CASSY O’CONNOR: Changing the Island Mentality

CASSY O’CONNOR: Changing the Island Mentality

Cassy O'Connor is the Tasmanian Greens Leader and MP For Denison. As a former Minister for Multiculturalism, O'Connor is a strong advocate for diversity in Tasmania, regularly attending and speaking at rallies on behalf of some of Tasmania's most vulnerable. As the daughter of an ABC foreign correspondent, O' Connor lived in Southeast Asia, Singapore and Japan and experienced a childhood she describes as 'very un-Australian'.

THE PIN. While living abroad did you ever have the experience of being ‘the other’?
CASSY O’CONNOR. Definitely, I’ll tell you a short and embarrassing story about being in Tokyo. We’d come from New Delhi and my experience in childhood was Indian people; Indian people everywhere that was my life. We came to Tokyo and because I was a little blonde kid all these people wanted to touch me and they would say ‘ahhh Kawaī akachan’ (beautiful child) and I would scream at the top of my lungs. For me, the otherness was actually as a small child being so accustomed to being surrounded by Indian people and then going to Japan and being, in my toddler brain, really shocked by it.  As Australians we were an ‘otherness’ but I never felt personally that that was a problem.

Do you recall some moments of cultural understanding, moments where you thought ‘ah hah’ this is what I have to do to fit in here? 
C. What I must’ve realised I had to do was learn the language; I used to interpret for my parents in Japan. Once I got over my irrational terror I started learning the language just by osmosis as children do. Part of fitting in for me, must have been in my child brain, I need to be able to talk to the people around me. It was the need to communicate, which is such a fundamental, it’s so important to who we are and how we feel about ourselves and other people.

Living overseas, did you have the experience of being asked where you were from and how did you respond? 
C. I can’t remember if I ever had that experience. When I was Minister for Multiculturalism in Tasmania I think it used to happen to people a bit ….the other question is ‘how did you get here’ because unfortunately, in this country, some people use the means of your arrival as a cause for judgment. I’m always curious to know how people arrived, only because I am interested in people's’ stories. I do think some of our new arrivals are judged differently because of the means of their arrival.

Aside from being Tasmanian Greens Leader, you’re also the representative for Denison, the most culturally diverse part of Tasmania. Do you see the celebration of diversity we have in Denison evolving in other parts of the state?
C. When I arrived in Tasmania nearly thirty years ago it was not a particularly multicultural place. The marvellous change that we have seen in Tasmania, particularly in the last 10 – 15 years, it’s just been a beautiful thing.

In Denison, I might just refer to it as greater Hobart, people really don’t think about what Denison is, it’s an arbitrary boundary. In greater Hobart it has really impressed me, the embrace of new arrivals. As Tasmanians we’ve said come on in, we want you to make this place your home. In return we’ve had this richness of culture, music, and stories, incredible stories that we’re told now that we never had before. So you are seeing this kind of energy that goes with the new arrivals that is really quite striking.

We discussed the Moonah Taste of the World festival, an annual event celebrating the cultural diversity of Hobart before turning to history. In 1999, two hundred Kosovan Albanian refugees from Kosovo arrived in Tasmania, driven from their homeland by the Serbian Army. The Tasmanian Safe Haven, a refurbished army camp, was the first place in Australia to offer refuge to fleeing people.

I think [as an island] we’re always a bit wary of outsiders, but the history tells us when you look at the Kosovans, the Kosovan arrived here in the 1990s, there is that initial kind of resistance, because it was just an unknown. Then within a very short space of time the local community had completely adopted Kosovans and embraced them. The same thing happened at Pontville Detention Centre. Tasmania is a much better place for multiculturalism, it has changed everything about our culture and I do think we celebrate that.

I have attended quite a lot of the rallies and marches welcoming refugees, I have listened to the speakers and have noticed quite a few speakers use the word ‘assimilation’, not just the speakers who are former refugees but those from the organisations that support diversity. Do you think there is a danger In a small place like Tasmania, where it is still quite an Anglo community, that assimilation will be favoured over multiculturalism?
C. I find the word assimilation really offensive. The notion that we would require someone to change who they fundamentally are and where they came from because they have become Australians is, it’s a negative way of looking at it. You can’t make sweeping generalisations about how a whole state or community may feel about something and there will be some people who use the word assimilate and there will be other people who don’t even think about that word and they’ll go down to Moonah Taste of the World festival and their families are fifth generation Tasmanians, and they’ll go down there and soak that up and love it. And that’s not assimilation, that’s embracing multiculturalism. If we required people to assimilate I don’t think you’d have that expression and flowering of culture.

