Ten years ago, the Lowy Institute published a report on the state of Australia’s diplomatic capacity that painted a “sobering picture” of overstretched foreign missions and declining resources.
In the words of then-Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who was quoted in the report:
Given the vast continent we occupy, the small population we have and our unique geo-strategic circumstances, our diplomacy must be the best in the world.
However, since then we haven’t put enough resources into our diplomacy as we should. New research by Asialink at the University of Melbourne published in Australian Foreign Affairs shows continuing under-investment in Australia’s diplomatic capacity, with funding for the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) now at a new low of just 1.3% of the federal budget.
Still in deficit?
According to Allan Gyngell, the founding director of the Lowy Institute, the reason for its 2009 report, Diplomatic Deficit, was simple.
For Australia to do things in the world, it needs a number of assets. These include the instruments of foreign policy, including the overseas network of posts.
The idea for the report was to go beyond the usual suspects and involve people like business leaders in making the case for diplomacy. It made 24 recommendations, many of which were not specifically about funding. These have mostly been met.
Sadly, the situation is less positive for recommendations that called for additional funding. Since 2013, Australia’s total diplomatic, trade and aid budgets have fallen from 1.5% of the federal budget to 1.3%. In pure dollar terms, this is a fall from A$8.3 billion to A$6.7 billion.
At the same time, the budgets for defence, intelligence and security have ballooned. In the almost two decades since the September 11 terror attacks, the Department of Defence budget has increased by 291%, while the allocation for the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has grown by 528% and the Australian Secret Intelligence Service by 578%.
Scaling back has a real effect on Australia’s influence. If Australia reduces the scholarships to bring future regional leaders to study in Australia, for instance, they’ll likely study and form bonds elsewhere.
If Australia reduces its investment in Indonesia’s education system, it will be dominated by the country’s other major funder, Saudi Arabia.
When Australia pulls back on its diplomacy, other countries take up the slack.
One impetus for the Morrison government’s much-vaunted “Pacific Step Up” was the realisation that cuts in aid and diplomacy had led to lessened Australian influence in its neighbourhood. In the words of one diplomat I spoke to, “China had been eating our lunch”.
The problem is that the “step up” did not come with increased funding for diplomats, meaning that DFAT’s new Office of the Pacific is being formed by taking staff and resources from other parts of department.
If nothing else, DFAT should be granted an exemption from the efficiency dividend – an annual funding reduction for government agencies – until its budget rises to a more normal, historical level. This measure, usually levied at 1% to 1.25% of the administrative budget, reached 4% in 2012–13. With DFAT cut to the bone, the focus should be on increasing its budget, not constant cuts.
The aspirations for our diplomacy must be upgraded beyond the bare minimum. Ten years on from Diplomatic Deficit, Australia must resist the magical thinking that foreign affairs and trade somehow happen by themselves. In the 2009 report, former DFAT Secretary Richard Woolcott is quoted as saying:
I do feel that the Department of Foreign Affairs … has been allowed to run down to a dangerously low level … we can’t go on doing more with less … these sorts of undertakings do need to be properly resourced.
If only this had changed in the last 10 years.
Mitchell Vandewerdt-Holman, a Master of International Relations student at the University of Melbourne, contributed to this report.
For some time now, Australian voters have rattled the cage of the political establishment. Frustrated with prime ministerial “coups”, political scandals and policy inertia, growing numbers have turned away from the major parties.
Does this mean minor parties and independent candidates will have a significant impact on the coming federal election?
Anti-major party sentiment doesn’t usually disrupt the numbers in parliament by much. Only five of 150 seats weren’t won by the major parties at the 2016 federal election, despite a national minor party/independent vote of over 23%. But a nationwide minor party Senate vote of over 35% in 2016 resulted in a record 20 crossbenchers – helped by a lower quota bar at a double dissolution election.
Familiar groups and faces are well placed to capitalise on this sentiment during the current election campaign.
Despite internal instability rocking its New South Wales branch, the Greens will hope to capitalise on growing progressive support (in Victoria especially) and an expected anti-Coalition swing to secure Senate influence.
Yet with recent Senate voting rule changes being tested for the first time at a normal half-Senate election, the Greens may in fact struggle to retain, let alone build on, their current nine Senate spots. Final Senate seats in most states will be fought over by a slew of (mainly right-wing) minor parties.
Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party (UAP), Pauline Hanson’s One Nation (PHON), and – unlikely as it seems – Fraser Anning’s new Conservative National Party will chase the “protest vote” in all states and (apart from PHON) territories.
But intense competition for the conservative vote means they and other minor parties stand only an outside chance of winning lower house seats. One exception is Bob Katter likely holding Kennedy in north Queensland for his eponymous Australian Party.
Still, an expected high minor party vote will keep the major parties – and the media – focused on preferencing arrangements throughout the campaign. These preferences will likely play a key role in electing minor party candidates to the Senate, potentially returning familiar faces like One Nation’s Malcolm Roberts from Queensland.
Deference to preferences
Recent opinion poll results have unexpectedly placed Palmer’s party ahead of the field of minor parties on the right. Months of saturation advertising, it seems, have imprinted the billionaire’s messaging on voters’ minds. Yet this sudden poll prominence, like Palmer’s billboard pledge to “make Australia great”, is largely illusory.
Nevertheless, both major parties have responded to this seeming upsurge in UAP support. The Coalition has hurriedly concluded a preferencing arrangement that sees Palmer and Prime Minister Scott Morrison somewhat “reconciled”. The deal might deliver much-needed preferences to Coalition MPs in marginal seats, particularly in Queensland. It also increases the chances of Palmer candidates – and the man himself – winning a Senate seat.
But these are big “maybes”. Minor party voters are renowned for following their own preference choices. In 2013, voters’ preferences from Palmer’s United Party candidates split only 54% the Coalition’s way.
Clearly stung by the attention being shown to Palmer, Hanson has announced PHON will preference Labor last in some key marginal seats held by Liberal incumbents. That includes Peter Dutton, whose seat of Dickson is under siege. In 2016, PHON took a different approach when it preferenced against sitting MPs, costing the Coalition its hold on Queensland seats like Herbert and Longman.
