Traitors in our midst: Australia’s foreign interference laws are a political ruse

Mar 1, 2024
Legal law concept image Scales of Justice

Leaving aside the issue of whether ASIO’s announcement that there is a ‘traitor in our midst’ is simply a ploy to get more funds in this year’s Federal Budget (something you can never rule out) why hasn’t ASIO and other security and law enforcement agencies in this country pursued the two greatest practitioners of so called foreign influence – the United States followed by Israel?

The foreign interference laws were passed by the federal parliament in 2018. Under these laws foreign interference was criminalised – we were, and are, one of the few countries in the world to have such a law on our statute books.

The laws make it an offence to intentionally or recklessly engage in conduct where it is “on behalf of, or in collaboration with, a foreign principal or a person acting on behalf of a foreign principal” or “the conduct is directed, funded or supervised by a foreign principal or a person acting on behalf of a foreign principal.” The individual has to intend or be reckless as to the conduct being undertaken to “influence a political or governmental process of the Commonwealth or a State or Territory; or “influence the exercise (whether or not in Australia) of an Australian democratic or political right or duty” to name two of the most relevant motives.

These laws however do not prevent registered lobbying on behalf of foreign countries. So all those Australian lobbyists making a fortune from acting for US defence interest can rest easy.

You might argue that the foreign influence laws are too narrowly defined. They fail to take account of other forms of influence by nations such as the United States and Israel, which are clearly designed to influence the way politicians vote and ministers formulate policy. These forms of influence, sometimes in the form of all expenses paid trips or funding of universities are also designed to win over journalists and researchers.

Why are such initiatives not seen as unlawful? Why don’t our politicians and media voice their concern about the constant efforts of the US and Israel to influence our democracy?

Here are some examples.

Last April Mack Williams, writing on this site, revealed that the US Embassy in Canberra was funding a “diverse network of the next generation of leaders” to curtail anti US sentiment in Australia. It has funded the United States Studies Centre (USSC) at the University of Sydney “which acknowledges that it receives some core funding from the US government [and] has played a key role in this PR push by Washington. [In 2022] USSC launched a program on its website designed to establish itself as the leading university AUKUS centre in Australia,” Williams notes. He also pointed to Professor Peter Dean, who was involved in the Albanese government’s defence review but who also advertises in his biography that he “currently leads two US State Department-funded public diplomacy programs on the US-Australia Alliance.”

It is not suggested that Dean has committed any breach of the foreign interference laws, merely that he is an example of US government funding of Australian research.

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute gets, according to its disclosure of donors, around $2.5 million from the US Department of State for projects in the ‘diplomatic’ space.

For over 20 years now the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council has run a program to influence decision makers and journalists about Israel. The group’s website notes “AIJAC’s Rambam Israel Fellowship program annually sponsors visits to Israel by selected senior journalists, politicians, political advisers, senior public servants and student leaders.” The word ‘selected’ is worth noting! These trips of course include exposure to Israeli government officials. According to data from the Australian Palestinian Advocacy Network and, ironically, ASPI between 2010 and 2022 Australian federal MPs received more sponsored trips to Israel, than any other country. The number was 127, more than the US and China, despite the fact that Israel is a minor trade partner with Australia.

One of Israel’s fiercest lobbyists in Australia, tax lawyer Mark Leibler, is demonstrably doing the bidding of that nation in his relentless social media commentary and lobbying of politicians. He has been at it since the 1980s. His biographer Michael Gawenda chronicles Leibler’s incessant lobbying to close down any criticism of Israel in a 2020, sympathetic biography. He describes an incident where Liebler turned on then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and talked up the slavishly pro-Israel Julia Gillard. Leibler denies the incident. Again, it is not suggested Leibler has committed any offence, but his lobbying on behalf of a foreign power is tolerated, where if he was lobbying for China, the doors of power would close.

Let’s put the foreign interference laws in perspective. They are in part a political ruse. They are designed to, 1950s style, allow ASIO and governments to charge individuals who are seen to be close to countries Australia loathes like China and Russia. But they are not to be used against the US, Israel or any other ally no matter the level of influence those countries exert directly and indirectly on MPs, journalists and others.

Why is it ok to go to Israel sponsored by a pro-Israel group, but not ok to go to China sponsored by a pro-Beijing organisation? Why do you get raided by the police if you are an academic with links to Russia but not so if you are an Australian researcher embedded with CIA funded think tanks in the US?

The government will no doubt say, we require any Israeli or US lobbying outfit to be registered. But that is not the point. It’s still foreign influence.

The answer is because, in this case, the law is political.

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