The Turnbull government’s sweeping crackdown on foreign interference in Australian politics has prompted a furious response by former trade minister Andrew Robb, who has accused his ex-colleagues of helping paint him as “treasonous”.
The laws would likely criminalise the type of activity recently carried out by Labor senator Sam Dastyari, the government has suggested, by making it an offence to covertly influence Australian political or governmental processes.
“Unlawful foreign interference” would carry penalties of up to 20 years’ jail if done to damage Australian democracy, including harming national security, interfering in elections or covertly meddling in political or government processes.
People and organisations who seek to lobby on behalf of foreign powers would have to publicly register so that Australians know they are pushing the agendas of overseas interests.
Political parties will be banned from receiving foreign donations, as will activist groups if they plan to use that money for political campaigning.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the changes on Tuesday alongside Attorney-General George Brandis and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, declaring that “foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad”.
But the foreign lobbying registry has sparked fury from Mr Robb, who after serving as trade minister took up an $880,000-a-year job with Chinese firm the Landbridge Group, which controls Darwin Port.
Attorney-General George Brandis suggested Mr Robb as a former cabinet minister would have to register. Former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr, who is now associated with the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS Sydney, is another ex-MP who may have to register.
But Mr Robb launched a blistering counter-attack, describing the register as “a political stunt” and saying he was “sick of being hammered for being treasonous … sick of the attacks on me”.
“The attempts to trash my reputation in some quarters – now being aided and abetted by the government – are ill-informed and cheap politics,” he said.
“All I have sought to do since I left politics is to use my experience to improve opportunities for Australian businesses in the region.”
Mr Robb said he had been employed by Landbridge to work outside of Australia in China and other parts of the world and that he did not believe “I’m required to sign up to any register as I’m not engaged to lobby the Australian government”.
Asked if he was surprised at the government’s proposed legislation, and the fact that former colleagues had suggested he would have to sign up, Mr Robb said he was not “after the way ABC and Fairfax Media have beaten the crap out of these issues”.
“There is at the present time, and has been for 12 months or more, an inordinate attempt to worry people about China.”
He also criticised the United States for being the “biggest source of instability in the region” as a result of President Donald Trump pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Mr Carr said ACRI was now fully funded by the university and singled out other think tanks such as the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and the United States Studies Centre for expressing “consistently pro-American positions” while receiving “funding from US corporations, including armaments companies”.
“I have not hesitated to make criticisms of Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea and urge China’s adherence to international law.”
Mr Carr said the Attorney-General was attempting to create a distraction “after their party’s own vigorous fundraising from a Chinese donor had been brought to light”, an apparent reference to Chinese Communist Party-linked political donor Huang Xiangmo.
Under the law changes, it will become a crime for any person or group that lobbies for foreign interests to not sign up to the register.
The laws will broaden the definition of foreign espionage to capture more types of activity.
Legal experts warned that restricting political donations above $250 to Australian citizens and organisations – thereby excluding permanent residents and foreign companies – could be unconstitutional.
University of Melbourne Associate Professor Joo-Cheong Tham warned a similar effort by the NSW government was struck down by the High Court in 2013. And University of Sydney Professor Anne Twomey said the Turnbull government’s proposal came “very close to the constitutional line and [is] probably well and truly over it”.
Senator Brandis meanwhile suggested that Senator Dastyari’s conduct, which has included publicly backing Beijing foreign policy contrary to Labor party policy around the time he had legal bills paid by Chinese Communist Party-linked businessman, and tipping Mr Huang off that he might be the subject of intelligence agency monitoring, could become criminal under the new laws.
“In my view, the conduct alleged against him does not reach the threshold of the existing laws of treason and espionage, but that is why we are introducing – because of the gap in those laws – a new offence of unlawful foreign interference,” he said.
This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.