Gareth Evans rubbishes the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme: Loyal and Patriotic Australians should follow his lead.

Jul 30, 2021

Gareth Evans’ robust public rejection of a suggestion from Attorney-General’s Department that he should consider whether he has “registration obligations under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme” (i.e., should register himself as an agent of foreign influence) is highly commended. 

Here is my personal take on the recently published exchange of letters between former Foreign Minister Gareth Evans and an Assistant Secretary in the Integrity and Security Division of the Attorney-General’s Department.

Gareth Evans versus the Surveillance State: application of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme

With his usual deadly wit and aplomb, Evans skewers the mid-level public servant who dared write to him in such impudent terms. I note that more senior officers of A-G’s prudently did not sign off on this letter, which was no doubt directed by them, to a distinguished former Australian Foreign Minister. They left it to an Assistant Secretary to bear the brunt of Evans’ wrath.

Gareth’s letter has rightly been warmly supported by many of his friends and former colleagues in DFAT, as I do here.

The exchange reminds us what thoroughly bad laws these Foreign Influence and Interference laws are. These laws were introduced by then-PM Turnbull and then-AG Brandis in 2018, in the first flush of anti-China paranoia in Australia.

I wrote submissions and I testified as a former Australian ambassador against the draft laws in the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS) on 16 March 2018 in Melbourne (see Hansard). I argued that these laws were clearly aimed at deterring professional contacts with people or institutions in presumed ‘hostile’ foreign powers, China and Russia.  I said one could not imagine them being applied against individuals having similar contacts with foreign ministries, think tanks or institutes in such ‘friendly’ nations as the US or UK or Israel. So the laws would inevitably be applied in arbitrary and discretionary ways, which makes them by definition bad laws.

A subsequent weak response to my criticism, sent to the PJCIS by A-G’s officials, was to the effect that ideally the laws would be applied impartially but that resource constraints’and considerations of relative national security risk would necessitate a focus on certain countries more than others. How convenient.

It is thus interesting that the Assistant Secretary singles out for interrogation of Gareth Evans an Asian foreign policy institute, the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity in South Korea. I do not know the politics of the Jeju Forum. I do not know whether it would be viewed with favour by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. I suspect not.

I doubt whether the Assistant Secretary would have asked Gareth to consider registering as an agent of foreign influence in connection with, for example, his frequent contacts with Chatham House RIIA in London, or with the Asia Society in New York. But it seems that think tanks in Asian countries are fair game for such suspicious interrogation.

This bad set of laws should be challenged by patriotic Australians whose expertise, contacts and present life circumstances enable us to challenge them. People of sound foreign affairs professional background and standing, like Gareth Evans and John McCarthy, should not be asked to account for whatever international and public contacts they might choose to have.

In my case, I don’t regret expressing my views from time to time on current international issues, on China Radio International discussion programs; or in my published occasional commentaries to the TASS international newsagency in Moscow; or in my occasional contacts as a retired former Australian senior diplomat with the Russian Embassy in Australia; or with eminent foreign policy institutes in Moscow such as the Russian International Affairs Council whose Director, Professor Andrey Kortunov, was an honoured and welcomed guest of the ANU in Gareth Evans’s time as Chancellor, a few years ago.

Were I to get a similar letter from Attorney-Generals’ Department, though in my case I would expect it to come from an even more junior-ranked civil servant, I would reply along the path now helpfully and publicly trailblazed by Gareth.

The almost-defunct word ‘détente’ had its heyday in US-Soviet relations in the late Cold War period 1965-1989. In my opinion, the world now desperately needs to start work on a new détente diplomacy between the West, and Russia and China. Decent and patriotic Americans are working towards this now distant goal.

Second Track diplomacy involving private citizens of good expertise and reputation was an essential exploratory building block of US-Soviet détente that began in the 1960s. Westerners who worked to foster détente with the Soviet Union in those tense Cold War years were not regarded as Kremlin puppets or agents of influence. In the current Australian climate, they would be. The Foreign Influence laws act as a deterrent to potentially productive second track diplomacy contacts between Australians and appropriate counterpart bodies in Russia or China.

These days, it seems, Australians are to be discouraged from practising unofficial second-track diplomacy with anyone but our allies or presumed-friendly ASEAN countries, India, Japan or Korea. It would require a degree of foolhardiness or indifference to professional consequences to seek to foster détente with countries like Russia, China, Iran or Syria, through second track diplomatic channels. This leaves Australia without a voice, a helpless observer of trends in our Asia-Pacific region.

Any law that requires loyal and patriotic Australians to register themselves as agents of foreign influence in order to have contacts with respectable foreign entities needs to be conscientiously defied.

I sincerely thank Gareth Evans for making this path a little easier.

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