Saturday, August 22, 2020

Here's Your "Weaponised Narrative": The Tasmanian Greens MPs And China

Note re NT election: I have a final roundup post about the NT election below this post and there will be live coverage here from 6:00 NT time (6:30 AEST)


This week there was an incident in the Tasmanian Parliament in which Greens Leader Cassy O'Connor became involved in a very sharp exchange with Speaker Sue Hickey after Hickey intervened while O'Connor was replying to claims by Labor MP Ella Haddad.

O'Connor had made a serious mistake, confusing a Hobart Buddhist monk with a Victorian property developer because they both had "Wang" in their names, and Haddad alleged the mistake was xenophobic.  The monk, Master Xin De Wang, is from time to time a subject of CCP influence claims and discussion of pro-Beijing positions, but denies any links to the CCP, and has been in the news regarding recent proposals to build a massive Buddhist temple near Campania, a proposal supported by both Hickey and Haddad and opposed by an adjacent landowner who wishes to build a quarry.

O'Connor, after apologising, suggested Haddad should pay more attention to China's human rights issues.  Haddad responded with a further speech that included lines like:

"When I responded to Ms O'Connor's mistake, I was calling out something very different. I was calling out racism, pure and simple"

Haddad's comments then went on to talk mainly about the potential impact of O'Connor's comments on Chinese Australians, but on my reading they at least have a bit both ways about whether the Greens Leader is herself racist or merely a cause of racism.  O'Connor was entitled to defend herself.

When O'Connor did defend herself on Thursday (extended transcript), accusing Haddad of promulgating a "weaponised narrative", Speaker Hickey eventually intervened, warning O'Connor that she was getting into hot water in terms of personal attacks.  O'Connor then further said that Haddad's attacks were "a lie" and then started criticising Hickey for not interrupting Haddad.  This resulted in a further intervention from the Speaker and a subsequent exchange of finger-pointing, "how dare you" (O'Connor to Haddad), "disgrace" (Hickey to O'Connor) etc and storming out.  Subsequently the Greens have complained to the Speaker about her actions while Labor has threatened to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee, whose members include O'Connor, Haddad and Hickey (all of whom would presumably have to recuse themselves).

Last night I made the following three tweets about the matter:

"So I've been watching the videos (see links in replies in this thread) and I can't see any reason why the accusations were stronger than those she was replying to; I'd say they were on pretty much the same level.  #politas"

"But that said, you just can't attack and defy the Speaker like that, even when the Speaker is clearly wrong.  Fortunate not to be named on the spot.  #politas"

"Also on the merits of the argument, I think the Tas Greens MPs for some years now have had a One Nationy edge to their China comments.  When called on it they accuse opponents of repeating CCP talking points. But just because the CCP would say it doesn't make it false. #politas"

The first two tweets were actually a bit lenient to O'Connor's position.  Haddad may have accused O'Connor of racism, but did not accuse her of lying, and my second tweet could be read as saying the Speaker was clearly wrong, which I'm not yet sure about, though I really do find it hard to see why O'Connor's comments at the point where Hickey first intervened were any more provocative than Haddad's.  But in response to the third, O'Connor said:

"In which Kevin Bonham makes an offensive claim without evidence or substance, and promulgates a weaponised narrative in the process. #politas"

I have in fact commented on Twitter briefly about why I think the Greens are One Nationy on China, mainly in 2018, but below is a previously unreleased (except last night, when I briefly released it by accident) draft of an article I wrote about this issue in July 2018.

My view is that the Tasmanian Greens' MPs' position on China - motivated primarily by extremely valid human rights concerns and some valid foreign influence concerns, but also influenced by a dose of slightly less valid enviro-NIMBYism - has indeed slipped over the edge into conspiracy theory and Hanson-like rhetoric.  A blunder of this sort is entirely unsurprising in the circumstances.

