Foreign influence crackdown a heads-up for everyone in government

By Stephen Easton

December 6, 2017

Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten holds a photograph of Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop and chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo during Question Time in the House of Representatives at Parliament House in Canberra, Wednesday, June 14, 2017. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING

Senior Commonwealth officials will have to disclose if they go to work for foreign entities within three years after leaving the Australian Public Service, under new national security laws proposed by the Turnbull government.

It seems the proposed rules would not affect state and territory politicians and public servants. Full details – including exactly how senior is “senior” in this case – will be available when the bills are introduced this week.

More “visibility of the nature and extent of foreign influence over Australia’s government and political processes” is the aim of the proposed Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.

“Entities that engage in certain activities on behalf of a foreign individual or entity will have to register,” according to the government’s official explanation.

“Former Members of Parliament and former senior public officials will also need to disclose when they are employed by, or act in any capacity for, foreign entities following the end of their public role.”

Foreign entities means governments and “any foreign public enterprise, a foreign political organisation, a foreign business or an individual who is neither an Australian citizen, nor a permanent Australian resident”, Attorney-general George Brandis explained.

According to Malcolm Turnbull, “Being registered … should not be seen as any kind of taint and certainly not a crime. But if you fail to disclose your ties, then you will be liable for a criminal offence.”

Brandis confirmed the scheme would apply to someone like former Trade Minister Andrew Robb, who took up a highly paid part-time job as a consultant for the Chinese company Landbridge, which bought the Darwin port, the day before he left office. It would also apply to senior federal bureaucrats who took up that kind of job. Robb is reportedly furious at his colleagues.

“So, somebody in Mr Robb’s position would be required to register under the transparency scheme,” Brandis said in a press conference yesterday. “A person who has been a cabinet minister within the previous three years must register if he acts on behalf of a foreign government, a foreign public enterprise, a foreign business or a foreign political organisation.”

“As well as that, there is an obligation to register under the transparency scheme for other former Members of Parliament or senior Commonwealth officials acting on behalf of those same foreign principals or entities if they use their skills, knowledge, experience or contacts gleaned from their time as a Member of Parliament or a senior Commonwealth official.”

The government accuses the opposition of being the main national security risk – Immigration and Border Protection Minister Peter Dutton hyperbolically said Senator Sam Dastyari was “essentially a double-agent” today – on the basis that Dastyari allegedly warned Chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo that his phone might be tapped.

The PM was also on the attack yesterday; Dastyari had earlier “solicited money from a Chinese national … and in return for that, did a u-turn on the Australian Labor Party’s policy on the South China Sea” in a “blatant” example of foreign influence before going on to give “counter-surveillance advice” to Huang, on the basis he hasn’t denied it.

However one journalist reminded him that Robb also took a big campaign donation from a group of Chinese businessmen including Huang in 2014, on the day he signed a free trade agreement with China.

As the ABC and other news outlets have reported, plenty of politicians from both sides of politics including Malcolm Turnbull have met privately with Huang and other businessmen who have links to the Chinese government and lots of money to throw around. Turnbull and Brandis both said that not all of this sort of activity was malign.

Melanie Brand, who is researching intelligence history at Monash University, writes in The Conversation that the details of Dastyari’s conduct could be “public intelligence” which is always leaked for a political purpose. “That purpose may be to promote a particular political agenda or to build public support for a certain policy position,” she explains.

Such a leak could be “for partisan political gain” and certainly the government is making the most of it in this case, but the sudden turn in the political narrative to focus on foreign spying is also linked to genuine concerns from Australia’s security agencies, not necessarily about one senator or one party, but about everyone who might unwittingly fall prey to the charms of agents of influence.

“We should not be naive about this; foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process both here and abroad,” Turnbull said.

“… The changes we’re unveiling today are a result of work I commissioned from the Attorney-General back in August last year into foreign influence, interference and coercion. The work of my department, the work of ASIO, the Attorney-General and others, revealed the magnitude of the threat, but also that agencies lacked the legislative tools they needed to act.”

New secrecy rules

Another new bill in the package, aimed at countering direct espionage and foreign interference, will change offences around disclosing classified material so that “leaks of harmful information” will attract up to 20 years in the slammer. Yesterday’s joint ministerial statement says:

“The Bill … introduces a new and balanced secrecy regime to criminalise disclosing inherently harmful information, such as classified documents. This will replace the existing outdated offences in the Crimes Act.

“Extensive safeguards are a part of the legislation, including protections for journalists engaging in fair and accurate reporting in the public interest.”

This bill also includes “a new aggravated offence for providing false and misleading information in the context of security clearance processes, with a penalty of five years imprisonment” and will provide even more “telecommunications interception powers” to law enforcement agencies.

It will include “new tiered espionage offences with graduated penalties” because the government wants to “criminalise covert and deceptive activities of foreign actors that fall short of espionage but are still intended to interfere with our democratic systems and processes or support the intelligence activities of a foreign government” as well as big penalties like life imprisonment for serious offences.

Crimes like espionage, sabotage and treason will be redefined – “modernising” is the stated goal — and new offences related to stealing trade secrets will be created.

“For example,” said Brandis, “the existing offence of espionage only captures passing on information in defined circumstances. The definition of espionage will be broadened to include possessing or receiving information, rather than merely communicating information.

“There will be a new offence that will criminalise, for the first time, soliciting or procuring a person to engage in espionage, and there will also be a new preparation and planning offence.”

The final piece is reform of political fundraising laws. This bill will “ban donations from foreign bank accounts, non-citizens and foreign entities” to all species of political animal: parties, independent candidates, trade unions, interest groups and advocacy groups are all in the crosshairs.

Top image: AAP Image/Mick Tsikas. Bill Shorten holds a photograph of Julie Bishop and chinese businessman Huang Xiangmo during Question Time.

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