You may have missed it in all the excitement and jubilation of the passage of same sex marriage, but last week Malcolm Turnbull announced the most significant overhaul of Australia’s espionage laws in decades.
Given that just about all our prime minister’s announcements proclaim the greatest reform since federation, or the most sweeping advance since the second world war, or at least the sexiest makeover since last week, you could be forgiven for not getting over-excited.
But the bills introduced in the dying hours of the parliamentary session do involve a considerable shake up, and, like so many of Turnbull’s ideas, at first glance they sound pretty good. The problem is that even a cursory analysis suggests that either there will be unexpected consequences, or that they simply won’t work.
So let’s get cursory. There are three principal aims for the somewhat unwieldy package. The first is the most straightforward: update and bump up the threat of cyber-espionage and digital sabotage, with tougher counter-measures for the new offences.
Fine, but there is an obvious catch: by definition, most of these crimes arise from overseas and cannot be prosecuted in Australia. Certainly the spooks can and will attempt to identify them and in at least some cases nullify them on a one by one basis but they are not likely to put the perpetrators on trial or do much to contain their nefarious activities.
This is palliative care, not a cure. It’s hardly Turnbull’s fault, but it would be more honest to admit it rather than boasting about how much money he is planning to spend.
The next bit is the ban on foreign donations – a no-brainer and one Labor has been demanding for years, while the coalition has stoutly resisted any moves to curtail what they have always maintained was a perfectly proper part of the democratic process and has been happy to trouser any and every dollar, rouble and yuan available.
So two cheers for the belated conversion. But just how is it to be implemented? It is easy enough to stop the cheques arriving directly from Moscow or Beijing, but what about those from foreign nationals and foreign firms based in Australia? The dreaded Huang Xiangmo, Sam Dastyari’s sponsor and bane, is a permanent resident and his Yuhu group is an Australian company, shelling out literally millions to both Labor and the coalition – obviously he likes an each-way bet.
But is he in or out? And if he is out, what is to stop him setting up a dinky-di Australian shelf company to launder his contributions? After all, there is plenty of precedent for running funds through intermediaries to the party coffers – and this is why simply banning foreign donations is a first step, but a very small one.
Singling out the foreigners as culprits may be good politics, but it is hardly likely to cleanse the murky process of funding elections.
The real issue is whether the money is tainted, a bribe to purchase influence, and this, according to the government, is to be studiously ignored. The Finance Minister, Matthias Cormann, spruiked Turnbull’s spiel with the extraordinarily assertion that only Australian businesses and organisations should be able to influence Australian elections through political donations. In other words, if you have the money and the determination, you can buy your way into the cabinet room – as long as you have an Australian birth certificate (and, presumably, are not a dual citizen).
This is not merely jingoistic – it is, as the ICAC has called it in another context, approving a climate conducive to corruption. Singling out the foreigners as culprits may be good politics, but it is hardly likely to cleanse the murky process of funding elections.
And the third significant overhaul is even more political: the clampdown on lobbyists and lobbying, the curtailment of covert foreign involvement in Australia’s democratic process. Turnbull insists that this is a general proscription – it is not just aimed at the Chinese.
Well, you could have fooled me. All the rodomontade, the ballyhoo, the fear and loathing, has been about the machinations of the heirs and successors of Mao Zedong – the days of the yellow peril are back. Beijing has no illusions and is furious, as is the former trade minister and now Chinese employee, Andrew Robb, who may have to register as a lobbyist of a foreign power – as may a former Labor prime minster, Paul Keating.
And in a sense Turnbull is right – there are plenty of other groups who espouse foreign interests: the Jewish lobby, for instance, is single-mindedly devoted to boosting Israel. The Labor MP Michael Danby, for instance, is one of its fiercest warriors. But moving past the barrage of Sinophobia, or even more general xenophobia, it is clear that there are other targets – advocacy groups, undeniably Australian, whose work could well be hamstrung through the new draconian bureaucracy.
The obvious one is GetUp!, hated by the conservatives because it is unashamedly progressive – which does not make it automatically supportive of Labor or the Greens, although that of course is the rhetoric of reactionaries like Eric Abetz. GetUp!, we are told, must become much more transparent, especially when it comes to foreign donations.
Well, okay. But how about the secretly funded Institute of Public Relations, or Gerard Henderson’s equally reticent Sydney Institute, both of which have plausibly been accused of taking money from foreign tobacco companies among many others, and are at least equally one-eyed in barracking for the right. Or the Mineral Council, not averse to a partisan campaign, and which is bankrolled from mining companies such as RioTinto, hardly a native enterprise, although, once again it has usefully Australian subsidiaries before shifting its profits offshore. And we haven’t even mentioned the American citizen Rupert Murdoch’s NewsCorp.
Until we are told what, if any, the limits of the eradication of foreign influence are to entail, it is wiser to assume that this has more to do with short term advantage – certainly within the coalition parties room – than with serious policy.
If there was any real doubt that the bluster is more than somewhat overblown, Turnbull provided it with his appropriation of Mao’s declaration of 1949: Zhongguo ren men zhang lai – the Chinese people have stood up. Now, gloated Turnbull, the Australian people have stood up – in Chinese, yet!
But the comparison is absurd and insulting. Mao was referring to centuries of oppression, generations of foreign subjugation. Turnbull was desperate to win a by-election. The most significant overhaul of hyperbole in decades.