Previously unreleased draft from July 2018

Friday's Mercury (probably paywalled, but it was page one in the print edition, and rightly so) reported on some reactions by Greens Leader Cassy O'Connor to a great increase in skilled migration to Tasmania.  The report by David Killick noted that "visa applications backed by the State Government under business and skilled migration visa classes rose from 59 in 2013-14 to 572 last financial year." It paraphrased O'Connor as saying that 'the Government needed to explain why such a big increase was in Tasmania’s best interests'.

Then followed lengthy quotes from O'Connor alleging an "unhealthily close" relationship between the Hodgman Government and the Chinese Communist party.  This is, supposedly, "putting Tasmania’s sovereignty, food security and environment in jeopardy".  Supposedly Tasmanians have to be wary of aggressive Chinese expansionism, because the Chinese Government targets the families of Chinese people living abroad if they speak up against it.  O'Connor goes on to observe "On human rights and the environment, China has an appalling record. These are values most Tasmanians treasure."

Far from this being an isolated incident it is part of a recent run of Tasmanian Green commentary about rising Chinese influence, in contexts including Chinese purchase of agricultural and development land and the massive East Coast Cambria Green resort proposal.  All proposed large developments and big land sales to overseas or for that matter any interests need to be discussed on their merits, but we should talk about them intelligently and with care, and be very careful not to drag in irrelevant issues and in the process create silly conspiracy theories.

I wondered initially if the comments might have come out out of context (having been outright misquoted in the press a few times lately myself), and thought I should look closer.  But in fact this recent interview is mild compared to things the Greens have been saying in Parliament - statements that seem really odd for a self-styled modern progressive party.

I've had ups and downs with the Greens on various issues, but on the whole their presence on the state political scene helps keep major parties accountable for their treatment of the environment, even if on given issues they are prone to excess and error in their defence of it.  I don't think it is good for Tasmania if the Greens disappear down a spiral of increasingly shrill conspiracy theory, reducing their appeal to educated voters and leaving them beholden to cranks and closet racists.

I have many observations, at some length and in no particular order.


The suggestion open to be drawn from O'Connor's Mercury claims is that any well-off Chinese migrant is potentially an agent of influence for the Chinese government and that on this basis we possibly shouldn't be letting as many or perhaps any skilled Chinese migrants in.

Tasmania in fact remains the whitest state in the Commonwealth.  As of the 2016 census, people born in China were 0.6% of Tasmania's population, compared to the national average of 3.9%.  Tasmania is hardly being "swamped by Asians". If anything it can suffer culturally from its lack of ethnic diversity.  If such a trickle of skilled migration threatens our "sovereignty" then Sydney is obviously doomed and Melbourne must have been annexed long ago.


O'Connor's standard response to charges of xenophobia is along the lines of this (Hansard 14 June):

"I expect to hear, when whoever responds to this gets to their feet, that we are being xenophobic.  They are the talking points of the Chinese communist government when people raise questions about sovereignty and food security.  It is the Chinese communist government's agenda to have critics labelled xenophobes or racists in order to dampen debate."

But this is simply a genetic fallacy.  Just because it suits the Chinese government to have certain criticisms labelled xenophobic doesn't mean they're not. If it did, it would follow that no criticisms of China were ever xenophobic or racist.  The question of xenophobia needs to be considered on the evidence and not on whether China would agree with it, or on whether China is assisted by it being raised.

And on this score, there are parallels between O'Connor's most recent comments and late 90s first wave Hansonism.  That a sudden increase in assisted skilled migration to a still completely trivial number should be deemed suspicious and, prima facie, not in Tasmania's interests sounds a lot like the "swamped by Asians" playbook.  And implying that Chinese migrants will be required by China to lack regard for Tasmanian values while keeping loyalty to their original government and building supposed enclaves like Cambria Green might not be exactly the same thing as "They have their own culture and religion, form ghettos and do not assimilate" but the net effect is very much the same.  They are other and they will not be like us.

