Why has the government targeted foreign donations?

Ross Greenwood speaks to Peter Jennings, Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, about new legislation banning foreign political donations and targeting foreign inteference

Introduction: Why has the government targeted foreign donations?

Ross Greenwood:  Something else has happened today and that is the Prime Minister has announced the biggest overhaul of espionage and intelligence laws in decades. Now, what this means is that any individual or organisation making a foreign political donation will be banned. Those seeking to influence Australian politics on behalf of other nations will be forced to declare their hand, who they’re working for and why. Now, this is big stuff and it’s about the communities concern, in particular, about the influence of Chinese government agents. Also, the prospect that people might be either being, shall I say, coerced, encouraged, financially induced to do the wrong thing with our national interest. Now, the Prime Minister has actually done some of this to — let’s just pick up a little bit today. Here’s George Brandis speaking today about the foreign donations, what it means to the Attorney-General.

George Brandis: If you act covertly on behalf of a foreign actor, in a way that harms Australia’s national security to influence the political process or a government decision, that conduct will be criminalized.

Ross Greenwood:  Criminalized, that’s interesting. Also, Mathias Cormann, of course the Finance Minister, was also talking about this.

Mathias Cormann: Only Australians, Australian businesses, Australian organisations, should be able to influence Australian elections via political donations. Whether that is through political parties, candidates, Senate groups or indeed significant political campaigners. That is why later this week, I will introduce into the Senate, the legislation to ban the foreign political donations to all these categories of political actors.

Ross Greenwood:  Lets now go to the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, Peter Jennings who is online with me. Thanks for your time, Peter.

Interveiw with: Peter Jennings, Executive Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Peter Jennings: My pleasure, good evening.

Ross Greenwood:  Does this mean anybody who registers that they will at least have a little bit of a smell over them, that there might be something a little bit iffy about them if they actually do register as a foreign organisation seeking to, shall I say, spend money to influence politics here?

Peter Jennings: It certainly puts more weight on people who are attempting to influence politics, to make sure that they’re not actually breaking the law. Foreign intelligence agencies will still operate covertly in Australia and of course, their intent is not to be caught and they won’t be registering for the Act. But I think it will definitely have an impact on those people who are effectively lobbying for foreign companies and who are seeking to shape the outcome of Australian political deliberations. It’s a necessary move. A lot of the devil in the detail will be precisely how this is going to be implemented, but in principle, I think this is a necessary bill.

Ross Greenwood:  Though this has been inside the Parliament and has been rattling around Parliament House for quite some time, this overhaul of these espionage intelligence laws, do you believe that the issue of Sam Dastyari and his relationships with the Chinese businessman, do you believe that that’s had an influence here?

Peter Jennings: I’m going to call them alleged relationships Ross, I think that’s how I’d like to describe them. What I’d say is I think they have become almost like a case study, a textbook study of what this legislation will attempt to prevent from happening. I do know that the development of these bills has been in the offing for probably the better part of a year, so I don’t know that it specifically related to Dastyari’s activities. It’s just he’s become a spectacular example of what these bills are trying to prevent.

Ross Greenwood:  Okay. The other aspect of this is former politicians. One clear example of that is the former Trade Minister Andrew Robb. Now, he has been basically working for the Chinese company that operates the Darwin Port. A number of others, he was the man that was instrumental in negotiating and striking the free trade agreement with, not only Japan, South Korea, but also with China. Now, the rules would change, he would now have to reveal his role and exactly what sort of money he is receiving from that organisation.

Peter Jennings: Yes, he would. I think there’s also going to be much stricter controls on what former politicians and also senior public servants can do when they move into the private sector after a political career, which actually puts limitations on how quickly they can make those changes. Because in Andrew Robb’s case, he was a Minister one day and then it seemed like there was almost no time elapsed between him playing that role, playing an advisory role to Steve Ciobo, who replaced him, and then just sort of leaping into the private sector on pretty high retainers. At the very least, I think that was ill-considered and I think the legislation is really intended to try to put a bit more control over what politicians can do when they step out of their political role into the private sector.

Ross Greenwood:  Just very quickly, what about also the organisation GetUp! because it now also would have to register as a political organisation and reveal, in particular, overseas donors.

Peter Jennings: I think this is entirely appropriate because GetUp! has effectively been campaigning for the left in federal and state elections for quite a few years now. It’s essential that they’re really brought into exactly the same time restrictors that would apply to the major political parties.

Ross Greenwood:  It’s going to be interesting to watch. Peter Jennings is the Executive Director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. As always Peter, we appreciate your explanation.

Peter Jennings: My pleasure. Thanks Ross.



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