As part of the same deal, PHON will exchange preferences with the Nationals – whose leader Michael McCormack claimed “it just made sense” – lifting the Nationals’ hopes in marginal and at-risk regional seats.
Labor has also sealed a deal to boost its chances in marginal Victorian seats, concluding an arrangement with Derryn Hinch’s Justice Party. This will see Labor how-to-vote cards in tightly contested seats like Dunkley and Corangamite suggest second preferences go to Hinch’s Senate candidates ahead of the Greens (repeating Labor’s approach at the 2016 election).
But doing preference deals with minor parties carries reputational risks, as former Western Australia Premier Colin Barnett has warned. As has often been the case with personality-driven outfits, choosing suitable or qualified candidates easily brings minor parties undone.
Anning’s party has already stumbled badly. A pair of candidates in Victoria and the ACT has been called into question, and a party supporter allegedly assaulted journalists in Sydney.
Hanson’s party, no stranger to this pitfall, is still hosing down the controversy of the Al Jazeera taped conversations with party insiders, which has likely cost the party some support. Freshly released video footage has now forced Queensland Senate candidate, Steve Dickson, to resign in disgrace, in another blow to the often shambolic party’s standing.
Palmer’s candidates are similarly coming under scrutiny with doubts raised over citizenship qualifications, putting legitimate doubts into voters’ minds just as pre-polling has commenced.
Familiarity is key for independents
The best chances for independents are in lower house seats, yet there’s been only a dozen elected to parliament in the last several decades. Those who’ve broken through in election campaigns, like Kerryn Phelps at last year’s Wentworth byelection, typically benefit when there’s some controversy or ill-feeling towards an incumbent or their party.
But in the absence of full-on media glare of a high-profile by-election contest, Phelps might struggle to hold her seat – assuming the angst of local voters over Malcolm Turnbull’s deposing has dissipated.
Personal profile and high media interest puts Zali Steggall in with a chance to unseat Tony Abbott in Warringah. Likewise, a well-organised local campaign structure such as “Voices for Indi” behind Cathy McGowan’s hopeful successor, Helen Haines, can make the difference – though transition of support from one independent to another isn’t assured.
Newcomers on the ballot paper generally find the odds against them. Candidates with an established record and voter recognition, such as Andrew Wilkie in Tasmania’s Clark (like the Greens’ Adam Bandt in Melbourne and Centre Alliance’s Rebekha Sharkie in South Australia’s Mayo), enjoy an easier path to reelection.
Similarly, Rob Oakeshott is given a good chance of winning the New South Wales seat of Cowper from retiring Nationals MP, Luke Hartsuyker. He carries strong name recognition from his time as Independent MP for the neighbouring seat of Lyne.
But recognition alone mightn’t be enough for Julia Banks, the former Liberal MP for Chisholm in Victoria who is now challenging in Greg Hunt’s seat of Flinders. Her decision to preference Labor’s candidate above Hunt might turn away potential support from Liberal-leaning voters, yet could put the seat within Labor’s grasp.
The chances of an “independent tide” sweeping several seats this election is unlikely, in part due to the ability of major parties to drown out the competition. And counter to long speculation about the “march of the minors”, there could in fact be a reduced crossbench in both the lower house and Senate.
But voter dissatisfaction with the major parties persists, and minor party preferences are likely to play a critical role in many seats.
The prominence of minor parties will maintain an air of unpredictability for the remainder of the campaign, clouding an election outcome many saw not long ago as a foregone conclusion.
It might be just a coincidence that these decisions have come just days before new foreign influence transparency laws come into effect on March 1.
The new laws are supposed to make visible the “nature, level and extent of foreign influence on Australia’s government and political process”. There is more than enough evidence that greater transparency is needed. But the extent to which the new rules will achieve this is questionable.
Federal parliament passed the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act (FITS) in December. The Act obliges individuals to register if they act on behalf of “foreign principals” – be they governments, government-related entities, political organisations or government-related individuals.
Failing to apply for (or renew) registration, providing false and misleading information or destroying records may lead to a prison term of up to six years for individuals and fines of A$88,200 for companies.
Registrable activities include:
parliamentary and political lobbying on behalf of a foreign principal
communications activities for the purpose of political or government influence
employment or activities of former cabinet ministers.
An example of the latter is Andrew Robb.
In February 2016 Robb resigned as federal trade minister and announced he would not recontest his seat. He left parliament in July. Three months later he had his new job, getting paid way more than the prime minister as a consultant to the Landbridge Group.
It is always instructive to note the first jobs taken by politicians after they leave parliament. Those appointments generally reflect relationships already well-groomed.
Landbridge is a privately owned Chinese company, but like many Chinese companies has strong ties to the ruling Chinese Communist Party. Its substantial interests in petrochemicals and ports includes a 99-year lease over the Darwin port, which is considered of strategic importance in China’s diplomatic dance with the United States.
China isn’t the only foreign power interested in having influence in Australia, of course. Historical ties have meant that Britain once dictated Australia’s foreign policy. Since World War II the United States has had almost as much power.
Now China, Australia’s largest trading partner, taking about 30% of our exports, looms large. But the power exercised by the Chinese regime is qualitatively different.
For all its economic liberalisation since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, China remains a one party state, with repression worsening under Xi Jinping. On freedom of the the press, for example, China ranks 176 out of 180 countries.
Commercial, military and political influences are wrapped up together. Lines between state and private enterprises are blurred. When Chinese business interests curry favour with foreign politicians and officials, there’s a high chance that statecraft is also being advanced. “Soft power” is used extensively.
Agent of influence
This is what made the tawdry scandal involving former NSW senator Sam Dastyari so alarming.
Though a humble senator, Dastyari was a key Labor Party fundraiser and powerbroker. He later admitted that vanity and arrogance made him susceptible to the charm offensive of Huang Xiangmo – the billionaire who courted Bob Carr to head up the Australia-China Relations Institute.
Dastyari accepted financial gifts from Huang’s company, including a A$44,000 payment to settle a legal dispute, along with payments from other donors connected to the Chinese Communist Party.
Such payments made it obvious why he defied his own party’s policy and defended China’s militant stance in the South China Sea. He was subsequently labelled a Chinese “agent of influence”.
