Australian security agencies know China is carrying out “blatant” influence operations despite the lack of listings on the nation’s transparency register, the former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull has told an inquiry.
Turnbull said on Tuesday he was “puzzled” the legislation his government introduced was not more rigorously enforced, and officials should not treat it as a “robotic box-ticking exercise”.
Under the foreign influence transparency scheme (Fits) that took effect in late 2018, people must register activities they carry out in Australia on behalf of a foreign principal to shape political or government affairs.
“It is noteworthy that … according to the transparency register there is apparently no organisation in Australia that has any association with the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China,” Turnbull told the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security.
“I would love to think that was true but regrettably I can say absolutely that it is not true. If in fact it were true, there would be terrible repercussions in Beijing for those responsible for the United Front Work Department.”
Turnbull told the committee the “most active state and political party seeking to influence public affairs in Australia is that of China and the Communist Party of China – we know that”.
“The intelligence agencies, security agencies have a very good idea of who’s doing what. I wouldn’t even describe it as covert – it’s pretty blatant operations,” he said.
“It does remind me of that scene in Casablanca when the French police captain runs into Rick’s bar and says, ‘I’m shocked, shocked to see that there is gambling in this establishment’. I mean, is this same sort of pretence that’s going on? We know what’s happening and we just want people to be open about it – that’s all.”
The committee is reviewing the Fits laws. Under the scheme, former senior politicians have higher disclosure obligations. Turnbull has had to register two speeches he gave in recent years – to a South Korean event and a Taiwanese event, while Kevin Rudd has disclosed dozens of unpaid interviews with state-linked broadcasters such as the BBC.
Turnbull said was not complaining about having to register, but both engagements were public events so there was “nothing covert about it”.
“If you’re writing letters to former prime ministers about why they haven’t registered a speech that the department has learned about because it was widely reported in the press, it rather does make you think that the object of the bureaucrats’ concern was not transparency but box-ticking,” Turnbull said.
Katherine Mansted, a senior fellow at the Australian National University’s national security college, said Fits was world leading but there was a pressing need to recalibrate it.
Mansted said acts of influence might be “flying under the radar” due to the grey zone exploited by countries including China, Russia and Iran. She said Fits did not always capture the right information.
“There are blind spots particularly when it comes to capturing influence that emanates from authoritarian governments, which tends to be more complex, opaque and secret by nature,” she said.
Mansted noted under the current drafting of the scheme, independent private companies including the Chinese telco Huawei weren’t covered.
“The way political relationships work in many authoritarian countries … is they are more informal,” Mansted said.
“The way Fits is it at the moment, it might be capturing a former minister on a BBC cooking show but not capturing former politicians with dealings with a company like Huawei.”
Mansted questioned whether the Attorney General’s Department was the appropriate body to continue to administer Fits.
The university sector echoed her concerns. A panel including representatives from the Group of Eight warned that the sector was “going backwards” due to overly burdensome legislative requirements.
University of Melbourne deputy vice-chancellor professor Michael Wesley said the university had estimated well over $2m had been spent in putting systems in place and found it “puzzling” there’d been no follow up from the government about compliance.
“No one has come and looked at our systems, no one has expressed any interests in our systems,” he said. “It’s almost as if we were asked to do things and trusted to go ahead and do them … we’ve had absolute silence.
“It is not clear to me that we have a coherent and mutually supporting regime of instruments for dealing with foreign transparency and foreign interference issues.”
Group of Eight chief executive, Vicki Thomson, a member of the university foreign interference taskforce, said while procedures were being followed, there had been “no instruction” from the government as to how to address potential risks.
The Chinese embassy has been approached for comment. The attorney general’s department is due to give evidence to the committee later on Tuesday.