Is it tricky promoting this message outside of Hobart, in places where there is little cultural diversity?
C. You have to be careful again about making sweeping generalisations, the Tasmanian people are big-hearted people and Tasmanians have suffered, we’ve suffered economically, we’ve suffered socially, because we’ve suffered economically. We welcome strangers and of course that’s not a blanket rule because there are some people who have never had enough contact with a person of another culture, or who looks a bit different, and that will take some time, but I truly believe that if any person who is uncomfortable or resistant to the idea of multiculturalism or people coming here from other countries spent ten minutes listening to that person's story their minds would be absolutely changed.

Is a greater representation of minorities is needed in Tasmanian parliament? 
C. Absolutely. The Tasmanian Parliament like so many parliaments around Australia is not representative of its community, first of all because, there is no gender balance in most parliaments so if they can’t even get gender balance right….I’d love to see a person who is not of white/Anglo-Saxon origin elected to the Tasmanian parliament.

What would that bring to parliament?
C. Breadth, and depth and an extension of the way we debate issues that affect our community because there are people in parliament now who, I’m one of them, who advocate on behalf of our community and with all its complexities and it’s peoples stories. But it’s a missing dimension. It’s a really significant missing dimension. It’s the same with having an aboriginal person in parliament. We haven’t had a person who identifies as aboriginal in the Tasmanian parliament for a long time. That’s the challenge, it’s a challenge for parliaments, it’s a challenge for political parties, and it’s also a challenge for our communities because ultimately voters put people into parliament.

Going back to the community perspective, how do we combat grass roots racism in small communities?
C. The way that you deal with that is to identify leaders within the community, particularly business leaders who can set an example. There is an aged care provider in the northern suburbs of Hobart that almost reverse discriminates in order to employ people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, particularly former asylum seekers, because they make loyal, hard working, terrific employees. You can't get into everyone's brain and rewire so it has to be by leadership and example.

It’s hard when you’re in the position of being an employee in that circumstance and I totally understand why someone in that circumstance needing a job wouldn’t go, ‘hey, you are being a racist’. It’s really really difficult but we all have a responsibility to name it up when it happens. It’s the same when you hear sexist language, it’s the same when you hear people use the word ‘gay’ as an insult. Language is so important and to challenge language when you hear these things being said is part of that moral responsibility, because if people aren’t pulled up when they use that sort of language they will just keep doing it.

Do you think multiculturalism and the existence of more than one culture can continue generationally or do you think it’s something that fades into that vague melting pot? 
C. It is a big question and interesting because I think you’d have more insight into that then me. I’m of Irish Swedish, German descent.

Do you still feel connected to those roots?
C. I do, I do. I’m a bit jealous of people who are of a biracial background or people who are Aboriginal Australians. I used to, growing up in Australia, feel a bit like a bowl of porridge. You kind of hang onto your Irish-ness, or the fact that my grandfather was a Swede, you go, no that’s part of my identity, it really is! It is interesting, I’m not just Australian!

There is a wonderful human being called Rodney Dillan who is an Aboriginal leader of the Palawa people. He is Irish-Aboriginal and he a proud Palawa man and a warrior for his people but very proud of his Irishness too. And he’s very Irish. It’s really interesting, he’s got a way about him, I sort of see my dad in him. It’s something to treasure, I hope that as a culture and community we can encourage that treasuring of story and where our roots came from.

THE PIN. A final question, what is one piece of advice you would give a young bicultural or culturally plural Tasmanian on retaining their culture?
CASSY O’CONNOR. Be proud. Just be proud of who you are and be proud of your difference and know that you’ve got a lot to give.

- This interview has been edited and condensed

Photo credit: Lucille Cutting

CLARE O’DWYER: Feisty & Defiant

CLARE O’DWYER: Feisty & Defiant

CANDY BOWERS: Make Your Colour Your Centerpiece

CANDY BOWERS: Make Your Colour Your Centerpiece