These revelations resulted in Dastyari resigning from parliament in 2017. Earlier this month it was revealed the federal government had rejected Huang’s bid to become an Australian citizen and stripped him of his permanent residency visa.
On the basis of these examples highlighted above, there’s a strong case for making influence peddling open and transparent.
Whether the new laws can achieve that is another matter. They may curtail flagrant scenarios where those leaving public office sell their wares to the highest bidder. But to work effectively, the laws and their enforcers will need to constantly adapt and evolve as agents look for creative ways to wield influence from the shadows.
While the hacking of party and parliamentary systems is normally a covert activity, influence operations are necessarily noisy and public in order to reach citizens – even if efforts are made to obscure their origins.
If a state actor has designs to weaponise materials recently hacked, we will likely see them seek to inflame religious and ethnic differences, as well as embarrass the major parties in an effort to drive votes to minor parties.
If this comes to pass, there are four things Australians should look for.
1. Strategic interest for a foreign government to intervene
If the major parties have roughly the same policy position in relation to a foreign country, a foreign state would have little incentive to intervene, for example, in favour of Labor against the Coalition.
They may, however, attempt to amplify social divisions between the parties as a way of reducing the ability of Australians to work together after the election.
Finally, they may also try to drive the vote away from the major parties to minor parties which might be more favourable to their agenda.
This could be achieved by strategically releasing hacked materials which embarrass the major parties or their candidates, moving voters away from those parties and towards minor parties. These stories will likely be distributed first on social media platforms and later amplified by foreign and domestic broadcast media.
It is no secret that Russia and China seek a weakening of the Five Eyes security relationship between Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, and the United Kingdom. If weakened, that would undermine the alliance structure which has helped prevent major wars for the last 70 years.
2. Disproportionate attention by foreign media to a local campaign
In Australia, we might find greater attention than normal directed at One Nation or Fraser Anning – as well as the strategic promotion of Green candidates in certain places to push political discussion further right and further left at the same time.
3. Promoted posts on Facebook and other social media platforms
Research into the 2016 US election found widespread violations of election law. The vast majority of promoted ads on Facebook during the election campaign were from groups which failed to file with the Federal Election Commission and some of this unregistered content came from Russia.
The best propaganda uses claims which are factually true, placing them into a different context which can be used to manipulate audiences or by amplifying negative aspects of a group, policy or politician, without placing that information in a wider context.
For example, to amplify concerns about immigrants, one might highlight the immigrant background of someone convicted of a crime, irrespective of the overall propensity for immigrants to commit crimes compared to native born Australians.
Liberal democracies are designed to handle conflicts over interests through negotiation and compromise. Identities, however, are less amenable to compromise. These efforts may not be “fake news” but they are effective in undermining the capacity of a democratic nation to mobilise its people in pursuit of common goals.
No country is immune from the risk of foreign influence operations. While historically these operations might have involved the creation of false documents and on the ground operations in target countries, today materials can be sourced, faked, and disseminated from the relative security of the perpetrating country. They may include both authentic and faked documents – making it hard for a campaign to charge that certain documents are faked without affirming the validity of others.
Scott Morrison on Thursday will announce an extensive suite of military, diplomatic, financial and people-to-people initiatives in a major boost to Australia’s role in the Pacific.
They include setting up a $2 billion infrastructure financing facility to promote development in the region.
The facility – coming hard on the heels of Labor proposing a government-backed infrastructure investment bank to assist the Pacific – would provide grant and loan financing for telecommunications, transport, energy, water and similar projects.
The military initiatives include an Australian Defence Force Pacific
Mobile Training Team and more naval deployments, while diplomatic
missions will be opened in Palau, the Marshall Islands, French Polynesia, Niue and the Cook Islands.
APEC focuses minds on Papua New Guinea
The Pacific push is against the background of China’s growing involvement in the area. But the government also points to issues of
potential instability in some countries, and the Islamic State terrorism threat in the broader Indo-Asia Pacific region.
The announcement comes ahead of the APEC meeting in Port Moresby on
November 17-18, and it follows Australia and Papua New Guinea agreeing
on a joint redevelopment of the naval base on Manus Island.
In Thursday’s speech at Lavarack base at Townsville, released ahead of
delivery, Morrison says: “My government is returning the Pacific to
where it should be – front and centre of Australia’s strategic outlook, foreign policy and personal connections, including at the highest levels of government”.
Morrison says it is time to “open a new chapter in relations with our
“Australia has an abiding interest in a Southwest Pacific that is secure strategically, stable economically and sovereign politically”.
The region is “where Australia can make the biggest difference in world affairs” – but too often had taken its influence for granted.
Defence to tie Australia to the Pacific
Morrison says that in future the Australian Defence Force, which already has a pivotal role, will play an even greater one with partner countries in training, capacity building, exercises and on “building interoperability to respond together to the security challenges we face”.
The proposed rotational ADF Pacific Mobile Training Team will be based in Australia, travelling to places in the Pacific, when invited, to undertake training and engagement with other forces.
Work with regional partners would be in areas such as disaster response, peacekeeping, infantry skills, engineering and logistics.
Morrison says the Navy will be deployed more to the Pacific to conduct
training and exercises with other countries. “This will enable them to
take advantage of the new Guardian Class Patrol Boats we are gifting
to them, to support regional security”.
Ties with Pacific police forces are to be strengthened, with a new Pacific faculty at the Australian Institute of Police Management that will help train future police leaders.
More regular in-person contact
To deepen people-to-people links with Pacific security forces, there
will be annual meetings of defence and police and border security
A security alumni network will be set up to maintain connections with
those who have taken part in the Defence Cooperation Program over
Military sporting engagements will be expanded, as will general
sporting links with a new sports program.
Announcing the new diplomatic posts, Morrison says “this will mean
Australia is represented in every member country of the Pacific Islands Forum”. He stresses also that the government wants “our best and brightest, young and experienced diplomats alike, working on the Pacific”.
As well as the infrastructure financing facility, Morrison is announcing that the government will seek parliamentary approval for Australia’s export financing agency, Efic, to have an extra $1 billion in callable capital and more flexibility to support investments in the region that benefit Australia’s national interest.
