Bureaucrats are using Australia’s foreign-influence laws to run a covert political operation out of the Attorney-General’s Department to silence Australians because of their political beliefs, all under the nose of the Coalition government.
This is the kind of behaviour one would expect from the Stasi in East Germany in 1961, not in Australia today.
On Saturday, The Weekend Australian reported that Andrew Cooper, the founder and president of libertarian advocacy organisation LibertyWorks, had received a letter from the Attorney-General’s Department advising him to provide all documents “detailing any understanding or arrangement” between LibertyWorks and the American Conservative Union.
LibertyWorks and the ACU co-hosted the Conservative Political Action Conference in Sydney in August, which featured a range of speakers from Australia and overseas.
The notice, issued by the deputy secretary of the department’s Integrity and International Group, also requested copies of correspondence with speakers, as well as the transcripts and recordings of the addresses given at the conference.
It further noted that a failure to comply with the notice within 14 days could expose Cooper to criminal penalties, with a maximum penalty of six months’ jail.
Former prime minister Tony Abbott has also been harassed by A-G’s bureaucrats under the same laws. This political intimidation was enabled by the government’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which came into force last December.
Under section 45(2) of the scheme, officials in the Attorney-General’s Department are given broad powers to issues notices requiring a person to produce information where officials “reasonably suspect” that a person might be liable to register under the scheme.
When the Turnbull government introduced the laws into parliament in 2017, the scheme was purportedly designed to counter the “serious threat posed to Australia and our interests by covert interference and espionage”. Specifically, the laws were introduced as part of a push to challenge intrusions into Australian democratic activities undertaken by the Chinese Communist Party and its agents.
The Chinese government operates an extensive influence apparatus that includes Confucius Institutes embedded within Australian universities, Chinese government-owned companies that are deeply linked to the Communist Party, and so-called community groups active in Australia but that lobby governments here on behalf of foreign powers.
However, instead of implementing careful and proportionate measures to curtail foreign influence, the Coalition government has handed the bureaucracy untrammelled power to operate a covert political operation to target Australians based on their political views.
Cooper has not been charged with a crime. The laws enable a bureaucrat to go on fishing expeditions without a warrant or court order to collect information on the mere suspicion of foreign influence. The nature of this scheme raises the question of which government parliamentarians sat down to read the bill, and how they could approve of it.
Apparently the department has sent about 500 letters to a range of individuals asking them to consider whether they need to register under the scheme. It is not an isolated problem.
Under the circumstances, the departmental secretary should be stood down so that an investigation can take place to understand why this has happened, who else has been targeted, and to ensure it does not happen again.
Observers of American politics will recognise the parallels to the Lois Lerner saga during the latter half of the Obama administration. Lerner was the head of the Internal Revenue Service division which processed applications for tax-exempt groups.
A 2013 investigation found that the IRS had singled out conservative organisations for intense scrutiny, sometimes based on such arbitrary grounds as the name of the organisation. The IRS delayed applications and improperly questioned some organisations about their donors and religious affiliations and practices.
This was the result of a massive bureaucracy becoming a power unto itself. The signs from Australia’s foreign-influence laws suggest we may be heading down a similar path. The difference here is that the abuse of power is happening under the noses of an ostensibly centre-right government. This is what happens when you try to govern with a public service stacked with people who align with a green-left agenda.
These consequences were not unknowable or unforeseen. In research published in January, the Institute of Public Affairs identified that the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 added to the body of laws that undermine our fundamental freedoms and betray the rule of law.
The research revealed that the legislation removes the right to silence and imposes criminal penalties for failing to give information when requested to do so under a notice. It even abolishes the privilege against self-incrimination when such information might expose the person to a penalty. Finally, natural justice is removed as departmental officials are not required to observe procedural fairness when exercising the powers granted under the act. An investigation must be launched into the Attorney-General’s Department to find out how deep and widespread the potential abuses of power are. For every Andrew Cooper and Tony Abbott, who have the profile and public support to fight back, there could be thousands of conservative Australians being told to shut down and shut up.
The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 must be repealed. If the government fails to act swiftly, it could find that s45(2) becomes the new s18C.