In my capacity as President of the Asia Society Policy Institute, I was invited to address the China Daily's Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) Media and Think Tank Forum in Hainan. RCEP is a regional free trade agreement signed on 15 November 2020 by the Morrison Government's then Minister for Trade, Simon Birmingham. It comprises Australia, Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, South Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In the context of trade tensions between Australia and China, I spoke about the importance of encouraging open trade across Asia-Pacific countries to boost economic development, alleviate poverty and sustain peace in the region. The conference was organised by the China Daily newspaper with Chinese public institutions including the China Institute for Reform and Development, China Institute for Free Trade Ports with Chinese Characteristics and the Hainan provincial administration. The forum was attended by officials of several RCEP member countries, as well as former UN under-secretary general Kim Won-soo.
|Description of the arrangement with the foreign principal
I refer to Acting Secretary Anderson’s letter of 12 January 2021. In it, Mr Anderson expressed a much narrower interpretation of my obligations under this scheme’s special requirements for former cabinet ministers than was expressed by his predecessor, Mr Moraitis, less than two months earlier on 25 November 2020. My lawyer first contacted the Department in September 2019 to clarify my obligations. He did so at my initiative, despite his advice that I had nothing to register. I am not an agent of foreign influence and any such suggestion is forcefully rejected. I engage internationally as an individual, a scholar, a commentator, a former leader and in my roles with non-government and UN-affiliated institutions – never as an agent on behalf of any foreign government. The Acting Secretary’s letter maintained his predecessor’s view that some of my appointments are registrable. However, he indicated that “merely communicating with a foreign principal or a person/entity from an international jurisdiction is not in itself a registrable activity... Similarly, merely meeting with a foreign government – at their request or yours – to discuss current issues would not be registrable”. This significantly narrower interpretation was confirmed by departmental officials to my representatives in a conference call on 19 January 2021, recorded in our letter of 20 January. Nonetheless, the Acting Secretary has maintained the strange view that discussions of current issues should be registered if they take place with international public broadcasters, such as the BBC or Radio New Zealand. This defies the Attorney-General’s public statement that this law would be interpreted with “common sense”. It is ridiculous to imagine that being interviewed by the BBC could make someone an agent of UK Government influence, especially if they use that platform to criticise the UK Government, as I often do. Given such interviews are already publicly transparent when they are broadcast or published, disclosing them here seems redundant. For this reason, I requested an exemption from the Department from this burden. This was refused. I wholly support this legislation which, when properly implemented, has the potential to help safeguard Australia’s core interests by highlighting potential agents of foreign influence. However, the Department’s sweeping interpretation will result in the waste of both officials’ time and taxpayer funds. Australia must have dozens, if not hundreds, of living former cabinet ministers, all of whom must now be chased by the Department to register engagements that, by their nature, are already on the public record. The Department had also earlier expressed the view that I should consider registering my enrolment as a research student at Oxford University. However, in a telephone call to my office on 20 January, the Department’s officer indicated that, upon further reflection, they did not believe that merely being a student at a foreign university constituted an arrangement “on behalf of” that institution. Further, I am concerned about the implications for the press. I have obtained advice from Bret Walker SC as to the obligations of media organisations, such as News Corporation, which frequently make confidential arrangements with foreign governments seeking to covertly influence Australia. I have written to the Department on this topic in the hope that they can work through the detail with professional journalists through their union, the MEAA, to properly balance the requirements of national security and press freedom. As this is a matter of clear public interest, I have published this advice online and provided it to the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee: https://www.aph.gov.au/DocumentStore.ashx?id=5fede6b0-912d-4881-82c2-b5b8e135be43