More investment in the Pacific
This would “enhance Efic’s ability to support Australian SMEs to be
active in the region. Private capital, entrepreneurialism and open
markets are crucial to our mutual prosperity,” Morrison says.
He says it is estimated the Pacific region will need US$3.1 billion
annually in investment to 2030.
Morrison says the government will work with Australia’s commercial media operators to enable people in Pacific countries to have “access to more quality Australian content on TV and other platforms.
“This will include lifestyle programs, news, current affairs, children’s content, drama and potentially sports. This is an initial step towards providing more Australian content that is highly valued by the Pacific community,” he says.
On 2GB Morrison on Wednesday had to defend Pacific countries from broadcaster Alan Jones’ attack on them as “rent seekers”.
Not rent-seekers after all
Jones lashed out after Morrison gave the importance of the Paris climate agreement to these countries as one reason for Australia not leaving the agreement.
“Do you think all these rent-seekers in the Pacific should get money that you’ve said you’re not going to contribute to Paris. … They’re
rent-seekers, they just want money,” Jones said.
Morrison replied: “I don’t think that’s very respectful to the Pacific
Islands, Alan, I really don’t, and I don’t share that view. They’re
part of the world in which we live here and we’ve always been doing
the right thing by them and we think back to Papua New Guinea, they
did the right thing by us when it came to our Diggers.
“So we have a very special relationship with the Pacific and we need to, for our own interest as well as that it’s part of the community and family of nations we live in in this part of the world. We do the right thing by them, they’ll do the right thing by us.”
Postscript: bid for gas piplines blocked
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has effectively blocked a $13 billion bid by the Hong
Kong-based CK Group for the Australian gas pipeline company APA.
The decision complicates the current visit to China by Foreign
Minister Marise Payne.
Chinese approval for the Payne trip has been hailed as an important
sign of the improving relationship between the two countries after a
period of frostiness, which included tension over the federal
government’s legislation against foreign interference and the ongoing dispute over China’s build up in the South China Sea.
Foreign investment decisions rest with the treasurer, who takes advice
from the Foreign Investment Review Board. Frydenberg said he had
decided the proposed acquisition would be “contrary to the national
“It would result in an undue concentration of foreign ownership by a
single company group in our most significant gas transmission
Frydenberg said the board had been “unable to reach a unanimous
recommendation, expressing its concerns about aggregation and the
national interest implications of such a dominant foreign player in
the gas and electricity sectors over the longer term.”
His “preliminary decision” – which under the usual process will be
finalised a fortnight – reflected the size and significance of APA
Group. It was not a reflection on the CK Group, he said.
“The APA Group is a unique company, widely held amongst investors with
significant Australian ownership and management,” Frydenberg said.
“It is by far the largest gas transmission system owner in Australia,
owning 15,000 km of pipelines representing 56 per cent of Australia’s
gas pipeline transmission system, including 74 per cent of New South
Wales and Victorian pipelines and 64 per cent in the Northern
“It also supplies gas for part of all mainland capital
cities’ consumption, gas-fired electricity generation assets and
liquefied natural gas exports.”
Public policy should be made for all Australians – not just those with the resources or connections to lobby and influence politicians. And mostly it is. But sometimes bad policy is made or good policy is dropped because powerful groups have more say and sway than they should.
Australia’s political institutions are generally robust, but many of the “risk factors” for policy capture by special interests are present in our system. Political parties are heavily reliant on major donors, money can buy access, relationships and political connections, and there’s a lack of transparency in dealings between policymakers and special interests.
Better checks and balances are needed. But the question of what to do about undue influence is tricky. Interests should be able to advocate for themselves, and donate money to support causes they believe in. Lobbying helps to introduce new ideas and reduce the likelihood of uninformed or damaging decisions by those in office. We propose a suite of reforms to reduce the risks of policy capture while still protecting the rights of all individuals and groups to contribute to policy discussions.
Transparency isn’t a silver bullet, but it can play an important role in reducing the sway of special interests. Greater transparency means more opportunity for the public, media and the parliament itself to scrutinise the policy-making process and call out undue influence or give voice to under-represented views.
We recommend three key reforms to improve transparency.
Publish ministerial diaries so people know who ministers meet with
Create a public register of lobbyists who have unescorted access to federal Parliament House. These reforms would substantially reduce the secrecy around money and access.
Transparency is not enough on its own – strong voices are still needed to call out problems, and voters still need to hold elected officials to account. But transparency gives them better information to do so.
Boost public trust in politicians
Trust in government is in decline: in a 2018 survey, 85% of Australians thought at least some federal MPs were corrupt. We recommend setting clear standards for all parliamentarians to avoid conflicts of interest – particularly around hospitality, gifts and secondary employment.
Codes of conduct for parliamentarians and lobbyists should be independently administered, to build public confidence that the high standards of public office are respected and adhered to. A separate ethics adviser could also encourage public officials to seek advice when they’re in doubt.
And a federal integrity or anti-corruption body should be established to deal with tips and complaints of serious misconduct. It should be empowered to investigate corruption risks, publish findings, and refer any corrupt activity to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions.
The best defence against policy capture is healthy public debate
Greater transparency and accountability would help reduce the risk of policy capture by special interests. But ultimately Australia’s best defence is countervailing voices in policy debates. Who’s in the room matters – but who’s not in the room can matter even more.
Consumers, community groups and those less privileged are consistently under-represented in public debate. Our analysis of ministerial diaries in Queensland and NSW shows well-resourced special interests account for the bulk of senior ministers’ external meetings.
People who lack the resources or organisational capacity to band together can struggle to be heard – even when they represent a large chunk of Australian society – taxpayers, consumers, small business and young people, for example. Special interests are particularly likely to win out in technical, niche or complex policy areas because they are more difficult for other groups, voters and the media to engage with.
We suggest two reforms to reduce the influence of well-resourced special interests and promote broader participation in public debate:
First, a cap on political advertising expenditure during election campaigns would reduce the imbalance between groups with very different means to broadcast political views. It would reduce the reliance of political parties on major donors and might redirect communication to less-superficial channels that are conducive to deeper discussion, such as political debates and interviews.
Second, government can boost countervailing voices through more inclusive policy review processes and advocacy for under-represented groups. This would give politicians better information with which to adjudicate the public interest.
