What started as a simple council development application to build a local prayer hall in Kemps Creek snowballed into a politically charged litigation fought in the media and the court room. KINGSLEY LIU tells MELISSA COADE how his pro bono work for a small Indian Islamic community led him to represent other important human rights causes.
“In early 2014, I moved our law firm office from Darlinghurst to Penrith. My idea was that we would be closer to a true community. I expected it would be more conventional and joined a local branch of a political party, the chamber of commerce, and Toastmasters. I was supposed to be going local.
Around 10 months later, I turned up at the Penrith Council to support the Muhammadi Welfare Association (MWA), a small Indian Islamic community group, in its application to develop a local prayer hall. There was also another development application (DA) for a second neighbouring Islamic prayer hall in Kemps Creek. On that hot Monday night, the council chamber was two levels full and bristling with opposition. Two new prayer halls would be a challenge for the 50 Christian churches in the Western Sydney area. I was prodded by someone and somehow ended up in front of the microphone and speaking in favour of the proposal, but it was adjourned in order that more reports to be produced.
One month later, I returned for the deciding council vote. The outside area was filled with press, 30 police cars, long swaying groups facing each other, and plenty of skirmishes. The council was beyond capacity and hundreds of residents were waiting outside to contend with the TV crews. Once council passed the DA, I had to be escorted out safely. Weeks later, even my home office was not looking particularly safe, with a number of strangers spotted watching on.
A local group, which called itself the Protect Penrith Action Group, appealed the council decision on insufficient community consultation grounds. It had a number of local political identities favourable to their cause. The elders of the MWA felt besieged with hostile communications, and needed help to find the right voice. They called me. They had little by way of liquid funds, so I ran the case pro bono.
The case went hot in the local news. Local bikies and neo-Nazis came into the mix, and Penrith Facebook sites turned colourful, particularly after I used the word “bogans” to refer to those in opposition.
The matter went to the NSW Land and Environment Court at the end of 2015 with some ugly local meetings in between. It got a bit of mainstream media because other anti-Islamic mosque actions in the Bendigo, Cessnock and Hurstville areas were taking off at the time. Nevertheless, the MWA won in court. We were the only party to collect costs, since I agreed upon a modest level of security for costs from the applicant during the proceedings. The applicant went into receivership afterwards.
The upshot was that my diverse circle of friends leapfrogged. There is now a new junior cricket team in our local district competition and a fantastic open community garden that has been built next to the prayer hall. More meaningful direction has come my way ever since I walked up to that microphone at the end of 2014.”
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