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Foreign Influence in Local Government Elections

27 September 2018

Ms O'CONNOR (Denison - Leader of the Greens) - Mr Deputy Speaker, I move -

That the debate on the Justice and Related Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2018 be adjourned until tomorrow.

This is in order to give the House an opportunity to debate a matter it should have debated in the matter of public importance debate today, and that is foreign influence in Tasmania. It is one of the most significant questions this House should be dealing with. There was a deliberate effort made on the part of the Liberals using their numbers to make sure this House did not address stories that have been appearing in the Mercury newspaper and the Australian newspaper over the past two days which are extremely concerning. 

This House needs to debate this issue because this parliament is the vanguard of our democracy here in Tasmania. We now have credible evidence of foreign influence in local government elections in Tasmania. For people who did not read the article in the Mercury this morning - and I hope everyone has paid some attention - there were extremely concerning statements attributed to the Tasmanian Chinese News Network, the editor of which is Hobart City Council candidate Yongbei Tang.

Ms Tang has published statements on her news outlet to this effect and these statements must be read into the Hansard. The article in Chinese News Tasmania notes that 'Australia is a society dominated by white people' and called on Chinese people living in Tasmania to back Ms Tang's election. The author says, 'I want to see a powerful Chinese community', in the article which is translated from Mandarin to English, and continues: 

One councillor is far from enough. We need to put a nail in Tasmania's politics and add another one four years later. We have dominated business circles, now we need to establish ourselves in politics.

The quote goes on:

The Chinese community will become more established only when business power and political power join forces.

Mr Deputy Speaker, that represents a fundamental misunderstanding of democratic parliaments in the Westminster system. You cannot have a healthy functioning democracy if you have corporations and big business too close to political parties, governments and political leaders. That is a foundational principle of our democracy here in Tasmania. Although it has been corrupted by the major parties over the years, it remains a foundational principle.

For every person sitting in this House, no matter what party you are from, this is a country over party issue. No matter what party you are from, every person sitting in this House should be deeply concerned about the growing body of extremely credible evidence that the Chinese government is seeking to influence the outcome of Hobart City Council elections. There is extremely credible evidence, verified by people with expertise in this field.

Mr Hidding - So you reckon she's dodgy. This is a dodgy person, is it?

Ms O'CONNOR - No, I am not saying that. I know Yongbei Tang very well and have spent a lot of time with her.

Mr Hidding - Why are you standing here doing this, then?

Ms O'CONNOR - This is not about Yongbei, this is about the Chinese government. Don't be fooled. You may go back and read your interjections in the weeks, days or months ahead, and feel like fools. That is the risk you are running here.

Mr Hidding - No.

Ms O'CONNOR - Oh, yes it is.

Mr Hidding - You're talking about a book written by a failed Greens candidate.

Ms O'CONNOR - In New Zealand there has been an elected member of the New Zealand Parliament, a National MP -

Mr Jaensch - Democratically elected.

Ms O'CONNOR - Jian Yang, who it was not revealed to the people of New Zealand when they cast a vote for him, had spent 10 years lecturing in the Chinese Academy of Military Science, which is a People's Liberation Army-backed academy, Mr Jaensch. The problem we have here is wilful ignorance, wilful denial and, in fact, a form of treason. You cannot look at the evidence and say there is not something going on here. If you do not care to inform yourself, that is on your head, Mr Jaensch.

Let me tell you about a couple of United Front work group organisations that are operating in Tasmania right now. There is the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China. That is part of the propaganda work of the Chinese government. Where did they launch their Tasmanian chapter? Downstairs in the reception room where the Speaker of the day gave them permission, despite information on the public record that this council is part of the propaganda work of Xi Jinping's government in Australia and Tasmania.

Ms Archer - I had no such information at the time, and you know it. Ms Giddings didn't know either. 

Ms O'CONNOR - You should have informed yourself, former Madam Speaker, you made an egregious error in doing that.

Government members interjecting.

Ms O'CONNOR - I was talking earlier before I was shut down by the howls of the ignorant on Government benches -

Government members interjecting.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - Ms O'Connor, you are actually speaking about an issue we should be debating -

Ms O'CONNOR - I am moving to have the debate on the Justice and Miscellaneous Amendment Bill adjourned - 

Mr Hidding - Because of this dodgy citizen. 

