Right-wing activists from the Institute of Public Affairs claim Attorney-General’s Department staff are running a “covert political operation” against conservatives and demand secretary Chris Moraitis stand aside while their accusations are investigated.
Daniel Wild, the research director at the government’s favourite think tank, said the department had “abused its power to target Australians because of their political beliefs” in a hyperbolic statement on Tuesday, echoed in a longer piece by his colleague Morgan Begg in The Australian.
Attorney-General Christian Porter has not taken up the unsolicited advice just yet but has asked Moraitis to consider changing the staff who administer the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. He said they showed a lack of “common sense” in asking former prime minister Tony Abbott to consider if he should register as an agent of foreign influence because he agreed to speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney two months ago. Abbott angrily refused.
“This is what happens when you try to govern with a public service stacked with people who align with a green-left agenda,” Begg laments.
The right-wing think thank, which has been a training ground for a succession of Liberal politicians and counts cabinet secretary Andrew Shearer as its CD Kemp Fellow, makes the extraordinary claim that public servants in the AGD are engaging in deliberate “political intimidation” via the scheme.
Kicking off a miniature campaign with the former PM’s outrage on Saturday, The Australian has published a torrent of furious commentary aimed primarily at the public servants administering the scheme, with only brief mentions of the politicians who proposed and voted for it.
One central claim is that the department has missed the point of the crackdown on foreign interference, and should have realised the priority was to keep tabs on political organisations from places like China, not from English-speaking nations.
The scheme is not explicitly targeted at people from any particular nations, for obvious reasons, and the IPA wants it abolished altogether. It claims it infringes on individual rights and that public servants can’t be trusted to choose which foreign political groups to focus on.
“The FITS legislation is not being applied impartially or in good faith by the public service,” argues Wild, who thinks a cabal of politically-motivated bureaucrats is taking advantage of “vaguely worded” legislation to “silence” right-wing voices.
Fortunately for Abbott and the other high-profile conservatives who took to the podium at CPAC Sydney, they often get the opportunity to shout their opinions at the nation. The AGD did not quite try to silence anyone and the former PM doesn’t seem particularly intimidated, but Begg suggests others might be, noting the department has sent similar letters to about 500 people.
The long-running American political conference was staged in Australia for the first time by the American Conservative Union and a local organisation, LibertyWorks, which also received a request for documents from AGD to help it track Australians with links to foreign political groups.
LibertyWorks refused and pushed back, like Abbott, who told the department to “rethink the making of such misplaced and impertinent requests in the future” while Porter came to their aid. The AG was “angered” by his department’s actions, according to the initial report, and said his department should “focus on the most serious instances of non-compliance” with the scheme.
A few days and several more articles later, Porter assures The Australian he will see to it that the public servants make “smarter and more effective decisions” in future, by asking Moraitis to reconsider which staff are assigned to the roles.