The reforms proposed here are in line with OECD recommended practice. They would strengthen Australian democracy by enabling voters to better hold government to account and could boost the public’s confidence that the system is working for them.
In December, the Turnbull Government tabled sweeping new national security legislation in response to what the PM called “disturbing reports of Chinese influence” in Australian politics.
An ongoing parliamentary review of the proposed laws has attracted hundreds of public submissions, with intelligence agencies and civil society organisations predictably lining up on opposite sides of the argument.
More surprising, perhaps, is the controversy the laws have sparked within Australia’s community of China experts.
The open letter argued the bill directly threatened academic freedom, and that the “alarmist tone” of recent public discourse over China was impinging Australia’s ability to calmly and rationally deal with the issues.
In particular, it warned that “a racialised narrative of a vast official Chinese conspiracy” was taking shape:
We should be vigilant that public discourse in Australia does not create undue pressure on one particular section of our society to demonstrate its loyalty to Australia at the expense of its freedom to criticise Australian policies and actions.
A week on, a different group of China and Asia experts submitted another letter — ostensibly in response to the first — defending public policy debates over the issue in light of “well-documented reports about the Chinese Communist Party’s interference” in Australia. It read:
We firmly believe the current debate is not characterised by racism and that it is crucial for Australia to continue this debate. Indeed, Chinese Australians are among the main initiators and drivers of this debate.
In fact, the two letters share a great deal in common. Both call for informed debate over the issues; both denounce racism; both affirm scrutiny of the CCP’s activities in Australia and the application of legal penalties where evidence of wrongdoing is clear.
Most signatories would agree that discussion of the set of issues raised is necessary, and that it is not motivated by racism. They would also agree that new laws may be necessary but must be carefully drafted, and there have been problematic elements in the public debate as it has unfolded so far.
Both lists of signatories contain trenchant critics of Beijing, as well as relatively China-friendly voices.
Yet, I’m aware of only one person who signed both.
Why have Australia’s China scholars cleaved into two camps on a matter of great public interest that requires their collective expertise — camps that seem to cut across personal networks and ideological preferences?
To some extent, as ANU National Security College head Rory Medcalf has observed, this reflects healthy scholarly disagreements among colleagues.
But the rival letters are also indicative of a less-than-healthy polarisation in the discourse at a time when identifying consensus views might be more valuable. After all, the letters were substantively in agreement on many of the key issues.
It may help, then, to clarify what we do disagree about.
As a signatory to the first letter, but not the second, I can identify four main points of contention. Yet, as shown below, even within these four areas there appears to be more agreement than the rival letters might suggest.
Four points of contention
The scope of CCP activities in Australia
While the first letter cautions against conflating distinct China-related issues in Australia into “a vast official Chinese conspiracy”, the second offers a list of ten bullet-point examples of the “CCP activities” Australia should be vigilant against.
The list ranges from espionage and intimidation of dissidents, to university student groups and pro-China political rallies.
The view that vigilance is warranted over the party’s activities in Australia should be uncontroversial. It is an unreformed and increasingly dictatorial Leninist regime with a ministerial-level department tasked with instrumentalising non-party actors to advance the party’s interests and counter its perceived enemies.
The scope of this “United Front Work” system is vast and expanding, and it is rooted in a thoroughly cynical vision of the world. It is an institution and a vision that Australians — especially political elites — ought to be properly educated about.
But it should also be equally uncontroversial to affirm that a person or group’s inclusion as a target within the scope of united front work does not constitute grounds for suspecting them of disloyalty or subversiveness if they espouse a CCP-friendly view on an issue.
Causes of racist and alarmist sentiments
The first letter criticises the Australian media for fanning “suspicion and stigmatisation of Chinese-Australians”.
The second letter acknowledges the public discourse has prompted “alarmist and racist sentiments”, but argues this is an inevitable side effect of having a debate in the first place.
Perhaps we could at least agree that the prevalence of racism and alarmism on the fringes of a debate depends significantly on the language used by those in the mainstream debate.
If so, this would narrow the disagreement down to whether or not the costs of using inaccurate and inflammatory language such as “Chinese”, “invasion”, “infiltration”, and “penetration” are acceptable.
The meaning of sovereignty
The first letter argues there’s no evidence that the PRC’s activities are aimed at challenging Australia’s sovereignty. The second letter, by contrast, advocates action to counter “threats to sovereignty”.
Each appears to have a different notion of sovereignty in mind.
If the word means, narrowly, paramount legal authority within territorial limits, then a PRC challenge to Australia’s sovereignty implies that it seeks to lay claim to parts of the Australian landmass, or reduce its polity to a tributary “vassal”. But as the first letter pointed out, there is to date no credible evidence of this.
On the other hand, there have been clear instances of PRC violations of Australian sovereignty in recent years. In 2015, for example, Chinese undercover police pursued a fugitive on Australian territory. Importantly, in that case, Beijing admitted its wrongdoing.
Interference with the political freedoms of residents of Australia, such as intimidation of dissidents’ families in China, also arguably violate Australia’s sovereignty in a broad sense.
Neither letter defines sovereignty, but both invoke the word’s emotive power. Those of us speaking of a CCP threat to Australian sovereignty (or absence thereof) might be able to agree on more if we specify in what sense this is (not) the case.
Threats to democratic politics in Australia
Whereas the second letter emphasises the threats that CCP activities pose to democracy and free speech, the earlier letter suggests the sweeping proposed national security laws and alarmist public discourse were creating an even more immediate threat to democratic political rights.
It is hardly in doubt that the CCP’s activities undermine the political values of democracy, liberalism and openness. It is openly hostile to them.
But there are well-documented cases of self-censorship resulting from the alarmist tone in Australia’s public discourse on the issue, with reports of some Chinese-Australian politicians growing afraid of associating with CCP-linked community figures.
The second letter affirms that all residents of Australia “should be able to express their point of view free of fear or censorship, whether from forces foreign or domestic”.
This suggests, once again, that there is significant overlap among China scholars even within this ostensible area of disagreement. Specifically, both seem to recognise that threats to democratic rights exist inside Australia as well as outside.
