How our selectively implemented foreign influence laws have undermined democracy



Posted

June 15, 2019 05:07:35

Jail for five years is one possibility, so too an official demand to turn over documents. Or you could be forced to publicly out yourself as an agent of foreign influence.

Such are the sweeping powers the Government gave itself last year to stop escalating influence operations from foreign countries (read: China).

Exhibit One: Sam Dastyari, the former Labor senator forced to resign in disgrace after taking Beijing’s money and advocating for more China-friendly policies.

That scandal prompted the strict new laws, which Parliament passed last June.

A year on, what’s the Government done with its new powers?

Write letters — though how many and to whom it won’t say.

“The letters encouraged recipients (where relevant) to consider their circumstances,” a statement from the Attorney-General’s Department to the ABC says.

“It would not be appropriate to discuss any responses to these letters.”

Meanwhile, even more powers the new laws granted to the Government have been dramatically and publicly put into action.

It appears police conducted last week’s media raids using new secrecy laws contained within the foreign interference legislation, which change Parts 5, 6 and 7 of the Crimes Act.

The legislation says the new secrecy laws “appropriately criminalise leaks of harmful information while also protecting freedom of speech”.

The definitions of “harmful information” are broad — for example, “loss of confidence or trust in the Australian Government by an overseas government or organisation”.

Australia’s Hans Blix tactics questionable

It’s worth remembering why these laws were passed.

“Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process both here and abroad,” then-PM Malcolm Turnbull said when he proposed them in 2017.

A register of foreign influencers the laws established would “give the Australian public and decision-makers proper visibility when foreign states or individuals may be seeking to influence our political processes and debates,” Mr Turnbull said.

Not so much.

Dozens of Chinese Government-linked organisations widely suspected of being deeply involved in undermining democratic debate have failed to register.

The Government can force them to do so, force the production of documents about their links and jail those who don’t comply.

But it hasn’t.

While it was preparing to raid the home and offices of those who hold it to account, it wrote polite letters to those behind the “unprecedented” attack on democracy.

The “Hans Blix” scene from the 2004 puppet parody Team America World Police comes to mind.

“I’m sorry, but the UN must be firm with you,” weapons inspector Blix sternly warns Korean dictator Kim Jong-il, who he suspects of hiding nuclear weapons.

“Let me see your whole palace … or else.”

“Or else what?” the diminutive dictator replies.

“Or else we will be very, very angry with you. And we will write you a letter telling you how angry we are.”

Did the Government overblow the China threat? Well, no, say those who watch these things.

The threat is real, but it has obscured the worrying crackdown on a free press.

Topics:

foreign-affairs,

government-and-politics,

journalism,

australia



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