BRIAN TOOHEY. So just who is a Chinese agent?

Chinese attempts to influence Australian policy haven’t stopped Malcolm Turnbull’s government making increasingly tough criticisms of the nation’s largest trading partner. Despite China’s waning policy influence, the government is introducing onorous espionage and foreign interference legislation to counter the problem. If this stops foreign countries from covertly influencing Australian policy, that’s fine. But the legislation could potentially curtail public discussion and free speech, neither of which is assisted by some commentators and unnamed intelligence sources who brand just about anyone with any contact with China as an “agent of influence”.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Thursday that its sources suggested Paul Keating, would have to register as an “agent of foreign influence” under the new legislation “because he sits on the advisory council for the China Development Bank”. Rather than being listed as agents, other highly experienced Australians should be encouraged to serve on similar boards in China and elsewhere, provided they don’t try to covertly influence Australian government policy. No one has produced a jot of evidence that Keating fails this test. Yet the Herald implied he should register because he’d said Australia’s foreign policy should be more independent of the US.

Simply expressing this view, which many Australians hold, does not make Keating a Chinese agent of influence. His views are merely an extension of his forward-looking policy while PM that Australia should seek its security “in and with” Asia. A healthy public debate means all Australians, including Keating, should be free to advocate a wide range of policies without slurs about their loyalty.

The usual national security definition of an agent of influence is someone who knowingly cooperates with a foreign intelligence service to try to influence public policy in their home country. The new requirement for Australians to register as an agent of influence is not meant to imply any wrongdoing, but the legislation casts a wide net. It covers anyone acting on behalf of foreign governments, foreign businesses and foreign political organisations to influence the Australian political system and public debates, whether covertly or overtly.

Brett Walker, a senior counsel and former independent monitor of Australia’s national security legislation, recently wrote in the Lowy Institute’s Interpreter that we “already have adequate counter-espionage laws”. He said

foreign influence is often benign, including support for increased trade, travel, and cultural understanding — “Our politics would be devalued by the implication that good ideas come only from Australia”.

Walker said it would be simpler and more effective to require anyone in an Australian government or parliament to disclose any knowledge they have of approaches made on behalf of foreign powers and businesses.

Another concerning feature of the new law is it make it an espionage offence to receive “information” without clearly defining what this means, for example, in the references to information on “relations with other countries”. Despite the 1781 paragraphs in bills convoluted explanatory memorandum, this is only one aspect needing clarification. Yet penalties in the bill can include life imprisonment for espionage and treason.  Jail for foreign interference offences is up to 20 years.

With rare exceptions, it should be a fundamental democratic right for people to try to influence other’s opinions about all sorts of topics, including public policy. Increased contact with other countries should be encouraged, not condemned. However, some commentators strongly criticise Australian universities for jointly conducting standard scientific research with Chinese universities, in case it has a tenuous military connection. Others brand journalists who’ve visited China as agents of influence. The same could be said of numerous academics, journalists and politicians who go on US-government funded trips. Should Australians working in US government or corporate funded think tanks register as agents of influence, if they push an American line in the Australian media? Of course not, provided the funding is revealed.

When announcing the new legislation, Turnbull stressed China was not the sole target. He said, “Interference is unacceptable from any country whether considered friend or foe”. The US and the Soviet Union/Russia have intervened in numerous elections. An US assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, for example, told Congress in 2016 the US spent $100 million on promoting opposition to Vladimir Putin in Russia’s 2012 presidential election. If the new legislation curbs similar behaviour by any country, that’s commendable. But the potential constraints on freedom of expression in the present bill are unacceptable.

This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 13 December 2017 

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Brian Toohey is author of Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State.

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