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Has new Australian foreign agent law been safely neutered?

Tony kevin

Australian Parliament building, Canberra

The Australian parliament is about to pass a complex package of national security laws aimed at strengthening Australia’s protections against espionage, sabotage, (covert) foreign interference and (overt) harmful foreign influence on Australian political life. The real target is China, but Russia makes a convenient public scapegoat drawing on current US/UK precedents. The draft laws which now appear to have bipartisan support are significantly improved from the first government drafts released for public comment in December 2017. Nevertheless they take Australia in an illiberal direction.

The legislation is a defensive McCarthyist response by Australia’s security and mainstream media elites to the erosion of United States power and will to protect Australia. These groups cannot bear the thought that as Chinese and Russian global power grows, Australia must now radically review its great power and Asia-Pacific region relationships. Instead, Australia’s elites seek to intimidate Australia’s richly diverse plural society into docile obedience to the national security dogma of the day, whatever the cost to Australians’ traditional rights to free speech and free association with anybody they wish, wherever they wish.

The draft legislation presented to Parliament by the Turnbull government was fearfully Orwellian . It attracted a storm of critical complaint to the respected bipartisan Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security (PJCIS), tasked to review the bill – as to its opacity, sweeping coverage, and huge discretionary powers to Ministers. Over the next six months came a flood of critical submissions and oral testimonies expressing grave concerns about how the draft laws would impact on diverse individuals and groups in society: universities and independent researchers, finance, mainstream and online media, legal profession, charities and aid groups, particular diaspora communities like the 1.2 million strong Chinese Australian  communities , political and social activist  organisations like Get Up, religious organisations, and  human rights organisations.

This quiet rebellion, under-reported by Australian mainstream media, was a significant exercise in citizen democracy. It led finally to significant drafting improvements to legislation which initially seemed obsessively determined to ‘capture everything’ in its nets of activities that were either illegal or, even if legal, had to be reported on pain of severe fines or jail terms. Crucial definitions like ‘foreign principal’ and the range of lawful activities that would require registration as agents of foreign influence have been greatly tightened up.

These controversial laws are now set fair to be passed soon, after indications of Coalition and Labor parties’ agreement to support their latest improved versions.

To illustrate issues at stake, here is a revealing exchange in the final PJCIS public session on 18 June last week between Senator Eric Abetz, a senior member of the Liberal Government’s dominant hard right faction, and two witnesses from respected charities, Oxfam and Pew Charitable Trusts, which regularly deal with foreign governments and agencies close to foreign governments:  (18 June 2018, PJCIS draft Hansard, page 29)

The witnesses pleaded for better definition of what conduct would require organisations like theirs to register as agents of foreign influence, or face severe penalties ? Their comments apply well beyond their own specific areas. They were asking what was meant by the phrase used in the legislation of ‘arrangements’ entered into by Australian organisations with foreign principals? Mr O’Leary spoke of a sense of uncertainty’ around this phrase. Abetz replied that the requirement to register would only apply ‘if an arrangement had been entered into’. There followed this extraordinary exchange:

MS BALL: Our concern is that, as it is drafted at the moment, there is not sufficient clarity that would allow us to rely on the fact that only arrangements where we were doing the bidding of a foreign principal were in fact caught. Given the severity of the penalties and the importance of our reputation in terms of our ability to pursue our mission, we wouldn’t be able to take that risk. So what we’re suggesting is that the bill be clarified so that it is certain that we are talking about circumstances where in Australia we’re doing the bidding of a foreign principal, as opposed to operating in partnership with them, learning from them, working together with them and then drawing on that when we come back and do advocacy in Australia.

MR O’LEARY: Or even just informing them of what we would be doing in Australia in the course of a normal set of discussions.

ABETZ:  The drafting of legislation does not take into account every conceivable exemption. It just talks about the evil that is sought to be overcome. You don’t have every exemption under the sun as to what is dangerous driving, for example. You can be prosecuted for dangerous driving, but we won’t consider this, this and this to be dangerous driving. You could get a list as long as you like.

