Immigration Minister Chris Bowen has appointed a liaison officer to ease anger over a new detention centre in South Australia, while choosing to avoid upsetting community members himself.
Mr Bowen headed to South Australia on Monday, two weeks after the government first announced its decision to accommodate 400 asylum seekers – mostly families – into a former defence housing estate at Inverbrackie.
But in a move derided by the opposition as “sterilised” consultation, Mr Bowen avoided angry residents at the village of Woodside in the Adelaide Hills, instead holding meetings with councillors and stakeholders at nearby Stirling.
Opposition immigration spokesman Scott Morrison accused Mr Bowen of running scared. “He should be prepared to answer questions from the community broadly rather than this sterilised form of consultation,” Mr Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
“The minister was forced to go to South Australia today. He was forced to face even the most sanitised of consultations.”
Adelaide Hills Council mayor Bill Cooksley was also critical, noting he’d had just two phone calls with the government about Inverbrackie before Monday’s meeting with Mr Bowen.
“I have told the minister that the way this was lobbed on the community was unacceptable,” Mr Cooksley told AAP.
“But I expect that – he’s a new minister (and) it won’t be done in this manner ever again.”
From the outset, the decision to open the Inverbrackie centre was met with apprehension by some Woodside locals who are concerned that education and health services would be stretched to the limit.
On the back of continued criticism, the government moved to set up a community reference group, which is scheduled to meet for the first time this week.
Its members, who have been hand-picked by the immigration department, will convene regularly until the facility’s likely opening before Christmas.
A website and fact sheets will also be produced by the department.
Mr Bowen reassured residents they would not be left worse off by the facility’s opening.
“No child will be sent to a school where that school can’t cater for the child,” he told reporters.
“And let me again repeat while I am here at the Adelaide Hills, there will be no negative impact on local health services.”
Mr Bowen said a wide range of options were available to the community, including asking independent schools to accept students or bringing teachers to the site to set up a “mini-school”. Health workers may also be asked to do home visits, he said.
Mr Cooksley would not say if the community backlash was enough to reverse the government’s decision but said he hoped that whatever happened was not to the detriment of residents.
The Coalition, which is calling for a parliamentary inquiry, was particularly scathing of the use of a liaison officer, a situation which Mr Morrison described as government spin.
Mr Morrison, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott and local federal MP Jamie Briggs are due to hold their own open public meeting in Woodside on Wednesday.