The us is rooted in an environmental and human rights Tasmanian exceptionalism that is dubious, since plenty of Tasmanians are strongly anti-Green.  Also, the Greens themselves waved through a major threat to Tasmanian freedom of speech, but O'Connor continues to boast about "robust free speech" in Australia.  (The 2012 bill was fixed up by the Legislative Council, saving Tasmania from becoming a cotton-wool censorship state that would have been a laughingstock of the western world until the High Court inevitably intervened.) O'Connor has also given as defences that she grew up in Asia and has "plenty of Chinese Tasmanian friends." Surely the Greens, after years of listening to homophobes saying how many gay friends they have, would know how weak and insulting an argument that is.


The Greens have a long history of dismissing sovereignty arguments whenever it suits them to do so, often rightly so.  Arguments about Tasmania's sovereignty were made by an early Tony Abbott in defence of Tasmania's supposed right to keep anti-gay laws on the books.  They were made by Robin Gray who tried to dam the Franklin after being given a clear mandate to do so by the voters.  They have been made by those who want to prevent more Tasmanian land from becoming World Heritage listed.  The Greens dismissed all of those, so where do they get off at with this sudden display of almost Brexity statism?

It's been really hard for me to pin down what the Greens' very vaguely expressed "sovereignty" claim really is.  To show that both the current state MPs are in on the big story, here's Dr Rosalie Woodruff from Hansard of 14 June:

"This project represents a fork in the road.  This project is an essential building block for the Chinese Communist Party to take residence in Tasmania and to use it as a launch pad for its various strategic objectives.  A primary objective is to use Tasmania as a stop-off on the way to Antarctica. 

Australia's Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop, has grave concerns about what is happening in the South China Sea and grave concerns about Australian companies and governments incautiously jumping into arrangements with businesses which can only operate outside of China with the blessing and help of the Chinese Communist Government.  A scholar from the University of Tasmania [who? - KB] has made that clear.  This is how business operates in China.  This is not an issue of racism or xenophobia.  This is a question of state sovereignty.  This is a question of our ability to manage our resources for our children, for our security as a state, for our food and water supply, and for our ability to determine our future."

But apart from Cambria Green supposedly being an enabler of a base (for what?) on the way to Antarctica (which isn't part of Tasmania anyway) is Cambria Green really different to any of the other issues to do with Tasmanian developers being given free rein to do things the Greens don't like?  Supposing it's a poor decision if approved, it's still totally unclear what the threat to our future decision-making abilities arising from that decision is meant to be.

Some further hints appear to lie in an article by Martin Flanagan that was approvingly retweeted by O'Connor days before Woodruff's comments above.  The article was undermined by a howler (see correction at the bottom) but gets to the pointy end with this:

"As recently as last month, Australia was told by a senior Chinese official that "it must abandon traditional thinking and take off its coloured glasses". What does that mean exactly? It seems necessary in this context to state two obvious facts. One, China is not a democracy. Two, it is a country we have indicated we may be prepared to go to war with in the event of conflict in the South China Sea.

Imagine it is not 2018 but 1913. Britain and Germany are the world's two vying superpowers; we are tied to Britain. Would anyone think it wise to build a German village in the middle of Tasmania? To be selling our farmlands, our food security, to massive German interests?"

So it seems that the argument is that we even need to minimise Chinese presence in Tasmania because there might soon be a war with China.  But the business and property rights of enemy foreign nationals are common casualties of war, so what this really boils down to is that if we allow stuff like Cambria Green and there is a war, there will be more people from China here than there otherwise would have been. It's not far from the classic Yellow Peril.  When we consider the totality of the Greens' position including the endorsement of the Flanagan piece, if their position is not xenophobic, then what is?

Moreover, just because it might be "1913" doesn't mean it is, or that anyone in 1913 had much idea of what was actually coming.  Predictions of impending war are commoner than actual wars.  There were actually many Germans and Austrians in Tasmania in 1913, including the Austrian Gustav Weindorfer, a major wilderness conservation pioneer in the state. That they were here proved to be much more of a problem for them than it was for the state, as they were persecuted.  Put the Flanagan article's sentiments in a time machine and send it back to that time; I doubt it would have helped.