Abetz concluded:

I think you guys are completely in the clear unless you were starting to do the bidding of a foreign agent or a foreign government

In other words: ‘Trust us, we are the government’. In a nutshell, this exchange symbolises what many groups in Australian society fear about this package of McCarthyist laws. Especially when it was admitted that resource constraints meant that the state would only pursue persons suspected of being agents of influence of the most important target countries, like China and Russia. Agents of US, UK or Israeli influence, could rest easy.

It still looks a bit like Henry VII’s Star Chamber – guilty till proved innocent.

Some remain deeply worried: former Greens Senator Scott Ludlum trenchantly criticised the bills’ erosion of civil liberties and freedom to dissent.

Get Up received legal advice that the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill may breach the constitution’s implied freedom of political communication, and criminalise peaceful protest.

Concerns were expressed in PJCIS testimony that political protest actions causing temporary symbolic damage e.g. to detention centre premises, shale oil fracking sites, coal export railway lines or port facilities, may be heavily penalised by vengeful Ministers under the sabotage to national infrastructure provisions of these bills.

There are worries about new provisions that the Attorney-General may register as agents of foreign influence people who decline to so register but whom he thinks should have done so.

The Chinese Australian communities, whose demographic diversity makes it worryingly vulnerable to intimidation by nativist propaganda under these bills, will try to make the best of a bad situation.

There will undoubtedly be important test cases to come, which will test the scope of the amended laws. In this litigation, the searching interrogation over the past six months of the laws by Opposition members of the PJCIS will certainly be a resource for defendants’ lawyers.

Estimates of number of people likely to register as agents of foreign influence has steadily shrunk from thousands to hundreds down now to low tens.

The draft laws are not yet silk purses by a long shot. But they are better than they were in January.

I have declared that I will not register as an agent of foreign influence, because I am confident that in maintaining my past practice of writing and speaking freely on foreign policy issues of interest to me as an Australian citizen, and maintaining free associations with foreign persons of my choice including Russian and Chinese citizens, and travelling freely to countries of my choice including Russia or China, I will not be making myself liable to such registration.

This is because I am confident that I have not acted, and will not act, in ways that might raise questions about whether I am acting by arrangement with, in association with, on behalf of, or at the behest of, any foreign principal , as these  terms are defined in the legislation and accompanying explanatory memoranda.

This may seem obvious now, but it was by no means obvious at the beginning of the public examination and review process in January. Then, this draft legislation truly was a sow’s ear. Now, we do not quite know what it will turn out to be.

Tony Kevin, a former Australian senior diplomat, is an independent non-fiction author. His most recent book is ‘Return to Moscow’, a literary travel memoir published by UWA Publishing in 2017.


  1. What strikes me here is that the Government and its allies, in Israel, US and UK are collectively engaged in vandalism against the “international rules-based order” that they claim to support, and to such a degree that this hypocrisy goes quite unnoticed. The Israel lobby, apart from its power over the mainstream media, directly as in the Australian or indirectly by calling out “anti-Semitism”, actually boasts MPs who have allegiance to Israel over that to Australia. The same can probably be said of allegiances to HM government and to the White House – the WH collective.
    In the recent witchhunts over citizenship, which removed a couple of the most vocal anti-war voices from Parliament, the question of dual citizenship with Israel barely rated attention, while the ludicrous and irrelevant birth place of some loyal Australians was cause for them to be ejected.
    It continues to numb me why it was that Scott Ludlam willingly put himself forward to be ejected, and never wavered, and now writes for the Guardian.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says

      The Zionist control Internet surveillance, and Deep State created and supported organs like Google are hosing up all data available, yet the Turnbull regime declares China the ‘cyber-threat’. Undoubtedly the fear of Western eclipse after 500 years of pillaging the rest of humanity and the natural world is paramount to this truly insane aggression (EVERY night the local indoctrination system brings a new hate-fest against China, without a dissenting opinion-soon to be illegal-in sight)by the Empire and its most roveling stooges, but, particularly here in Austfailure, the racism is bubbling away just below the surface. As The Bulletin (for which Turnbull once pretended to be a ‘journalist’)used to banner on its front page-‘Australia for the White Man’.

