brought by a group of local residents opposing the building of the city’s first mosque.
The group, Rights for Bendigo Residents, wanted VCAT judge Greg Garde and deputy president Mark Dwyer removed from the long-running case because they believe he is biased against them.
On March 13 and 20, the Victorian government Solicitor’s Office wrote to the group, requesting a series of alleged defamatory posts about Justice Garde and VCAT Deputy President Mark Dwyer be removed.
The letters stated that the posts suggested both men were biased and had conflicts of interest.
The group then launched an application to have Justice Garde disqualified.
On Monday, lawyer for the residents Robert Balzola argued Justice Garde should disqualify himself because the letters were sent to the group, which demonstrated Mr Garde himself was biased against the residents.
He said the letters were “damning” and were not about VCAT and its ability to conduct cases objectively, but about Justice Garde himself.
Lawyers for the Australian Islamic Mission, which wants to build the Bendigo mosque, objected to the application.
Justice Garde threw out the residents’ application and said he would not excuse himself. He said the letters were sent in March and yet the residents were happy for the case to be continued to May, when arguments for both sides finished.
He said it was in the best interests of the case, which has been ongoing in the tribunal since December, that it not be further delayed.
He reserved a decision on costs.
Bendigo resident Julie Hoskin said the group would appeal Monday’s decision.
Despite fierce opposition, City of Greater Bendigo approved plans for the mosque at a council meeting in June last year.
The council says it has been frustrated by delays in the case and is hopeful a decision on the development would soon be finalised.
“This application has experienced a number of delays, so it will be a relief to the applicants that VCAT can now focus on making a decision,” city planning and development director Prue Mansfield said.
Mayor Peter Cox said the appeal had “dragged on a bit”.
Asked if the decision meant a ruling on the original objection would be imminent, Cr Cox said: “You would hope so.”
Bendigo Islamic Association spokesperson Heri Febriyanto did not want to comment on Monday’s ruling, but reiterated his community’s wish to live in harmony in Bendigo.
About 15 residents have appealed to VCAT against Bendigo Council’s decision to give the Australian Islamic Mission a permit to build the mosque on a two-hectare piece of land between two industrial zones.
The multi-use centre, planned for Rohs Road in East Bendigo, will include two prayer halls, education facilities, a community sports hall, caretaker house and office.
– with The Age
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