A risk-management approach
Where to from here? In an upcoming report, I argue that if Australia wants to maintain a broad engagement with a powerful, increasingly dictatorial Leninist party-state ruling a billion-plus people while maintaining a liberal democracy, it will require careful understanding and management of the risks involved.
It will not be possible to simply disallow all CCP “operations of influence” without impinging on the very democratic rights the CCP threatens.
Conflating distinct issues (for example, espionage, lobbying, Chinese-language media, student activism) under single sweeping labels (such as “influence” or “operations”) that imply they’re all part of one Beijing-orchestrated campaign of subversion is also not helpful in developing methodical, systematic responses.
Policymakers in Beijing may dream of coordinating a vast conspiracy involving ethnic Chinese all over the world advancing the CCP’s interests, but that does not make it a reality.
Australia’s approach, I argue, should be to carefully disaggregate the various problems under discussion in this debate and risk-manage them individually, rather than grasping for some kind of resolution that will free Australia of “CCP influence”.
This article has been amended. The line that originally read: Yet, I’m not aware of a single person who signed both has been changed to Yet, I’m aware of only one person who signed both.
Academics in Australia might reflect on the fact that scholarly books critical of the Chinese Communist Party are now shunned by publishers. Scholars who work on China know that continued access to the country requires them to play by Beijing’s rules, which for most means self-censorship – the dirty secret of China studies in Australia.
Despite refusing to publish my book, Silent Invasion, I am privileged in my access to free speech in a way that most Chinese-Australians are not.
In February, Alex Joske, my researcher for the book and of Chinese heritage himself, wrote in the New York Times that as Beijing’s interference in Australian society intensifies:
… the voices of the Chinese-Australians alarmed by Beijing’s encroachment are being drowned out by an aggressive Chinese government campaign to silence critics here.
Once quite vocal, pro-democracy activists, supporters of Tibetan autonomy, and Falun Gong practitioners are barely heard nowadays. In my book, I describe how this marginalisation has been carried out.
Examples are legion. The New York Times recently reported that Taiwanese workers at restaurants in Sydney have been sacked because, when asked whether they believe Taiwan belongs to China, they say “no”.
It only takes a few examples like this to send a signal to all Taiwanese in Australia to keep their views to themselves if they go against Beijing. This kind of violation of democratic principles — not to mention employment law — has for years been ignored by the mainstream.
Soon after Allen & Unwin pulled publication of my book, a retired businessman phoned. For years he has been taking in Chinese students as lodgers. Recently, he was walking through the CBD with one of those students when they came upon a Falun Gong practitioner collecting signatures on a petition. When he said “let’s go over”, she begged him not to. She kept walking while he signed the petition.
Two weeks later, the student’s parents back in China had the Ministry of State Security knocking on their door. They were warned to keep an eye on their daughter, who was creating trouble in Australia.
Think about that. Chinese authorities in Australia are monitoring Falun Gong practitioners on the streets of Sydney and Melbourne, photographing anyone who interacts with them. They can identify any ethnically Chinese person and put them on a watchlist.
In the course of researching my book, I spoke with pastors at Chinese churches in Australia who believe their congregations and community groups have Communist Party agents spying on behalf on the consulate. Some Chinese-Australians cannot even go to their places of worship without Beijing’s vast security apparatus watching and reporting on them.
Few religious groups of modern times have experienced more coercion and violence than practitioners of the peaceful spiritual practice Falun Gong. Working through the consulates, the sinister 610 Office has harassed, threatened and bullied Falun Gong practitioners in Australia and frightened off sympathetic politicians.
Last year, Feng Chongyi, an associate professor at the University of Technology Sydney, was forcibly detained in China for a week while doing research on human rights lawyers. China does not like what he is uncovering and wanted to send an unambiguous message that he should change what he works on in Australia.
It’s important to understand that the effect of Beijing’s suppression of critical voices in the Chinese-Australian community is not confined to pro-democracy and Tibetan autonomy activists. The dominant narrative in the community is now one that supports the Communist Party view of the world.
Leading Sinologist John Fitzgerald has shown how the once-diverse Chinese-language media became overwhelmingly pro-Beijing. Chinese-language media in Australia is subject to Beijing’s censorship regime. Chinese-Australians who speak about human rights violations or complain about Beijing’s interference in Australian politics are vilified.
A young Chinese-Australian who wants to enter politics knows that any criticism he or she may make of, for example, party influence operations in Australia will result in bad press and pressure from “community leaders”. If they were to persist, family members in China may receive intimidating visits from state security. It’s much easier to stay out politics.
This is a denial of their democratic rights. It means that Chinese-Australians critical of the Communist Party have no representation in parliament. Who will speak up for them if their family is threatened, or if their business in Australia is sent broke by a boycott organised by the consulate?
Enabling the silencing
Instead of giving these critics of the Communist Party a voice, some of our political leaders have collaborated in their silencing. They shun them, even condemning them when they protest outside the Sydney consulate, while mixing with and responding to “community leaders” who typically head United Front organisations guided by the party through its network of agencies that operate in Australia.
In February, Shadow Treasurer Chris Bowen expressed outrage in parliament because Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen had threatened violence against any Cambodian-Australians who staged a protest during his visit to Australia. Bowen declared he would defend the right of Cambodian-Australians to protest and would not allow peaceful protesters to be harassed and bullied.
Good for him. But where is Bowen when Chinese-Australians are threatened and intimidated by China’s state security apparatus in Australia? Where is he when supporters of Tibetan autonomy are drowned out and intimidated on the streets of Sydney?
Bowen is a prominent member of the New South Wales Right faction of the Labor Party and accordingly has been the recipient of largesse from wealthy Chinese businessmen close to Beijing. He has been flown to China at the expense of the Communist Party and an organisation run by Huang Xiangmo, the businessman ASIO warned the major political parties to avoid taking money from.
Bowen has been a patron of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, the peak United Front body closely associated with Huang Xiangmo.
As my book appeared in the bookshops, the big beasts of the NSW Right came out to monster me because I have said they are too close to Communist Party front groups and agents of influence. Bob Carr, Paul Keating and Graham Richardson attempted to trash my reputation and make me out as a Sinophobe and closet racist.