    • Jen says

      “… It continues to numb me why it was that Scott Ludlam willingly put himself forward to be ejected, and never wavered, and now writes for the Guardian.”

      As the cliche goes, swords are double-edged. Perhaps Ludlam would not have willingly fallen onto the sword offered him otherwise.

  2. mikael says

    Yeah, security, uber alles.

    The ugly truth is more simple, its about full spectrum dominance, and that incl realitys created when they need it, this new legislations, witch of course is so vage you can do anything with it, is meant to kill any kind of oposition to the present regime in the “star aliance” huh, thats it, and this comes from the same people whom is guarding the Wahabist scums, and whines about attacking Islam, yeah, double speak and people dont get it, it makes me numb.

    China just as an ex. where truckloads of bullshit have been served, speaks about an so called disident, yeah, an Chines Bush fan, an litte war mongreling f…. thrown in jail, yeah, breaks my hart (sarc)
    But lets do some, eh…… math.

    Lets for the sake of arguments compare Norway, an tiny little shithole run by inbreed Khazars(joohoohos), aka mountain monkeys, against China.
    Norwegians have deliviered people to torture programs run by the UssA, how many, only them and our lord knows.
    Norway have firebombed atleast 7 different countrys, with ranging from phospore to cluster bombs(Yemen), and thats just in an time frame of 17 years, from the Afganistan war, to the present where Norway is founding and training ISIS in Jordan etc to inside ISISrael, with inplications we all are winessing this days when the war is about to end.
    Norway is one of the founders of this “refugee” scam, the ships are Norse and NGOs eveywhere in the North African lands, fueling money into Sore-ass associations and NGOs, like the Batory Fundation in Poland to create color revolutions, etc.
    In Norway the MSM have total control, our state TV is so rotten is jaw droppong, you think BBC s crap, ours are much worse, and conecures everything, speak about Chilqot Enq. and they go blank, the propaganda in Norway is the same nonsense we had in the bloody 90s, yeah, and somehow China is becoming the new uh…… enemy.
    Anyone whom diviates from the “proper path” is an racist, or even better, an neo-nazi, and on top of this you find climate change deniers, to the trully horrible vaccine oponents.
    Yeah, and if you think you get away,await to the time your children may be political active on areanas as Animal protection groups, where they are targeted as “domestic terrorist”, because they usually attack the unatural farming ind. and their treatment of anything living, is an shame, but this are already in that list, and you bet, as I know I am, under surveliance because of our so called Anti-semitism and we ARE in their lists.
    People have no idea of whats coming, and as before, the saying still sticks, all roads leading to hell is paved with good intentions, the exuse morons have to cover their own cowardness.

    The list about whom is bad or not, comparing Norway to China is one thing, do it with Iran and its even worse, Iran have done nothing, and that makes the list much longer, what eventually this messures and others, where they use national sec. is an trade mark of the imperialist scumbags from the UssA we are having, flooding our lands-

    (intrestingly, the Labor party, desided with the UssA strom troops and the CIA to change the leader of Labour, yeah, the secretatys where behind an coup and what kind of uh…… tribal people use to do this thing, an curious thing that happened and because the MSM went tone deaf in an instant because of the people in it, it just slipped by in all silence, yup, nothing to see here. so hush hush, move along, this way, yeah loooook at this cuuute Sqirrel drink beer, or somehing like that, witch is as far I know briliant propaganda, and the sad thing is, it works)

    and we have Govs. so rotten and corrupt, would make any real banana republic to shame, why I write it like that, is because in an banana republic the people sees whats going on at least, in the west, they hide everything and people belivie the moronic propaganda as to whatever our MSM writes is the truth, yeah, even 75 years after ww2 I can still kill debates, how come this is even possible, because everything we know is nothing else but lies, and they lie about everything.

    This latest is nothing other than an new stepp down the ladder to an totalitarian state, run by foreign force, like the EU-comission, witch are by people apointed, they arent even elected, yeah, how f…. up is it possibly to be, its bad already, it will be much worse in the future,

    Yeah, all in all, what could possibly go wrong.


  3. Degrees of separation says

    The fascist Canberra regime made it absolutely clear, those who reveal any of the government heinous crimes will be punished in any way they choose.

