In recent news reminiscent of the “RussiaGate” conspiracy in the United States, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the implementation of laws in the country designed to limit “foreign interference” in government affairs. The new rules will prohibit lawmakers from receiving donations from sources outside the country and will require lobbyists and former MPs to declare whether they are acting for a foreign country.
Turnbull’s announcement follows revelations indicating the influence of Chinese nationals on members of the Australian government.
The policies have been triggered in large part due to the recent emergence of an audio recording of Sam Dastyari, a Senator of the Australian Labor party, adopting a pro-China stance regarding territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Dastyari gave his position during a speech in the presence of Huang Xiangmo, a generous donor to the Labor party, who also allegedly maintains ties to the Chinese Communist Party. In the same recording, Dastyari is heard tipping off Huang that his phone was likely being tapped by Australian security agencies.
The Prime Minister explained that the new laws, consisting essentially of a transparency scheme to reveal on whose behalf politicians and lobbyists are working for, is not targeted at any one particular country. According to Turnbull, Australia faces this threat from a number of nations, and made an explicit reference to Russia’s meddling in the last US presidential election.
These rules will also represent the greatest overhaul in Australian intelligence and espionage policy ever. As Attorney-General George Brandi explained, the legal definition of espionage would be broadened to include various offenses including “possessing sensitive information” and interactions with foreign government agents deemed as attempts to “influence the political process.”
Senator Dastyari, the man who is the primary catalyst for these reforms, was forcibly stripped of his position as Deputy Opposition Whip late last month after information began to leak regarding his ties with influential Chinese. What makes the Dastyari scandal so intriguing is that in retrospect, Senator Dastyari has been one of the biggest advocates of Chinese interests in the Australian government over the past three years. Recent reports from Australian media revealed that Dastyari had passed over one hundred questions to defense officials representing Chinese concerns during Senate hearings over a three year period.
Not surprisingly, the mounting allegations against Dastyari have prompted calls for his immediate resignation from the government. At least two public petitions in relation to the Senator are currently active in Australia, both having garnered thousands of signatures.
China for its part has chastised the Australian government for basing laws on the “fabricated” claims of Chinese meddling. The Chinese embassy in Australia stated that the reports “reflected a typical anti-China hysteria” and were “paranoid.”
Despite the damning evidence against Dastyari and the concerns it raises, the current picture is far from indicating a massive Chinese conspiracy targeting Australia. Although the events are uncomfortably reminiscent of Russian troll efforts to influence the 2016 elections, it would be a mistake to compare the two, at least based on what we currently know. While the troll conspiracy was a massive years-long project involving hundreds of participants and millions of dollars in funding, at the moment all we have in Australia is some very inappropriate behavior on the part of one lawmaker in dealings with a foreign national. Even if Huang’s alleged ties to Chinese politicians are real, there are no indications as of yet that Chinese officials orchestrated his interactions with Dastyari.
Chinese conspiracy or not, policies cracking down on foreign influence in politics are far overdue in Australia, as they are in all other democracies that have yet to implement them. Turnbull’s comparison to RussiaGate is inaccurate, but it is certainly a good idea for countries to take the Russian meddling in the United States as a call to action.
As investigations into Russian interference in the US continue, it will likely cause other nations to begin thinking more seriously about guarding the integrity of their political systems. Recent events in Australia will only serve to exacerbate such a trend.