They are embarrassed when anyone draws attention to the evidence of the deep penetration of the Chinese state into their part of the Labor Party. They should know that the more they try to shut down critics, the more we will ask what they have to hide.
Like others, I have puzzled over the astonishing level of naivety in this country about what China is doing here.
It doesn’t seem enough to speak, as some have, of being blinded by the money or referring to the natural openness of Australians. For some, it’s almost a wilful unwillingness to see, despite the powerful evidence of China’s aggressive intentions.
When writing Silent Invasion, I anticipated that its arguments would be dismissed as rooted in xenophobia and that I am just stirring a cauldron of anti-Chinese racism. I have a pretty good record of anti-racism over the decades, but for some that counts for little.
More to the point, in the book I tried hard to reflect the experiences of those Chinese-Australians who are critical of the Chinese Communist Party and feel threatened by it in their new home.
I discussed with some of them the risk of racist groups misusing the book to reinforce their prejudices. The typical response was: “Well, what’s the alternative? Should you just say nothing?”
The judgement of these Chinese-Australians is that they may have to take some collateral damage to win the larger battle. They are much more worried about the vast apparatus of Communist Party coercion than some wave of anti-Chinese sentiment.
From the moment I began researching and writing Silent Invasion, I resolved to ensure that none of the criticisms I made of the Chinese Communist Party could be construed as anti-Chinese or anti-China.
I knew that nothing I did would deter the party from its usual conflation of the party and the nation. And true to form its spokespersons in Canberra and Beijing have stuck to the party line, attacking the book as “racist bigotry” and “anti-Chinese”.
If you just read Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane, Chinese Embassy statements, and Beijing’s trolls on social media, you’d think the danger we face in Australia is not Chinese Communist Party interference operations but the risk of inflaming anti-Chinese racism by calling out the party.
The problem lies not in Xi Jinping’s aggressive assertion of a newly risen China, but the stain on our own history. Our first goal must not be to resist growing foreign interference, but to keep the lid on fringe sentiments here.
But what of China experts in Australia? Surely they can see what is happening. Most of the serious ones can and have been trying to draw attention to it for some years.
Others, like the University of Sydney’s David Brophy, prefer to put their ideological purity on display. In a ranting “review” of Silent Invasion, he argued that when discussing the Chinese Communist Party’s interference operations in Australia, people like me and the string of China experts who take a similar view have got it all back to front.
For Brophy, when the issue of foreign interference arises, we must not “shift the blame onto China” but “confront our own failings”.
Concern about Communist Party interference in Australia, opines Brophy, actually “reflects a deep malaise in Australian society”. Really? Then Taiwan, Singapore, Canada, the US, New Zealand and several European countries, where the same debate is taking place, must be suffering from the same malaise.
In truth, when someone who is being bullied or violated is accused of just imagining it, we call it victim-blaming.
When Brophy dismisses the mountain of evidence of Communist Party interference in Australia as “imagined subversion”, he shares the assessment of his vice-chancellor, Michael Spence, who has labelled the mounting warnings by the government, based largely on ASIO reports, as “Sinophobic blatherings”.
As I suggest in Silent Invasion, Spence’s University of Sydney is among the most compromised of this country’s academic institutions.
It’s not Silent Invasion, but the reaction to it, that has highlighted something troubling in the intellectual life of the nation. The fault is not an incipient xenophobia ever-ready to burst forth in anti-Chinese racism, as if our universities inherited the culture of the gold fields.
No, the fault lies in the sacrifice of intellectual rigour to the guilt felt by politically correct academics for what happened on the goldfields. For the Chinese Communist Party, this fault is a rich seam to mine in its quest to exert its influence here.
Financially, many Australian universities depend on international students from mainland China. It was recently suggested that 16% of the University of Sydney’s revenue comes from these students. Over the past two decades, this rapid change has made universities look and feel different.
From a financial perspective, it didn’t really matter if universities changed; the more enrolments the better. From a social perspective, university administrators suggested that the presence of Chinese students would create mutually beneficial cross-cultural communication and exchange. Academics initially thought that while it might take a while, Chinese students would “adjust” to Australia.
More recently, academics have come to a more pessimistic conclusion: Chinese students in Australia inhabit a “parallel society”, in which they engage with Australian society only rarely.
The combination of these factors — Australia’s financial dependence on China, the increasing Chinese presence in Australia, the disconnection of mainland Chinese students from Australian society and culture, and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) increasing global assertiveness — has begun to create conflict.
Nothing about student protest is inherently undesirable. In fact, it is a manifestation of the academic freedom that university students deserve – and would not have in China. But what constitutes a “contentious issue”, and who is orchestrating this criticism? Examining the issues disputed makes two things clear: first, that the issues Chinese students deem “contentious” are exactly the same issues that the Chinese government deems “contentious”, particularly those relating to China’s territorial integrity and history. Second, that the
organisations orchestrating the response to these issues, particularly the Chinese Students and Scholars Association (CSSA), are funded by and work closely with Chinese state bodies such as consulates.
This runs in parallel with a steady intensification of “ideological education” in the PRC, together with attempts to shape how China is seen by the world through Confucius Institutes, the CSSA, and other “soft power” bodies. At last week’s Party Congress, President Xi Jinping stated China’s priority is to become a globally “stronger” nation.
So, should universities and the Australian government draw the line at some point? Should they ban or restrict contentious organisations? And if these groups cause friction on campus, how should university students and administrators respond?
In some ways, yes. The chain of command is clear: from the PRC government to consulates to student organisations to students. On the other hand, students often don’t need to be encouraged to support Chinese interests. Teachers hear spontaneous outbursts of nationalism in class all the time.
Students in the CSSA are being manipulated by the PRC government, but they are individuals too. Universities should set a high standard for suppressing individual views. Supporting one government’s policies does not meet that standard.
Who is really being harmed here?
Broadly speaking, local students and academics are hearing views they don’t want to hear, often inaccurate, and frequently phrased in an inflammatory way. Again, there is nothing inherently wrong with that. Student politics is fundamentally confrontational. If local students and academics disagree, we can speak up, as several students have done.