    Witness K and his lawyer has been subjected to surveillance and harassment since 2015 for speaking out against the Australian government spying on the poorest country in the region East Timor. Canberra fascists were spying on East Timor to gain a commercial advantage in business negotiations.

    Now witness K and his lawyer are charged using what? …. wait a minute … using anti-terrorism laws!!!

    Clearly, for Western powers, it pays to create a Bin-Laden.

    Clearly, for Western powers, it pays to engineer a 9/11.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says

      The Turnbull regime’s new Attorney-General’, Porter, simply reeks of incipient fascism, in my humble opinion. But the entire regime is beginning to stink of it. Very nasty times right ahead.

    • Baron says

      One would underestimate the cunning of the forces conspiring to take over Australia, the Russians and the Chinese in particular, at one’s peril, Jen. Guarding against it must be the sole motive that’s driving the new legislation. Could you or anyone else be sure the rabbit wasn’t weaponised in one way or another?

      Btw, the article makes no mention of their trying to ascertain if the rabbit spoke Russian or Mandarin? A big mistake that.

      • James Scott says

        I believe after the Rabbit is interrogated by Border Force it will be sent immediately to Nauru. how lucky are we that Mr Rabbit can no longer be our Prime Minister.

      • Jen says

        The bunny was wearing a harness and was residing in a pink Lorna Jane bag at the time of its arrest. Make of that what you will!


        Reminds me of some incident involving a, er, Israeli diplomat in San Salvador way back in 2007. Ah, found some info on it.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says

      Hastie is one of an increasing number of ex-military types joining the ‘Liberals’ after years serving alongside US ‘Special Forces’ killers in Afghanistan and Iraq. Recently the Federal regime has been forced to investigate allegations of atrocities committed by these troops in Afghanistan. A very sinister development, indeed. Hastie is a God-botherer, to boot.

  4. Degrees of separation says

    Interesting, measures to protect Australia from foreign interference has US fingerprints all over them!

    How many degrees of separation between these laws as they discussed in parliament and the original texts scripted by the Pentagon??

    • Totally true a nd how many times has the USA directly interfered in the Aussie election process so far?

      • Degrees of separation says

        One of the USA’s triumphs: Australian elections are now run to Washington’s satisfaction without much interference.

        By implementing USA/Pentagon friendly laws and by using compliant media that renders election debates AS VACUOUS and BANAL AS possible, election protagonists can glide through the process seemingly on auto-pilot.

        The poodles have learnt their roles well. Obedience comes naturally.

  5. JohnF says

    Australia plans to spend $5 billion on drones to patrol the South China Sea in support of US geopolitical ambitions and they have just closed the child care centre in my town for lack of funding.

    Its time the foreign influence laws were applied to Prissy Pyne and the other LNP lapdogs of the US imperium.

    • Jen says

      At least at a cost of $5 billion, those drones can fly.

      Whereas those F-35 fighter jets we’re buying …

    • I asked Bill Shorten about this at a public meeting in Perth he said the 50+ amendments were because of Labour but they would support it, Both the LNP and Labour have been lobbied by the US to push this bill through, and as i said to Bill Shorten why would Labour support such an anti democratic Bill

      • Mulga Mumblebrain says

        Shorten answers to the local Zionists. He used, as an apparatchik of the notorious scab union, the AWU, to clean the fundamental orifice, with his tongue, of the local billionaire Zionist grandee, Pratt. He represents the ALP’s pro-Israel claque, which led to his leading role in knifing Rudd, after Rudd changed our UN votes to be less slavishly supportive of the Zionist apartheid state, and expelled a MOSSAD from the Israel ‘Embassy’ in protest at the, repeated, theft by Israel of Austfailian passport identities, for use by their roving death-squads. Rudd was ‘advised’ by our ‘intelligence’ agencies to take this unprecedented step of vile ‘anti-semitic’ insolence, which looks, more and more, in retrospect, like a set-up.

    • James Scott says

      Right on John, these crawling sycophants are selling us out to the Red Emperor of the Dying Planet. Unless we get off our bums and start kicking their bums out of our Parliament we are heading for our own tragedy.

