A furore has erupted in the Victorian Parliament after the State ALP Member for Frankston, Alistair Harkness, accused Bruce Billson, the Federal Liberal Member for Dunkley, of using a stoush over public housing to incite a racist campaign against Africans.
During an extraordinary adjournment debate in the Victorian lower house last night, Harkness called on the Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission to investigate the distribution of offensive pamphlet, which claimed an influx of African migrants into a planned public housing development would lead to a crime wave.
However, after making his objections known, Harkness went on to accuse Billson and Victorian upper house member Inga Peulich of inflaming the controversy, in an echo of the Lindsay pamphlet scandal that erupted in the last days of the 2007 federal election campaign.
“While Mr Billson identifies himself and his public statements as a leader of a ‘community campaign’ on this issue, he has consistently misrepresented the facts and incited the sort of response we saw last weekend”, Dr Harkness told the lower house.
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“Whilst undoubtedly the actions of some people in the local area may have led to this outrage, it is now imperative that Bruce Billson, Inga Peulich as well as the outspoken …”
The Deputy Speaker, Ann Barker, was then forced to intervene, warning Harkness over standing orders which prohibit accusing fellow members of “improper motives”. The statement led to vigorous interjections from opposition members.
The offensive pamphlets, headed “Do You Want Frankston to Become Like Dandenong”, repeat a false assertion that the state government is planning to build 386 housing commission flats in central Frankston. They claim that an influx of migrants would lead to higher crime rates and say Africans have been responsible for rape and machete attacks in other municipalities.
The pamphlets were taped on to poles and left under windscreen wipers around Frankston train station last weekend.
Billson told Crikey that the apparent attempt to manufacture a Lindsay-style controversy was “outrageous and wrong.”
“The first I heard about the leaflets were from the Member for Frankston’s speech. This is an issue of significant concern, is factually incorrect and beneath the State Parliament.”
Billson called on the Government to come clean on its plans for the development. The federal MP has been running a community campaign on his Frankston Liberals website, which repeats the “386” figure used in the pamphlet.
However, Harkness says the “386” figure did not relate to any Frankston proposal, but from the total number of public housing projects planned across the state.
“If it has been proposed that I am somehow suggesting the Member for Dunkley produced the pamphlets, than I am outraged by the the suggestion,” he said.
When asked how Billson and Peulich had “incited” the pamphlets, Harkness pointed to a campaign against the development that was being run out of Billson’s office.
The pamphlets were condemned yesterday by Harkness’ ALP colleague John Pandazopoulos, who branded them ”outrageous” and “racist”.
Activists monitoring far-right groups in the Frankston region have told Crikey that a variety of unsavoury outfits are active in the area. They said it was possible that an individual might have been to blame.
There has been a long-running to-and-fro over the Frankston public housing proposal, that has been fast-tracked in the wake of the Federal Government’s stimulus package. State planning minister Justin Madden now has the power to “call in” priority projects from local councils in order to boost construction activity. The Frankston proposal has been significantly scaled back after local objections and it remains on the drawing board.
A Frankston councillor recently claimed the suburb risked being branded as “Frankghanistan”, if an influx of migrants was permitted, while Billson has accused the government of hiding “secret plans”.
Meanwhile, the Victoria Police Security Intelligence Group is believed to have launched an investigation in to the source of the pamphlets.