Ms O'CONNOR - No, because of attempted foreign interference in local government elections in Tasmania.

Mr Hidding - Have you looked under the bed?

Ms O'CONNOR - Let us quote from ASIO, shall we? Imagine the Greens being the ones in here bloody well quoting ASIO! 

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order. Appropriate language please, Ms O'Connor.

Ms O'CONNOR - I withdraw that language. I quote now from an SBS report -

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - The member's time has expired.

 

...

 

Ms O'CONNOR (Denison - Leader of the Greens) - I am speaking now on the Justice and Miscellaneous Amendments Bill. I wanted to talk about some changes in legislation at the Commonwealth level, which will have an influence on justice in Tasmania and may require some miscellaneous amendments to legislation. It is not yet known. 

On 28 June this year, the federal parliament passed the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018. The legislation provides public and government decision-makers with visibility of the nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australian Government and political process. There is a requirement for foreign entities to register. A foreign principle is described in the legislation, which takes effect from 1 July 2019.

Foreign principles are described as a foreign government, a foreign government related entity, a foreign political organisation, a foreign government related individual. Categories of registerable activities under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 include: general political lobbying for the purposes of political or government influence; and disseminating communications activities for the purposes of political or government influence. Under the newly enacted scheme, registrants will be required to disclose information about the nature of their relationship with a foreign principle and activities undertaken pursuant to that relationship. I simply place that on the record as from 1 July next year organisations, for example like the Chinese News Tasmania, will need to register under Commonwealth law as being foreign principles. 

The reason that legislation was developed in the federal parliament was because of advice that had been coming to federal ministers, particularly to former prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, who engaged ex-journalist, John Garnaut, to undertake a body of work to examine what the level of foreign influence was in Australia at this point. A number of quite concerning reports of influence efforts, and the sort of information that John Garnaut provided to the former prime minister that led to the development of this legislation came from ASIO. 

ASIO had identified 10 state and local political candidates linked to Chinese intelligence agencies. This was reported in the Weekend Australian.

Australia's peak domestic intelligence agency would not say if it had uncovered links between 10 recent candidates and Chinese intelligence agencies but it said that a scheme to insert people in the right places to influence Australian politics while described as 'patchy but deep' has caused concern for ASIO.

One of the local and state government candidates was identified by ASIO, which he still holds today according to the report. 

It is my understanding that this candidate, who is a New South Wales Labor MP, will in all likelihood not be endorsed by the party at the next round of pre-selections.

The relationship, it is alleged, between that person who was elected in the New South Wales parliament and Chinese agencies reportedly began before he won a seat. While most of those believed to have close ties with Chinese intelligence and the communist party were involved in council elections, ASIO holds concerns about people at both state and federal levels. 

I am quoting from an SBS news report. The multicultural news organisation delivered this report. This report on SBS says: 

Fears centre around politics in Western Sydney and a Chinese diplomat who defected to Australia, told the Weekend Australian that there were overt attempts made by the Chinese government to influence opinions.

Mr Chen Yonglin, former PRC diplomat who defected to Australia is quoted as saying 'In Australia it seems there is no limitation at all. The Chinese do it publicly.'

Mr Yonglin, former PRC ambassador now living in Australia said it seems they are above the law in Australia. They are braver than their activity in the US.

Christopher Johnson, a former CIA senior China analysist who now works for the Center for Strategic and International Studies is quoted as saying in the New Zealand press in relation to concerns about foreign influence in New Zealand's democracy -

China has been very active in recent years placing and cultivating people at the grassroots political levels of western democracies and helping them to reach positions of influence.

In the Greens efforts to make sure this matter was debated properly, we had to endure the usual abuse and accusations of xenophobia and racism in relation to the concerns that we are raising. But when a candidate for a local government election in Tasmania publishes testimony that 'a nail needs to be put into Tasmanian politics', the sorts of accusations we hear from government members are water off a duck's back.

We are here to defend democracy and justice. We recognise that democracy is fragile, precious and it requires constant nurturing. You only have to take your eye off the ball for a second and you will see rights, freedoms and important democratic principles undermined either by corporations or right-wing governments of the day or, now we know, by foreign governments.