  6. Fair dinkum. says

    “The enemy is over there!”
    The enemy wears a $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$uit.
    And talks with an American accent.
    And does the bidding of the 1%.

  7. bevin says

    The wonderful thing about politicians like Abetz and Turnbull us that they can be trusted to shoot themselves in the feet-until they run out of ammunition.
    Betting on the USA and against China in today’s world is a very dicey proposition, doing so in Australia shows a very low level of map reading skills.
    The devil gives us evil leaders, God ensures that they are idiots whose schemes are bound to fail and accelerate their downfall. Pass the popcorn.

  8. Mulga Mumblebrain says

    Scratch a Rightist, a ‘conservative’ and a ‘liberal’, and you’ll soon find the fascist, racist, thug that almost invariably dwells therein. The current Turnbull regime in Austfailure is, in my opinion, the most Evil we have ever endured. Every economic policy is nakedly designed to increase elite wealth, inequality and neo-feudalism. Every action taken in the field of ‘welfare’ is punitive, humiliating, demeaning and disempowering. Policy towards the Indigenous is unambiguously racist and contemptuous, even hateful. Environmental policy is not non-existent-it is Trumpian (before Trump) in its hatred of the natural world and of Greens, both of which are also targets of relentless hate campaigns and vendettas by the regime’s Murdochite allies.
    In regard to China, total, groveling, subservience to the USA and Israel (the Parliamentary head Zionist is a vociferous and long-standing enemy of China)is melded with straight racism. The USA has mobilised our military, intelligence and political elites to join the ‘pivot’ to war against China, since Obama declared his intent, in OUR Parliament, in 2011, to the doe-eyed adoration of our then PM, ‘Hillary’ Gillard. The sheer unanimity (as ever) of the Grouphate against China is quite typical of these brainwashing campaigns, like the total support for Israel against the imprisoned Palestinians, against Russia or in favour of the takfiri butchers attacking Syria. Opposing opinions were long ago banished, here, in regard to China, and on all other topics, or complete indifference, as with the ecological Holocaust, reigns instead.
    As Abetz, a far Right local version of, say, John Bolton, makes quite clear, this fascistic and racist legislation is designed to stop Chinese-Australian co-operation, amity, joint research and friendly interchange. The racists are already targeting joint research with China at Universities, and the Chinese student population in the country. EVERY night the local fakestream media sewer has some new ‘expose” of Chinese infamy and duplicity, and, as usual with the fifth-rate swine who infest the propaganda system, the denunciations only grow more lurid and hysterical-even accompanied by puerile language and histrionic mugging for the camera, in an effort to communicate the sheer Evil of these ‘Yellow Devils’ who have gotten ideas above their station in existence.
    And, remember, China keeps our economy afloat with an annual fifty billion trade surplus in our favour, tens of thousands of students maintaining our tertiary education system, and over one million tourists per year. It has never done us any harm, yet our political Gadarenes are constantly insulting and threatening the country, with a ferocity reminiscent of the days of White Australia, the ‘Yellow Peril’ and the ‘Whiteman’s Burden’.

    • rilme says

      Bravo, Mulga! I haven’t been keeping up with Aussie politics, so I had a few questions. You have answered all of them.

  9. Guy THORNTON says

    I think people are making a fuss about nothing:

    Obviously, if you were reporting in a Russian newspaper on an event such as a school sports day – then YOU WOULD be doing Russia’s bidding. What’s not to see? Russians need this info in order to undermine the West.

    On the other hand, if you were canvassing Australian Members of Parliament to vote for more military support for Israel – then you WOULD NOT be doing Israel’s bidding….just merely expressing a mild sentiment of solidarity…

  10. PS. No disrespect intended; Australia has a remarkable minority of people who are actively trying to steer the Anglo world away from its Zombified death march.

  11. A lonely little colony of giant subtropical Cockneys stands firm far away in an ocean of Yellow Peril and Red Menace. The wonderful Land of Oz — Lost Legion of the dying Anglo Zio Capitalist Empire.

    “Stranger, go tell the Spartans that here, obedient to their Laws, we are buried”


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