Attorney General George Brandis is planning a once-in-a-generation shake-up of the legal framework governing who can lawfully influence Australian politicians, amid fears of clandestine Chinese Communist Party influence over politics in this country.
Mr Brandis flew to Washington in July, shortly after a series of Fairfax Media reports on the issue of foreign interference, and was briefed by US national security officials about introducing US style “foreign agent” laws into Australia.
Fairfax Media has also confirmed that Mr Brandis has been given detailed intelligence briefings that suggest Chinese Communist Party-affiliated lobbyists and business people have sought to exert influence in local, state and federal governments, and with ex-politicians in Australia.
Mr Brandis intends to bring laws similar to the Foreign Agents Registration Act to Parliament by November, as part of broader legislation to target the “sub-espionage” level of foreign interference. This includes individuals covertly lobbying, infiltrating or donating to political parties on behalf of foreign governments.
Geoff Raby, former Australian ambassador to China. Photo: Louie Douvis
The US legislation requires people working for, or lobbying on behalf of, foreign powers in a “political or quasi-political capacity” to publicly disclose their relationship or risk civil or criminal penalties.
The Brandis reforms may involve new foreign interference offences, the modernising of treason offences to remove “archaic language,” and a new offence dealing with the theft of trade secrets on behalf of a foreign power. It may also create a publicly available Foreign Agents register, modelled on the US system, and new offences to protect confidential government information.
The legislation will spell out some protection for journalists who receive confidential information. Soon after being introduced, the laws will be referred to Parliament’s powerful Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence and Security for examination.
Former foreign minister Bob Carr. Photo: Daniel Munoz
The government believes there are a range of covert activities taking place in Australia, which do not amount to espionage or spying but which are a form of interference in the Australian political process.
Three Chinese Australians involved with a Chinese Communist Party-aligned lobby group, the Australian Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, recently contested NSW council elections, while a Chinese businessman has sought to develop ties to senior former defence officials via sponsorship of a think tank.
Leaked parliamentary library briefing papers describe this businessman’s deep involvement in the CCP’s United Front Work Department. The department is a unique lobbying agency reinvigorated under the leadership of President Xi Jinping to increase Beijing’s influence abroad.
The papers also document the risks facing Australia’s education sector, noting how initiatives such as the “Torch” program, which links Australian universities with Chinese companies and China’s technology ministry, have triggered concerns about “Chinese companies [co-opting] … Australian research” and “diverse security challenges to Australian high tech industries”.
Australian intelligence agencies have been frustrated about their inability to prosecute or deter those involved in such activities under laws designed to deal with traditional Cold War style espionage. Australian laws are also ill equipped to deal with foreign government-sponsored cyber crime.
The Australian military communications spy agency, the Defence Signals Directorate, has since 2013 been running an operation code-named “Sparta … to counter Chinese theft of sensitive business information and proprietary technology”.
Separately, ASIO is tracking foreign interference by China’s United Front Work Department, sections of the Peoples’ Liberation Army, and, the Ministry of State Security.
The Australian agencies’ operations have not led to any prosecutions.
Mr Brandis travelled to Washington to be briefed by the US Justice Department on that country’s anti-foreign interference regime in July. His trip came shortly after Fairfax Media and Four Corners exposed concerns held by ASIO about foreign interference by CCP-aligned political donors, the targeting of Chinese Australians who are critical of Beijing, influence operations in universities and the Chinese language media, and inadequate laws to counter the problem.
But the issue extends beyond weak laws. National security insiders have for several years been deeply concerned about the willful or reckless blindness about the issue among some serving and former politicians and within government agencies, universities and media organisations.
Labor MP Michael Danby, who has been outspoken about the issue, said the “strategic pattern of donations in Australia with Beijing’s purchase … [and] the funding of faux pro-China think-tanks” is evidence of “Beijing’s wish to interfere in Australian foreign policy”.
However, former foreign minister Bob Carr and ex-ambassador Geoff Raby have labelled concerns around interference from Beijing as disproportionate, unfounded or sensationalist.
The Attorney General’s pending legislative overhaul is likely to alarm civil libertarians, as it will include new offences to protect confidential government information against leaks such as those involving Edward Snowden or Chelsea Manning.
Senior national security officials say recent media exposes of efforts by the CCP to exert influence have placed a welcome spotlight on the problem, although countering it remains a challenge for some Australian institutions.
Universities, which rely on overseas students to provide a critical revenue stream, are facing increasing scrutiny over partnerships with Chinese state-linked enterprises, along with sporadic attacks on academic independence by nationalist Chinese students or government-aligned student societies.
Former DFAT chief Peter Varghese, who was among the first senior ex-officials to warn of Beijing’s interference, and who is now Chancellor at Queensland University, said the university sector should “hold true to the principle of academic freedom and challenge ideas that curtail that”.
“Clearly some overseas students see it as their role to reflect a national position rather than contested ideas of debate. I wouldn’t call it a sizeable problem as yet, but where it appears it needs to be addressed.”
The role on Australian university campuses of Chinese Students and Scholars Associations, which are closely monitored by Chinese diplomats, has also been noted by Australian officials amid concerns that students or academics seen to diverge with Beijing’s interests are targeted or isolated by pro-Beijing students.
“All governments have a consulate interest in their students. You must draw a distinction between what is a consulate concern and the content of courses,” Mr Varghese said.
The legislative overhaul to be introduced by Mr Brandis will make it easier for ASIO and police to prosecute people involved in obtaining confidential information without authorisation, be it from the private sector or government.
The suspected theft of classified information was highlighted by a recent case involving an ASIO raid on the Canberra property of Chinese born Australian Sheri Yan, a lobbyist suspected by ASIO of links to Chinese intelligence services.
During the raid, ASIO discovered classified Australian documents on Chinese spying that Ms Yan’s husband, former senior Australian intelligence official Roger Uren, had allegedly removed from the Office of National Assessments when he quit the agency in 2002 to work for a Hong Kong media company. Federal police are awaiting legal advice about whether to charge Mr Uren.
By James Massola, Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker
Sydney Morning Herald