Unquiet graves: Muslims add to criticism over the great cemetery takeover

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CMCT, NSW cemeteries, Dominic Perrottet
Source LMA: Samier Dandan addresses a crowd

Sydney’s Muslims are considering a complaint to ICAC over Premier Dominic Perrottet’s apparent favouritism towards the Catholic Church’s attempted takeover of NSW cemeteries, reports Callum Foote.

The Muslim community should be an important part of any decision-making around the provision of cemetery plots. As the wider community moves away from the practice of burials, Muslims, despite their small proportion of the population, represent 40% of burials. 

But the government’s dealings in this process, particulary its apparent favouritism towards the Catholic Church, has left this community feeling excluded. 

The NSW Government must abide by its duty to all religious and cultural groups to provide burial space at affordable rates, while allowing for all religious and cultural requirements. As MWM has reported over the past fortnight, the whiff of corruption can be found in the most unlikely places.

Samier Dandan, a senior advisor of the Lebanese Muslim Association, has come out strongly against what he sees as the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney’s attempt to wrap up Sydney’s cemetery sector against the interests of other religious groups. The association conducts roughly 85% of Islamic burials in Sydney

Dandan disagrees with repeated attempts by the Catholic Church and its cemeteries operator, the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (CMCT), to avoid amalgamation and take control of Sydney’s most valuable cemetery assets.

The association also informed Premier Perrottet in a letter on October 13 that “by engaging the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney’s reform agenda the LMA is concerned that CMCT may have also engaged in corrupt conduct as defined by the Independent Commission Against Corruption Act 1988 (the ICAC Act).

The association had the issue of the trust attempting to undermine the government-developed OneCrown proposal, which would see a single government entity running Sydney’s publicly owned cemeteries, brought up in Sydney’s largest mosques last Friday.

The Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust claims that its alternative proposal, which would see the most valuable cemetery assets being managed by a Catholic operator effectively crippling the public operator, is supported by the majority of faith groups.

The trust says that its proposal has the support of the Muslim community through the Muslim Cemeteries Board, however, it appears as though the Muslim Cemeteries Board only conducts roughly 1% of the Muslim community’s burials through a deal with the trust at Kemps Creek in Sydney’s west.

A poll circulated through Sydney’s Muslim population on Friday, by the LMA, already has over 12,000 responses, 99% of which favour the OneCrown proposal.

For Dandan, if the cemetery sector is to be run in the interests of all Sydney’s religious and cultural groups, “it needs to remain as the responsibility of the state”.

The burial rights of all religious and cultural groups rights are protected under the 2013 Cemeteries and Crematoria Act, which was extensively lobbied for by many religious groups.

“This is not an attack on the church,” Dandan says. “But given that our rights are protected under the act, and the OneCrown entity would again guarantee those rights, why should any religious or cultural group let go of that framework which protects the rights of all to another group who seeks to dominate the sector and to who we would be at the mercy of, with no legal recourse?”

Dandan’s sentiments are echoed by the president of the Australian Federation of Islamic Councils, Dr Rateb Jneid, who has also written to the Premier over what he deems to be “serious concerns with respect to proposed changes in the control of NSW Crown Cemeteries”.

“The pursuit of control of NSW Crown Cemeteries by one faith community undermines the process that has developed to the point of enabling all communities to be equally represented, “ Jneid writes. “This letter appeals to our government to protect all faiths by keeping the control of the cemetery in the hands of a group whose members are representative of the different ideological traditions that compose our citizenry.”

The issue has caused the Lebanese Muslim Association to become politically active in the past. It campaigned for the Liberal Party at the 2011 NSW election. In the seat of Lakemba, there was a 27% swing against Labor.

Dandan says that the campaign was conducted over “the exact same problem we are facing today. The Muslims supported the Liberal Party in their campaign on the basis of the shortage of burial spaces and at that time, Labor didn’t want to bother finding a solution.”

“The only thing we asked for was guaranteed space for burial. We put a lot of money, effort and resources to supporting that campaign. Fast forward 10 years, we are at the same point.”

Dandan concluded that “If it means we need to go out again, to play the only game that politicians seem to respond to, then we will”.

A letter from Investment NSW advises that the Catholic Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust’s proposals to Investment NSW “may constitute direct dealing with the CMCT, as it constitutes exclusive dealings between a government agency and a non-government sector body over a commercial proposition or proposal.”

Moreover, the Lebanese Muslim Association states that while the four other Crown trusts have already amalgamated and moved over to the new Crown Lands Act 2016, the CMCT is the only Crown sector operator to not do so.

To date, there have been five extensions allowing the CMCT to avoid being part of the amalgamation.

When the minister responsible for Crown land, Melinda Pavey, informed the CMCT in June 2020 that it would be required to transition to the new act, and an administrator was to be appointed to stand down the trust, the Catholic Church launched a significant lobbying and media campaign to ensure it received another extension.

The Lebanese Muslim Association’s lawyers note that as a direct result of these extensions, the preferred OneCrown proposal has been unable to proceed leading to greater uncertainty within the Muslim community.

The association noted that if the CMCT is provided with another extension, then they would consider the NSW Government’s actions to “be inexplicable and fall short of the public’s expectations of an open and transparent government”.

The association advises the Premier that should the government be considering another option to the OneCrown proposal, “the LMA will have no choice but to seek a referral to ICAC and/or an application to the Supreme Court.”

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