Australia has introduced the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act that requires individuals or organizations working on behalf of foreign entities in the political sphere to register and explain their activities. The scheme has been in effect since December 10, 2018.
Tracking foreign Influence
Previously, individuals and organizations could influence the local politics of Australia without any disclosure obligation. It was difficult to determine whether the statements they made and things they did were their own or were being done at the behest of another. With threats of Chinese interference in politics at a critical level, the Australian administration decided that the best way to deal with foreign influence is to make the influencer reveal who they are working for.
“The Scheme complements the ban on foreign donations as well as new and extended espionage crimes to create a legal framework designed to force transparency — a key strength in the democratic state toolkit — on foreign interests in Australia by criminalizing the whole spectrum of covert influence operations,” according to the Lowy Institute.
Modeled after long-standing US law
The new scheme is inspired and modeled from a similar piece of U.S. legislation originally enacted in 1938 called the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. If anyone tries to meddle in local politics in the U.S. without registering on the website, they can be punished for up to five years in jail. Those who act on the behest of a foreign country to subvert Australia’s democracy may even be jailed for up to 20 years.
Former ambassadors canvassing for foreign governments, Chinese firms with connections to the Communist Party, Confucius Institutes, or foreign state media businesses will all come under the purview of the scheme. However, charity organizations, humanitarian workers, and business chambers that promote trade with a foreign country are all exempted.
“This sends a strong message to those who would seek to undermine our way of life that Australia is acutely aware of activities against our national security and will continue to take the steps necessary to thwart their activities,” Christian Porter, Attorney-General of Australia, said in a statement (VOA News).
While the scheme is intended to protect Australia from foreign influence, especially the Chinese government, it comes with a big set of drawbacks.
“Much of the discussion around the laws has centered on the need to defend our democracy against Chinese influence… But ironically, someone collaborating with democracy activists in China to organize rallies in Australia could find themselves facing prosecution for illegal foreign interference,” David Brophy, a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, said to The New York Times.
The Australian Director at Human Rights Watch, Elaine Pearson, also commented that the new law would include harsh punishment for activities like sharing classified information. The organization predicts that it will have a “chilling effect” on disclosures.
And while the foreign influence bill received widespread support from most of the parties, some were vehemently opposed to it precisely due to such rights concerns. “This is a sad day for Australia. We’ve taken giant steps today down a dangerous path for our country… You don’t protect democracy by smothering it,” Greens senator Nick McKim said in a statement (The Sydney Morning Herald).
McKim warned that the Australian government was becoming a totalitarian police state and that the new scheme will curtail the right to protest and freedom of the press.