QUENTIN DEMPSTER. Australia’s sledge hammer to crack foreign influence pedlars.

New laws to protect Australia’s democratic governance and economy are about to be determined, now with heightened fear about Chinese influence. 

Draft bills before federal parliament cover electoral funding, cybersecurity and espionage and a new enforceable regime of self-registration for transparency of foreign influence.

Australian Security Intelligence Agency director general, Mr Duncan Lewis, has told parliament of the urgent need for new offences to enable prosecutions for covert activities which put Australia’s intellectual property, scientific and technological research and defence secrets at risk at the click of a mouse from foreign agents and their paid informants. “Hostile foreign spies are currently conducting harmful activity against Australia on an unprecedented scale,” Mr Lewis said.

But while there is cross-party support for more aggressive detection of covert harm and a total ban on foreigners donating to political parties and candidates, there are complaints about glaring business-linked loopholes. 

And civil society, foreign aid, cultural, humanitarian, sporting, artistic and academic groups and lawyers, including the Human Rights Law Centre, the Law Council, the Human Rights Council and Australian Lawyers for Human Rights have complained that the “influence package” is so broad and undefined that it could criminalise harmless foreign communication for a now multi-ethnic Australia. 

  “The Foreign Influence Transparency Bill might require more than half the country to register to avoid a risk of criminal penalties,” the ALHR’s Dr Tamsin Clarke told The New Daily.

“It is beyond Orwellian. It has the potential to criminalise non-harmful discussions involving an undefined so-called ‘foreign principal’, which could be your mother. You couldn’t call your mother in New Zealand and tell her you’re going to the demonstration on refugees without registering under this Act. The penalty for not registering, even if you aren’t reckless about your obligations, … five years in jail. Penalty if you intentionally don’t register … seven years in jail. Even if you don’t engage in the activity the penalty can still be 12 months’ jail.” 

With the US Meuller investigation into alleged Russian influence in the election of President Donald Trump, there is heightened fear in Australia about foreign influence. Here that fear centres substantively around Chinese influence, particularly about ‘black’ money and political slush funding of the major political parties through wealthy conduits. 

Last year Dr Stephen FitzGerald, former Australian ambassador to China, drew attention to $3.6billion in “suspicious financial transactions”. In his Gough Whitlam Oration, Dr FitzGerald said: “But clean money or black, this money has become a significant factor of influence in various sectors of Australia’s economy and society”. Dr FitzGerald was arguing for Australia to adopt a genuinely independent foreign policy in its own best interests. He said there should be an Australia-China Commission similar to the Australian-American Fulbright Commission. Australia’s ultimate long-term security would come from its strong relationships within Asia. Dr FitzGerald said Australia also had to have a demonstrable capacity to say ‘no’ to China’s increasingly influential “soft power offensives”. Coming from a non-democratic, one-party state with enormous trading and manufacturing power, Chinese money now flooding into Australia and other countries was a major concern. 

A just-released book, Silent Invasion by academic Mr Clive Hamilton warns of Chinese Communist Party tactical hegemony through 1.2million local Chinese-Australian citizens, the infiltration of political parties and the collection of intelligence for Chinese agencies. The book has enraged former prime minister Mr Paul Keating, who is chairman of the international advisory council of the Development Bank of China. Mr Keating has rejected Mr Hamilton’s book as a slur on his loyalty to Australia, arguing that Australia needed to better understand and engage with China through a more independent foreign policy. 

This week Mr Andrew Hastie, chairman of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, added to the China fear when he used privilege to name Australia-Chinese billionaire Dr Chau Chak Wing, previously known only as CC-3, the US security code used for an “unindicted co-conspirator” in a major UN bribery case. 

The publicity emanating from Mr Hastie’s unilateral disclosure has escalated tensions between Australia and China, with Chinese media editorialising with calls for punitive constraints on Australian exports. Mr Hastie’s intervention has created a diplomatic headache for Trade Minister, Mr Steven Ciobo. 

The ALHR’s Dr Tamsin Clarke called on the Turnbull government to reconsider the package of foreign influence transparency laws. “We’re now in an era of instantaneous global communications. To criminalise communication with people who are not Australian citizens casts a fishing net instead of targeting the real harm.” She said the ALHR had submitted that existing anti-money laundering laws provided a more targeted and appropriate risk profile which should be adopted here. Only those foreign persons designated as politically exposed or agents of influence automatically should be regarded as ‘foreign principals’. “They don’t seem to understand the difference between sharing information and influence. They should be catching the harmful agents of influence, not your mother,” Dr Clarke said. 

 Greens Senator Lee Rhiannon, who has written a dissenting report on election funding reform, told The New Daily there was a significant loophole in the government’s proposals which would allow Australian subsidiaries of majority foreign-owned corporations to continue political influence here under cover of domestic industry associations such as the Minerals Council of Australia. “To close the loopholes there needs to be caps on all donations,” she said. 

Former foreign minister, Mr Bob Carr, while rejecting accusations that he has become a mouthpiece for China’s Communist Party government through his UTS Chinese-bankrolled Australia-China Relations Institute, told The New Daily that if the new transparency law was enacted: “Well, I’ll certainly have to self-register”. This would cover not only his advocacy for Australia’s engagement with China but for his other “foreign” activities.

“Everyone knows I’m trying to influence Labor Party policy to recognise the dispossession of the Palestinians. Of course, I’ll have to self-declare. I’ve probably taken a packet of dates as a gift or a piece of fretted silverware showing the skyline of Jerusalem pressed upon me by a foreigner.

“This (transparency legislation) is clearly a gross over-reach”, Mr Carr said. 

Quentin Dempster is contributing editor at The New Daily where an edited version of this article was first posted on May 25th, 2018. 

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Quentin Dempster, former chairman of the Walkley Foundation, is a contributing editor at The New Daily.

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