Wagga councillors plan to overturn sister city decision that severs ties with Kunming, China

Wagga residents Ross Woodbridge and Denise Ma voiced their anger at the council's decision. Pictures: Les Smith
Wagga residents Ross Woodbridge and Denise Ma voiced their anger at the council's decision. Pictures: Les Smith

It's been called "racially motivated dog-whistling of the worst kind" and now moves are afoot to overturn a council's decision to cut ties with its Chinese sister city.

The backlash Wagga City Council received has been hard and fast. It has come not just from the community but also from within the council, primarily from mayor Greg Conkey.

Councillor Paul Funnell's motion to sever the city's Chinese connection narrowly passed at Tuesday night's council meeting, after a tied three-all vote.

Mayor Conkey was absent due to illness and two other councillors - Dallas Tout and Kerry Pascoe - declared a conflict of interest so left the chamber and did not vote.

Councillor Tim Koschel was drawn at random as the meeting's acting chairman and used his casting vote to get the motion over the line.

Cr Conkey said he was "distraught" and "appalled" by the outcome.

The mayor said a motion to overturn the decision was immediately put forward, but he feared the damage had already been done.

"We are a very multicultural city and I am very proud of this fact," he said. "We have 112 nationalities represented here, including China and I share in their grief over this motion."

Wagga-based Nationals MLC Wes Fang called on the council to issue an immediate apology to their Chinese sister city, Kunming, and have the decision rescinded.

"I will call it out for what I believe it is, racially motivated dog-whistling of the worst kind," Mr Fang said.

The councillors who voted for the motion - Funnell, Koschel and Yvonne Braid - deny race played a part in their decision-making.

Wagga MP Joe McGirr said "genuine concerns" had been raised in this debate, but severing a sister city relationship was not the appropriate way forward.

Dr McGirr said his concern was that the council had sent a poor message to the people of many different nationalities in this country.

Riverina MP Michael McCormack said Wagga's sister city relationship with Kunming goes back more than three decades and believed it should continue.

"I don't think this debate should have happened right now, I don't think it should have happened at all," Mr McCormack said.

"I appreciate that some of the councillors are passionate about this ... and respect their views, but I just think it is not the right move by the city."

Cr Koschel, who was silent during Tuesday night's debate, told The Daily Advertiser that his decision was about showing disappointment in Kunming's lack of communication about the virus outbreak, which has gone on to hurt Wagga.

"Any relationship can be rebuilt, but (this) shows the severity of how disappointed I am in our sister city's lack of communication," he said.

"The message has been said that we are disappointed ... if it gets overturned then we are back at square one."

Cr Funnell said he wasn't surprised the councillors would look to overturn the decision and that was the great part of democracy.

"Aren't we lucky to live in Wagga ... because in Kunming we wouldn't be allowed to have this debate," he said.

"I find it laughable that people aren't listening to the evidence. I am appealing to people who understand that this relationship is with the Communist-ruling party not with the people of Kunming."

Residents and community leaders have voiced their anger at Wagga council's decision to sever ties with its sister city in China.

DISAPPOINTED: Wagga resident Denise Ma describes the council's decision to cut ties with sister city Kunming as "opportunistic". Picture: Les Smith

DISAPPOINTED: Wagga resident Denise Ma describes the council's decision to cut ties with sister city Kunming as "opportunistic". Picture: Les Smith

Denise Ma, a woman of Chinese heritage who has lived in Wagga for 40 years, said she was disappointed to see three councillors cause so much damage in one night.

However, she said the decision "did not reflect the true opinions" of all councillors - just three out of nine.

While councillors plan to reverse the decision at their next meeting, Mrs Ma said the news reaching far and wide meant the "damage has been already done".

"I think it was opportunistic and playing on the fears that people have at this time," she said. "Sister city relationships are not about politics ... it is about promoting goodwill and that's what we are going to lose from this - that goodwill."

Mrs Ma said it was disappointing to learn people in the community thought this way, but it was pleasing to hear many others speaking out against the decision.

Wagga Multicultural Council chief executive Belinda Crain said she was "appalled" by the move and struggled to understand what it could achieve other than causing minority communities to feel vulnerable.

"My concern is that if a community feels targeted ... then what stops them from doing it to another community," she said.

"The sister city program is about rebuilding relationships and I think it's really important at this time that we're all working together due to the crisis that we're all currently experiencing."

FRUSTRATED: Wagga resident Ross Woodbridge says the council's decision to sever ties with Kunming was ridiculous. Picture: Les Smith

FRUSTRATED: Wagga resident Ross Woodbridge says the council's decision to sever ties with Kunming was ridiculous. Picture: Les Smith

Wagga resident Ross Woodbridge said the decision was "ridiculous" and served no purpose other than to "antagonise people for no reason".

Mr Woodbridge has visited all three sister cities and said the people of Kunming were the only ones who had heard of Wagga and held the city in high regard.

"I made a point of asking anyone I met," he said.

"In Kunming I was treated royally because I came from Wagga. People even knew who the mayor was and where we were located on a map."

Mr Woodbridge said if the roles were reversed, Wagga would be insulted by this decision.

"It's not the people of Kunming's fault ... now's the time where we need to stand up for them," he said.

This story Moves made to overturn 'appalling' decision to dump sister city first appeared on The Daily Advertiser.