A register for foreign agents created under Australia’s newly established Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) came into force on Dec. 10 after the Attorney General’s Department announced the start date last month.
From Dec. 10, “any person who undertakes certain activities, on behalf of a foreign principal for the purpose of influencing a political or government process will be required to register under the scheme,” according to a Nov. 23 statement from the department.
The FITS risk management structures were passed in Parliament with bipartisan support in June and mirror protections under the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act that will help voters know who is responsible for creating the material that attempts to sway voter sentiment as part of the political process.
All About Transparency
In tandem with national security amendments also passed in Parliament during June, FITS will “for the first time shine a light on the activities of people in Australia who are representing the interests of foreign principals,” Australia’s Attorney-General, Christian Porter, said in a statement on Nov. 28.
“This will provide transparency for the Australian Government and the Australian community about foreign influence in Australia,” Porter said back in June, according to a press release.
Porter added the legislation is “crucial” to “help protect Australia's democratic systems and institutions."
The new national security measures were requested by Australia’s national security agencies who have been saying they have been witnessing “unprecedented foreign intelligence activity” against Australia—more “than at any time since the Cold War," the department said.
The government has made efforts to emphasise the self-disclosure scheme is non-discriminatory and was not created with the intention of targeting any specific foreign entity or individuals.
However, when first introducing the proposed legal changes in December 2017, former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull specifically mentioned “disturbing reports about Chinese influence” as an example of why the bill is justified.
“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,” he told Parliament at the time.
“We take these reports very seriously. Our relationship with China is far too important to put at risk by failing to clearly set the terms of healthy and sustainable engagement.”
Will CCP's Confucius Institutes Register Under the Scheme?
At a forum in Sydney on Nov. 15, China experts discussed whether the global network of Confucius Institutes (CIs) that teach culture and language programs but are governed and funded by the CCP’s Office of Chinese Language Council International (also known as HanBan) would be subject to the new laws.
The merit of CIs has been facing increasing criticism as they have become widely seen as part of the CCP’s soft-power strategy, as admitted by former Chinese leader Hu Jintao, according to Sheng Xue, a Chinese-Canadian journalist and writer.
“We are not only focusing on keeping the party’s existing ruling status but also … expanding our party’s influence … around the core of our widely established Confucius Institutes,” she quoted Hu saying.
John Garnaut, a senior adviser to former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull told the forum it would be interesting to know how CIs are structured, and which CIs are structured to allow substantial control from a foreign state.
“If they are, it’s likely that some CIs, depending on how they’re structured, may be a foreign entity for the purposes of the transparency scheme," he said.
“If there are individuals who are attached to that and have engaged on [the CI’s] behalf, they need to register under the scheme. In this new era of awareness, the era of wilful blindness is gone.”
Keeping Political Influence Activities Open, Transparent
According to the government, the new laws are not intended to show political influence activities such as lobbying, disseminating information, distributing money or items of value, in a negative light but to ensure such activities across Australia are transparent and open to public scrutiny.
"Foreign actors will remain free to promote their interests in Australia, provided this is done in a lawful, open, and transparent way," said Porter in a public statement.
Actors for foreign principals who do not register or comply with the reporting obligations of the scheme will be liable for up to five years in prison.
The Attorney-General’s Department will also have the power to issue transparency notices to those who do not self-register but the department deems to be acting on behalf of a foreign entity.
This will give the government the grounds to charge and arrest “real spies” who no one expects to voluntarily reveal themselves, Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings told SBS News.
Following a review, the initial FITS bill was pared back to include exemptions for actors performing diplomatic and consular activities, aid, registered charity work, legal or parliamentary privileged work, religious activities, as well as business chambers dealing in trade with a foreign country.
Officials to Report After Leaving Public Office
One aspect of the FITS was extended to require certain public servants, such as Australian Cabinet ministers, to report their activities or any employment for at least 15 years after leaving public office.
Porter told The Australian he expects charges and prosecutions under new foreign interference laws “in due course,” including former politicians and officials now working for entities linked to foreign governments, and the cases would “have a deterrence effect.”
The government also announced further amendments on Nov. 28 that, if passed, will mean the original six-month grace period granted for parties to register will be reduced to three months or less, if an early election is called.
This will send a clear message to those who would meddle in the election, Porter told The Australian.
Information Available to Public
Foreign entities now must publicly register their identifying names, details of their relationship with and activity on behalf of any foreign principal. They may also be required to provide details of their lobbying activity, such as private messages to politicians, speeches to special interest groups, or opinion articles in the media, according to The Australian.
“If a former senior bureaucrat or Australian politician writes an opinion editorial piece critical of one policy or party or another that’s fine. If they do it at the request or funding of a foreign principal that’s fine but we certainly think that relationship should be transparent,” Porter told the paper.
All information collected by the register will be available for the public to view through the department’s website. There are currently no registered principals.
The department has also made available detailed guidance materials outlining those who are affected by the new laws and need to register.