Tue, Mar 12, 2019 - Page 5 News List

Australia defends ‘foreign agents’ law despite apathy

LACKLUSTER:Only nine individuals or institutions, including a conspiracy theorist and the head of a gas producer, declared having a ‘foreign principal’


Australian Attorney General Christian Porter yesterday defended a register meant to track the role of foreign agents in local politics, saying that it was already changing behavior, despite only a handful of declarations.

Growing fears of political influence from foreign states, particularly China, last year saw Canberra pass a raft of new laws to curb potential meddling.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme register was operational from December last year, with a grace period ending on Sunday.

However, only nine institutions or individuals have so far declared their foreign links.

They include lobbyists, such as former Australian minister of defense Brendan Nelson declaring his “foreign principal” as French defense giant Thales, and a Sept. 11, 2001, conspiracy theorist declaring interests for a US group.

So far only one individual — Warwick King, the head of Australian coal seam gas producer APLNG, which is one-quarter owned by China’s state-run Sinopec Corp — has declared his “foreign principal country” as China.

Porter said there were about 18 more lodgements not yet processed or made public and he expected the list to lengthen as national elections, due by the middle of May, draw closer.

Failure to register could result in penalties of up to five years’ jail.

Porter said a flurry of departures of former Australian politicians from roles at Chinese-owned or linked organizations was proof that the register was already having an impact.

“So it’s likely that the register is also changing behavior and contractual arrangements between individuals in the Australian political system,” he told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The departures include former senior politicians parting ways with China’s Landbridge Group and Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Huawei told reporters that as a private firm, it did not need to register with the scheme.

Former Australian minister of foreign affairs Bob Carr also stepped down as director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, which was founded by controversial Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo (黃向墨).

Huang was a prominent donor to Australia’s two major parties before he was blocked from re-entering the country last month — with his permanent residency visa revoked and a citizenship bid rejected.

Huang has not signed up to the register.

Also missing from the public list was Chinese-Australian billionaire businessman Chau Chak Wing (周澤榮), who has denied links to the Chinese Communist Party and last month successfully won a defamation suit against a newspaper that alleged that he was a co-conspirator in a UN bribery plot.

Australian National University security expert Rory Medcalf said the laws were designed to have a deterrent effect.

“An ideal outcome, which is what we’re probably heading for, is if we as a country can normalize transparency about this issue,” he said.

“Then I think we’re well on the way to raising public awareness and well on the way to raising a public willingness for covert influence to be penalized,” he told reporters.

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