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Time to end foreign influence exemptions for MPs

9 April 2022

Independent Senator Rex Patrick is calling on Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese to commit to strengthening Australia’s foreign influence transparency law, including ending the exemption that allows MPs and their staff to not disclose their connections with foreign governments. 

“Although our nation’s leaders like to talk big about national security, they have been content to leave Australia’s foreign influence transparency law in an unfinished and dysfunctional state,” Senator Patrick said. “Both Mr Morrison and Mr Albanese need to make commitments to fix a broken scheme that is not fit for purpose.” 

“Loopholes – some deliberate, some accidental – have greatly undermined the effectiveness of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, the reporting and public disclosure regime for people who are acting on behalf of foreign governments or foreign political organisations to influence Australian government and politics.”

“The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme that came into effect in December 2018 is meant to be a key part of efforts to safeguard our democracy from covert foreign influence.”

“Yet some 40 months later, despite all the concern over and evidence of Chinese Government influence and interference in Australian political life, just 101 individuals or companies registered with the scheme. Not one Chinese ‘united front’ organisation has registered with the scheme.” 

“Numerous exemptions allow individuals and companies to work and advocate for foreign business enterprises that may be nominally private companies but which are under the influence of or closely allied to hostile governments.”

“As things stand an Australian working for a Russian oligarch beholden to President Putin or a Chinese tech giant linked to the Chinese Government and Communist Party, can arrange their affairs to stay in the shadows and avoid public acknowledgement of their association with a foreign political power.”

“At a minimum, the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 should be subject to extensive amendment to remove the loopholes that have greatly diminished its effectiveness as a transparency mechanism.”

“The Foreign Minister should be given the authority to designate foreign principals, companies and individuals, of security concern as entities which fall within the scope of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.”

“This would ensure that political lobbying activities undertaken on behalf of companies such as the Chinese tech giant Huawei would be unambiguously within the scope of the Transparency Scheme.” 

“At the same time the Coalition and Labor must accept that MPs and Senators can no longer be exempt from one of our key national security laws,” Senator Patrick said. 

“Unlike all other Australians, Federal, State and Territory parliamentarians are exempt from the obligations of the Foreign Influence Transparency Act which would otherwise require them to register if they acted as an agent of a foreign power.” 

“This bizarre exemption is quite wrong. It is quite at odds with Australia’s national security and the integrity of our democracy.” 

“Federal parliamentarians are arguably the ultimate targets of political influence and interference activities conducted by foreign governments. They should not be exempt from the disclosure and reporting requirements that apply to all other Australians.”

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has recommended that Parliament establish its own transparency scheme with penalties for non-compliance. However that recommendation has been rejected by both the Coalition Government and Labor Opposition. The only action that has taken place has been the proclamation of a regulation to extend the transparency exemption to all staff of Federal MPs and Senators.”

“What was declared an urgent security issue in relation to all other Australians appears to be no priority for Coalition and Labor MPs when the question relates to their own activities.”

“If re-elected to the Senate I’ll be introducing legislation to strengthen Australia’s foreign influence transparency scheme, including an end to the exemption for MPs and Senators.”

“Federal Parliamentarians should not only be subject to the same transparency obligations of all other citizens; they should be subject to more detailed disclosure and reporting requirements including revealing in detail all foreign entanglements for at least three years prior to their election to Parliament. Penalties for non-compliance should be such that a conviction would result in expulsion from Parliament."

“A much higher level of disclosure and transparency is essential to give the Australian public confidence in the integrity of the Australian Parliament and to safeguard national security.”