Foreign influence transparency – What does it mean?

Late last year the Australian Government set up the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.  What is it and what does it mean for you and me?

 

My suspicious mind conjured visions of the latest wave of foreign phobia or fear of those from overseas.  Investigating the details it appears on the surface as a reaction to the ongoing claims of foreign government interference in elections around the world and so called soft power initiatives.

 

Our Australian Government states in a series of fact sheets that our robust democracy benefits from diverse opinions and voices and that all governments, including our own, seek to influence issues and policies.  Apparently foreign activities that are hidden or not transparent could have serious implications for Australia.

 

So what does it mean?  After 10 December 2018, the scheme requires any person who undertakes activities like lobbying, communications or disbursement activity on behalf of a foreign principal or government to register and provide details to the Australian Government within 14 days of entering a relationship with a foreign principal or conducting a registrable activity.

 

The Commonwealth Attorney-General’s Department may issue a transparency notice confirming a person is a foreign principal and a public register will contain identifying information concerning the people, countries and activities involved.

 

Recent reports by the Australian Broadcasting Commission “ABC” indicate that the registrations up to the grace period include only a few Canberra lobbyists and a conspiracy theorist.  Certain high profile ex-members of parliament have resigned from foreign based organisations to avoid registration.

 

Luckily for us exemptions include charitable, humanitarian and aid workers, legal and other professionals where legal professional privilege may apply.  Some activities for example lobbying of Departments by lawyers on behalf of a foreign principal would still be caught and may require registration and disclosure.  Embassy, foreign affairs and consular officers and presumably spies would be similarly exempt.  What would be the point of a secret service if it’s no longer secret?

 

So if you are involved with foreign persons or governments and seek to lobby or influence on their behalf, new government registration and regulations apply.  Failure to comply incurs penalties including fines and up to five years imprisonment for serious breaches.

 

Our increasingly interconnected world, especially in the commercial field, means we may need to consider this further layer of government regulation in dealings with friends and associates from other countries.

 

Further information is available on the Government’s website link https://www.ag.gov.au/Integrity/foreign-influence-transparency-scheme/Documents/fact-sheets

 

If you need advice concerning these new developments affecting international issues, Teresa Kearney and McLaughlins your Gold Coast lawyers can investigate and give guidance.

 

Author: Teresa Kearney, Senior Associate and former Chair of the Queensland Law Society International Law and International Relations Committee

 

Director: Ian Kennedy

 

Date: 13 March 2019