A further source of the Greens' mindset is a book by Clive Hamilton about Chinese influence in Australia.    After the internet filtering debate my mind developed a Hamilton filter that meant that from time to time I would see statements by Hamilton, think how ridiculous they were (whether they presented hardline climate doomery or old-fashioned gender-conformist crap that is sexist against both men and women)  and then forget about them five minutes later.    So I haven't really been paying attention yet to the fuss surrounding Hamilton's "Silent Invasion" or its exact content, but since it seems to be a source of this strange alignment between the Greens and right-wing militarists in the Liberals, I probably should.  However, I will not be buying it.

The book raises concerns about sovereignty issues surrounding influence-buying in Australian politics and also control of Chinese-language publications and intimidation of critical members of the diaspora.  Whatever the merits of Hamilton's claims, it seems the Tasmanian Greens have been so influenced by it that they now wish to apply Hamilton's critique to aspects of Tasmania's relationship with China irrespective of whether aspects of that critique in fact apply to any given situation or not.

Hamilton, as it happens, is also big on using the genetic fallacy against critics.  Tim Soutphommasane says Hamilton "stokes anti-Chinese prejudices", China says the same thing, so Soutphommasane is wrong.   The truth of a claim is determined not by the facts but by whether it suits the agenda of the CCP baddies.  Alas, many in the green movement are suckers for this sort of thing.  Again and again in the forestry debate I saw scientific facts rejected by deep greens for no other reason than that if they helped the forest industry they must not be accepted as true.


The Greens' careless messaging is all the more strange given the Greens' positioning on refugees.  Once upon a time it was common for people with green views to support immigration restrictions on the grounds that Australia's environment was so sensitive that Australia needed to aim for zero population growth.  Scientifically, that argument is weak, because Australia can sustain  some increases without major ecological impacts provided that the impacts are contained to areas that are already trashed.  Especially around the time of the Tampa incident (2001) Green supporter sentiment shift away from an obsession with zero population growth and towards a humanitarian focus on refugees.

It was still possible for Greens to argue coherently, as Bob Brown did in 2010, that we should not seek rapid population growth towards a "big Australia" and that in choosing who we admit we should prioritise refugees, those who needed to come here, over economic migrants, who merely wanted to.  However, one of the arguments against a large refugee intake from the paranoid right is that we should not let refugees from certain countries in because they (or their offspring) might become terrorists.  When the Greens start endorsing paranoia about letting Chinese people into the state because they might do something dangerous, they legitimise exactly the same charge against their own pro-refugee policy from Hanson and her ilk.


Some Australians have been drawn to support the Greens by the party's progressive support for personal liberty in areas such as gay rights, abortion rights, drug law reform and euthanasia.  The party is also attractive to many tertiary-educated people with an interest in the environment.  Young voters (and not only young voters) are often very switched on by these aspects of the Greens' positioning, thinking that they have found the party that speaks to reason and evidence and that has a strong moral compass as well.

However there is no necessary connection between an environmentalist position and a socially liberal "progressive" one, and indeed there is some tension there, because Greens social policies are usually about letting people do what they want while environmentalism is often about stopping them.  Also, while environmentalism as a movement relies on the language of science, it can be prone to conspiracist thinking, especially when confronted with evidence that doesn't fit the intuitions of people who haven't done a lot of science.

So it is not surprising that there can be outbreaks of conspiracy-theory laden xenophobia and also social illiberalism within environmental movements.  (An example of the latter is the presence within the Victorian Greens of Nordic Model anti-sex-work campaigners, whose position (while supposedly derived from "radical" feminism) is ultimately paternalist.  So far the Tasmanian party has commendably resisted this push.  This is, however, not for want of trying from the local equivalents. )


Unfortunately the initial online reception of O'Connor's comments only highlighted the extent to which the reception of contentious speech is partisan.  Had Pauline Hanson or Andrew Hastie made similar comments during a visit to the state Twitter would have been abuzz with condemnation and cries of racism, but in this case it took most of the day on the #politas hashtag for anyone to say anything.

