Australia’s former conservative Prime Minister Tony Abbott has described a demand that he register as a “foreign influencer” before he attended an international conference in Australia earlier this year as “absurd.”
Janet Albrechtsen reported in The Weekend Australian that the former prime minister refused the order to register as an agent of foreign influence under the nation’s foreign transparency laws.
In correspondence obtained by the newspaper, Abbott responded that, “Surely senior officials of the Commonwealth have better things to do with their time.
“It’s oppressive, it’s coercive. I thought the commissars had gone when the bloody Soviet Union went out of business.”
The request came on Aug. 8, the day before Abbott addressed the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which was co-hosted by the small Australian libertarian organisation, LibertyWorks, and an American non-profit, the American Conservative Union (ACU), in August alongside foreigners, including Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and British political activist Raheem Kassam.
Abbott was informed by the deputy secretary of the Integrity and International Group of the Attorney General’s department, Sarah Chidgey, that as a former cabinet minister, he had a lifetime obligation to register any activity undertaken on behalf of a foreign principal.
But Abbott said the demand was “absurd” and that his speech was not given on behalf of a foreign principal: “I spoke for myself, that’s all.
“I decline to register and suggest that you rethink the making of such misplaced and impertinent requests in the future,” he replied to the request.
Chidgey is part of the team of bureaucrats charged with enforcing the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, which was signed into law in December 2018 to “provide visibility of the forms and sources of foreign influence in Australia’s governmental and political processes,” Attorney-General Christian Porter said at the time.
The laws were introduced in response to “disturbing reports about Chinese influence,” according to then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who told Parliament, “Media reports have suggested that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities, and even the decisions of elected representatives right here in this building.”
Conference Organiser Threatened With Jail Time
Chidgey’s team also contacted the conference organiser Andrew Cooper on Oct. 21 to issue its only section 45(2) notice, demanding that he hand over all conference documents including those detailing any understanding between LibertyWorks and the ACU, or else face criminal charges with a maximum penalty of six months in jail.
Organisers said the conference was designed to be a rallying point for those who identify with conservative or libertarian values that favor small government to gather and share their vision for the nation’s future.
Cooper told The Weekend Australian that he would not be complying with their request “despite the threat of criminal prosecution and jail time.”
“I established LibertyWorks to argue against this type of government control over speech and citizens,” he told the paper. “I just wanted to run a conference.”
“They demand I provide emails of ACU’s conversations with all CPAC speakers including … [US Republican congressman Mark] Meadows and Farage. How can I do that? It feels like the Stasi is holding me in 1950s East Berlin and I am being threatened with jail because I cannot provide them with information that I do not have.”
Emilie Dye, communications manager for the Australian Taxpayers’ Alliance (ATA), condemned the Attorney General’s office “for partisan use of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme to target conservatives.”
“The ACU merely advocates for conservative ideals in America,” she said in a statement. “They don’t receive money from the U.S. government. The U.S. government has no power over ACU operations or the selection of board members. They present a political philosophy that American and Australian bureaucrats alike dislike.”
The paper also reported that Porter was outraged when he found out that Cooper has been the only person to be served a section 45(2) notice by his department.
He conceded that the actions taken by his department did not represent effective enforcement of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.
“I have made it clear to my department that I expect it to demonstrate a focus on the most serious instances of non-compliance,” Porter told the Weekend Australian. “I’m not persuaded this focus has been perfectly demonstrated to date.”
Porter added that he expects his department to make reforms “that takes into account several things.”
“First … where it is most clear that someone is acting on behalf of a foreign principal rather than cases where it is alternatively arguable that no real arrangement exists. Second … priority should be given to the more serious activities that may be being undertaken. And third, there should be a little common sense brought into play,” he said.
Abbott told newspaper that he would not be “critical” of Porter as he is all too familiar with how “well-intentioned government policy into something which turns out to be radically different to what their ministers and staff intended.”
An anonymous Labor MP has told The Australian it is now clear that the government “should move quickly to amend the legislation and also to ensure we don’t have unintended consequences.”
By Colin Brinsden. With additional reporting by Epoch Times staff.
UPDATE: This article has been updated to include comments from the ATA and a Labor MP.