The more severe harms are to Chinese-background students,
whether or not they are from the PRC. Chinese culture is not the same as PRC culture. It is complex and diverse, and Chinese students have wide-ranging views on many topics. As a teacher of Chinese students, I am not particularly concerned when my students support the PRC. They have many reasons to do so. But I am extremely concerned when students tell me that they are afraid to criticise China, even in essays, because they are worried that their fellow Chinese students will attack them.
When dissenting Chinese students are ostracised by student organisations, this harms the dissenting students, who lose the valuable cultural connections and support that student organisations provide. It also harms the majority of PRC students, who never get the opportunity to debate ideas suppressed in the PRC media, and who accept too frequently that the views of the Communist Party of China (CPC) are correct and normal.
What right do universities have to intervene in student organisations?
As a rule, academic freedom should apply to everyone in the university. While it is reasonable to suggest that it should be restricted in some circumstances (for example, to restrict fascist organisations), the trend towards censoriousness on campus is also concerning. Free speech should be paramount, even when the CSSA says things people don’t like. Banning or restricting the CSSA, for example, would have no effect on the PRC but would irritate and harm many Chinese students.
It should not end there. Universities can actively facilitate diversity in debate. Responsible universities would prioritise funding to the setup of Chinese student groups without political alignment and to facilitating debate about contentious topics relating to China. They would also give prominent dissenters, like Wu Lebao, special support.
Universities need to have the courage to do two contrasting things: they should both acknowledge that the opinions of the CSSA are opinions that many Chinese students hold, and provide avenues for alternative points of view. This would allow students to hear debates about China and reflect on China critically — something they cannot do within Chinese borders. This would not create a new band of anti-PRC revolutionaries, but it would do something rather rare at Australian universities — treat Chinese students as humans with the capacity for rational thought.
This week’s ABC Four Corners/Fairfax expose of Chinese activities in Australia is alarming – not just for its revelations about a multi-fronted pattern of influence-seeking, but also for what it says about our political elite.
Are its members – on both sides of politics – naive, stupid, or just greedy for either their parties or themselves?
Why did they think Chau Chak Wing and Huang Xiangmo – two billionaires with apparently close links to the Chinese Communist Party – and associated entities would want to pour millions of dollars into their parties?
Did they believe that, in the absence of democracy in the land of their birth, these businessmen were just anxious to subsidise it abroad? Hardly.
Even worse, after ASIO had explicitly warned the Coalition parties and Labor in 2015 about the business figures and their links to the Chinese regime, how could the Liberals, Nationals and ALP keep accepting more of their money? Seemingly, their voracious desire for funds overcame ethics and common sense.
And why would former trade minister Andrew Robb not see a problem in walking straight from parliament into a highly lucrative position with a Chinese company?
The spotlight is back on Labor senator Sam Dastyari who last year stepped down from the frontbench over a controversy involving a debt paid by Chinese interests. Monday’s program reported that Dastyari’s office and he personally lobbied intensively to try to facilitate Huang’s citizenship application. The application had stalled; it was being scrutinised by ASIO.
While the Liberals will, quite legitimately, renew their attacks on Dastyari, the case of Robb, also highlighted in the program, raises a more complex question.
Robb brought to fruition Australia’s free-trade deal with China. He announced his retirement late in the last parliament, stepping down as minister but seeing out the term as special trade envoy. He was one of the government’s most successful performers.
On September 2 last year Robb’s appointment as a senior economic adviser to the Landbridge Group – the Chinese company that had gained a 99-year lease to the Port of Darwin – was announced on the company’s website.
Landbridge’s acquisition of the Port of Darwin was highly controversial, despite being given the OK by the defence department. The Americans were angry they were not accorded notice, with President Barack Obama chipping Malcolm Turnbull about it.
Monday’s expose revealed that Robb was put on the Landbridge payroll from July 1 last year, the day before the election, and that his remuneration was A$73,000 a month – $880,000 a year – plus expenses.
Robb was touchy last year when his new position was questioned, saying: “I’ve been a senior cabinet minister – I know the responsibilities that I’ve got. I’ve got no intention of breaching those responsibilities.”
He did not give an interview to Monday’s program, but told it in a statement: “I can confirm that I fully understand my responsibilities as a former member of cabinet, and I can also confirm that I have, at all times, acted in accordance with those responsibilities”.
The formal responsibilities for post-separation employment are set out in the Statement of Ministerial Standards, dated November 20, 2015.
Ministers are required to undertake that, for an 18-month period after ceasing to be a minister, they will not lobby, advocate or have business meetings with members of the government, parliament, public service or defence force on any matters on which they have had official dealings as minister in their last eighteen months in office.
Ministers are also required to undertake that, on leaving office, they will not take personal advantage of information to which they have had access as a minister, where that information is not generally available to the public.
Ministers shall ensure that their personal conduct is consistent with the dignity, reputation and integrity of the parliament.
While Robb is not a lobbyist, and would argue that he has not contravened the letter of this code, it is hard to see how quickly taking such a position does not bring him into conflict with its spirit.
Why would this company be willing to pay a very large amount of money for his services? The obvious answer is because of who he is, his background, his name, his knowledge, and his contacts.
Robb surely would have done better to steer right away from the offer.
Both government and opposition, having for years been caught napping or worse about Chinese penetration, have started scrambling to be seen to be acting.
Turnbull last month asked Attorney-General George Brandis to lead a review of the espionage laws. Brandis says he will take a submission to cabinet “with a view to introducing legislation before the end of the year”.
The government is planning to bring in legislation in the spring parliamentary session to ban foreign donations, a complex exercise when, for example, a figure such a Chau, an Australian citizen, is involved.
In an attempt at one-upmanship, Bill Shorten – again on the back foot over Dastyari – says Labor won’t accept donations from the two businessmen featured in Monday’s program, and challenges Turnbull to do the same.
Shorten already has a private member’s bill before parliament to ban foreign donations, and on Tuesday wrote to Turnbull calling for a parliamentary inquiry “on possible measures to address the risk posed by foreign governments and their agents seeking to improperly interfere in Australia’s domestic political and electoral affairs”.
Out of it all will come action on foreign donations and perhaps tighter espionage laws. But it is to the politicians’ deep discredit that they have been so cavalier about the integrity of our political system for so long.