Even after two days of these comments being public, I notice that the few Greens on Twitter who are attacking O'Connor's comments are from interstate.  The local left has so far gone completely to ground.  Perhaps local Greens agree with O'Connor's statements and are afraid to endorse them for fear of being branded racist . (Poor petals if so, cuddle up with Ross and Mark on the Sky News Outsiders couch and you'll be fine.)

Or perhaps they don't, and are concerned about the state their party is now in.

---draft ends---


  1. It's things like this which reveal the deep flaws with the Greens' decentralised confederate structure. The Tassie party - or its MPs, but more than any other state Greens party the Tas Greens are run by their MPs rather than the other way around - can go off like this and there are no mechanisms for bringing them back into line, and any public statements from MPs in other states can be seen as undermining state autonomy. There are precious few opportunities from inside the state either, as MPs will throw their weight around to ostracise and isolate any member who speaks against them - look at what happened to Jax (Holly) Ewin a couple of years ago.

    It's a flaw brought into even sharper relief by the fact that Bob Brown, as a figure with significant media profile but no formal position in the party through which to hold him accountable, can make as many public statements as he likes about events and positions interstate with which he disagrees.

    It's a perfect storm of having separate state parties and in Tassie a state party with the least amount of mechanisms for bringing MPs into line (as well as a culture of not criticising MPs) which can allow Cassy to take years of effort by Greens across the country on anti-racist activism and run it into the ground.

  2. As someone with a Chinese wife, I must say that I had noticed an increase in casual racism/bigotry towards Chinese from the Left. Often it was framed in "Sustainability" or anti-development terms, but as you say, the outcome was still this Hanson-ist "we don't want these people coming here taking our jobs and our land!".

  3. As a Greens member I really wish O'Connor would rein it in on the Sinophobia. Bob Brown has a history of making bad and xenophobic arguments when they fall in his favour. However other aspects of the Greens in this article aren't the full story.

    I haven't really seen the Sinophobia from the Greens outside of Tasmania and Bob Brown's immediate sphere of influence. Indeed Greens in other states are Chinese and campaigned on WeChat. Clive Hamilton is very unpopular in other sections of the Greens.

    There's an odd SWERF element in one branch of the Victorian Greens but their party policy (even at a state level) is decriminalisation. The SWERF candidate has has at least twice turned a winnable state seat into a bridge too far and I'll be surprised if Maltzahn gets preselected again.

    Also the (Australian) Greens have explicitly resisted Malthusianism for years now, which has created the niche for the likes of Sustainable Australia. It is, in fact, no longer a common view in the Greens leadership.

    The Greens leadership seems to be moving away from what you talk about in this article. I think the Greens decentralised "coalition of state parties" structure is the only thing stopping Adam Bandt from pulling rank on O'Connor.

    1. I agree with those comments. Noting that the 2018 article was a draft, and I only published it today to show that my concerns have substance behind them, there are probably a lot of places where "Greens" would ideally be changed to "Tasmanian Greens MPs".

  4. If Cassy O'Connor doesn't want to be called a racist she should stop saying racist things.

    She is now on twitter attempting to define who is, and is not, a "real" buddhist.

    The absolute audacity of the middle class white people in the Greens.

  5. Do you plan to write a critical essay on Tasmania Liberal and Labor at some stage? I am sure there is no shortage of material if you bothered to look.

    1. I am sure there are no shortage of such articles on this site already if you bothered to look.

  6. I’d love to love the Tasmanian Greens. Maybe if they started listening to other people instead of just each other, they would be a bit more choosy about the issues they profess to care about. But in fairness, the Greens are as vulnerable to disinformation as anyone. Possibly more so.

    But I agree. They are letting the side down. They need to be the strong balancing force they assumed after the demise of the Democrats.

    1. I think they're actually fighting for a good cause in terms of opposing Chinese human rights abuses and territorialism, but fighting it too hard to the point where they lose all discernment about which issues involving China are real foreign influence issues and which are not and start to imagine influence attempts everytime China is mentioned.

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