Influencing Australia: Which countries are trying?

Foreign interference in elections is by no means a new topic, but the ways governments are adapting to the threat is. One measure the Australian Government is developing is transparency, or, more specifically, making foreign entities be transparent with their actions.

In February the ABC reported ASIO had thwarted an attempt of foreign interference in a local election by a suspected Russian agent. The report was sparse, with ASIO boss Mike Burgess giving limited details but maintaining the “harm was dealt with.”

While it is impossible to predict when another attempt of interference might occur, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) has been providing some transparency in regards to what foreign interests are being pushed in Australia.

Established in 2018, its stated aim is to highlight the level of foreign influence within Australia. Individuals or companies in Australia with overseas ties are required to self-register to the scheme and provide details about what they are doing, who they are doing it with and how long they plan on doing it for.

The activities registered are political in nature and all involve foreign interests. The FITS has grouped the 229 active registrations into five categories: General political lobbying involves paying lobbyists to influence decision making by a number of stakeholders; Parliamentary lobbying involves the payment of lobbyists to influence decisions by parliamentarians; Communications activities involve publishing material aimed at achieving political or governmental change on behalf of a foreign entity; Disbursement activities includes donations and political party membership fees. The ‘other’ category mostly involves former politicians declaring their involvement with foreign organisations.

Former PM Kevin Rudd is is the most frequent registrant in the ‘other’ category, with 52 activities listed. His disclosures include that he is sometimes interviewed by the BBC and that he was invited to address the European Forum on the topic of European-China relations.

(Note that more information about the lobbyists can be found at the Australian Government’s Lobbyist Register.)

The many exemptions detailed in the scheme include that current members of parliament do not have to declare that they are undertaking “registerable activities”. Commercially sensitive information is also exempt from publication.

The 15 activities in the disbursement category include six by participants in Woodside Joint Ventures, five by Goldwind Australia (a subsidiary of a Chinese windfarm company), and four from the Griffith Asia Institute (a research centre linked with Queensland’s Griffith University).

The FITS data provides information in addition to the data about political donations available from the Australian Electoral Commission’s Transparency Register, which displays declared donations up to 24 weeks after elections are held.

During an election period, all FITS registrants have 14 days after the election has been called to make sure any information they have provided is up to date and correct. The Attorney-General’s Department also has 48 hours to publish those updated records.

It is important to note the difference between influence and interference, with interference being when foreign actors meddle with the democratic process through subversive and covert means, and influence meaning foreign actors pursuing their own interests openly and transparently.

The Attorney General’s Department yearly report on the Scheme claims that foreign principals – which can be governments, political organisations or even government related individuals – are fine to pursue their own interests on our soil as long as they do so openly and transparently.

Information available online from the Attorney General’s Department about the scheme also says when influence activities are conducted openly and transparently, they can contribute to a vibrant democracy and expose the public to a diverse range of opinions. The department also notes that the Australian Government conducts influence activities overseas as well.

Currently, 43 different countries have registered interests in Australia. While they are from all across the globe, China tops the tally with 77 activities registered, Japan comes in second with 28 and the US has 15. All others have 10 or less.

Research Fellow at the University of Adelaide Dr Melissa-Ellen Dowling said: “The FITS has indeed fostered transparency with respect to interpersonal connections with foreign principals,” but that “the FITS does not adequately address one of the main challenges of foreign interference in elections today: cyber operations.”

She added: “The best way to mitigate the threat of foreign interference is to ensure that we safeguard our democracy by strengthening its vitality. This means further cultivating a culture of political participation.”

Engaging in registrable activities on behalf of a foreign principal yet failing to register can result in prison time under the scheme, with the maximum penalty being five years. But so far, no one has been charged under the scheme.

The Attorney-General’s Department was contacted for comment for this story. For more information on the scheme you can view the whole register here.