If any member of this House thinks we are going to back off, they need to think again. If the Leader of Government Business wants to ensure that the House does not have a sensitive debate about foreign influence and shuts down a matter of public importance debate, he needs to understand we will make that debate happen. He needs to understand, as does every government member in this place who has accused us of xenophobia or racism, that we take this responsibility extremely seriously. 

Unlike Government members, we have done our reading, briefed ourselves, been contacted by people who are members of the Chinese-Australian or Chinese-Tasmanian community. We have been contracted by people with expertise in matters of foreign influence in Australia. We know that we are on rock-solid ground. It is an uncomfortable conversation for the parliament to be having, there is no doubt about that at all.

Ms Archer - You seem quite comfortable.

Ms O'CONNOR - Well, former Madam Speaker, who allowed the United Front Work group into the reception room to launch its Tasmanian chapter, you are mistaking me for someone who cares what you think of me. I am simply speaking on behalf of the Greens and every Tasmanian who recognises how precious our democracy is. 

Ms Archer - You have no respect for anyone in this place.

Ms O'CONNOR - We will keep getting up in here and having this debate. If anyone thinks we are going to back off because it is uncomfortable or we do not like being called names, you misjudge us. We are Tasmanians first and as uncomfortable, sensitive and difficult as this debate is, we will persist. It may well be that Chinese influence in politics in Tasmania is a defining narrative of this term of government because of the unhealthy close relationship between the Hodgman Liberals and Xi Jinping's government. 

Somebody in this place has to speak truth to power, and it will be us. Somebody in this place has to highlight the misery and plight of a million people - Uyghur and Kazakh Muslims - who are imprisoned in the north of China right now. Somebody in this place has to speak for the suffering Han Chinese who live in an oppressive surveillance state. Somebody has to speak for people in Pacific nations, and Papua New Guinea, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Tanzania, where persecuted peoples are being bullied Xi Jinping's One Belt, One Road policy, which is splashing money around poorer countries and bullying to seek influence, threatening, for example, to repossess the airport in Tanzania because the government cannot pay its debt. 

If the Tasmanian Parliament cannot have these sorts of debates then democracy here is lost already. We have a responsibility to protect democracy at a local government level, at a state government level, and to the greatest extent that we can, at the federal level. We absolutely deny that this is about race or ethnicity. Those are the talking points of the CCP and the United Front Work group when people criticise their bullying totalitarian behaviours in China and abroad, so when we are accused of those revolting things it does not matter to us because we know it is not true.

Ms Archer - It's the way you do it. 

Ms O'CONNOR - Snipe away there, former Speaker who let the United Front Work group enter the reception room.

Ms Archer - It's not what the group that came into this House was called. You are wrong. Get your facts straight. 

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - Order. 

Ms O'CONNOR - The facts are, former Madam Speaker, that a United Front Work group, the national chair of which was Huang Xiangmo, asked you as Speaker -

Ms ARCHER - Point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I have been resisting calling a point of order on the member for Denison, Ms O'Connor, but in the interests of getting back to topic, I have no problem with a member coming in and making a contribution at the right time. We are on the Justice and Related Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendment) Bill, dealing with changes to various legislation. Although Ms O'Connor tried to relate it to the topic at the start of her contribution, I think she is well off topic now.

Mr DEPUTY SPEAKER - On the point of order, I have allowed the member a great deal of leniency but we are dealing with this legislation so if you could keep your comments to that. 

Ms O'CONNOR - Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Just before Ms Archer pulled me up, I was pointing out that Mr Huang Xiangmo, the former national chair of the Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, is a donor to the Liberal Party. A sum of $30 000 came from the Yuhu group of companies to the Liberal Party before the launch of the Tasmanian chapter of the Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China launch was held here, $30 000 went from a company that ASIO had warned the Tasmanian Liberals about and next thing you know, they are launching their propaganda arm in the reception room.

I note that the Justice and Related Legislation (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill 2018 makes some changes to the Evidence Act 2001, and I am simply laying out the evidence of foreign influence in Tasmania and making a very firm declaration that the Tasmanian Greens will stand up for democracy in this place, and we hope in time to bring our colleagues along with us - for the love of Tasmania.