What is the extent of foreign influence on Australia’s government and politics?
This is exactly what the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, which commenced on 10 December 2018, aims to answer.
While secretive foreign influence can be harmful to Australia’s democratic processes and national policy, foreign influence activities conducted in a transparent way can be positive, presenting diverse opinions and stimulating debate.
The aim of the scheme, established through the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018, is to provide transparency about the activities that are being undertaken in Australia on behalf of foreign principals.
Who is required to register?
Generally, individuals and entities will be required to register under the scheme if:
- They undertake registrable activities,
- The activity is undertaken in Australia on behalf of a foreign principal (a foreign political organisation, government-related entity or individual),
- The activity is undertaken for the purpose of political or governmental influence, and
- There are no exemptions.
Whether or not registration is required depends on who the foreign principal is, the nature of the activities undertaken, the purpose for which the activities are undertaken and, in some cases, whether the person has held a senior public position in Australia.
What are “registrable activities”?
Registrable activities include:
- Parliamentary lobbying – e.g. meeting with a member of Federal Parliament or their staff to express a particular view on behalf of a foreign principal.
- General political lobbying – covers lobbying activities directed towards Commonwealth public officials, departments or agencies, registered political parties or candidates in federal elections.
- Communications activities – e.g. an Australian journalist writing an article at the request of a foreign country protesting federal laws tightening restrictions on foreign investment.
- Disbursement activity – payments on behalf of a foreign principal for the purposes of political or governmental influence.
The registration process
Obliged parties must register within 14 days of either entering into a relationship with a foreign principal or undertaking a registrable activity on behalf of a foreign principal.
The information required for registration includes:
- The registrant’s name, contact details and occupation.
- Details about the foreign principal and the relationship between the registrant and the foreign principal.
- Details about the registrable activity.
Registrations need to be renewed every 12 months if the registrant continues to undertake registrable activities for a foreign principal, and registration information must be kept up to date.
The public register
The public register provides information about the activities of registrants and the foreign interests they represent. At the time of writing, registrants include:
- Australian Academy of Science – conducting general political lobbying on behalf of the Academies of Science in Malaysia, China, Mexico and France, to promote research collaborations between these countries.
- Arrow Energy Holdings Pty Ltd (AEH) – conducting general political lobbying and parliamentary lobbying on behalf of Petrochina International Investment (Australia) Pty Ltd. (PCIIA).
- PCIIA is one of two 50% shareholders of AEH. AEH undertakes lobbying activities on behalf of PCIIA with respect to Commonwealth regulation, approvals and policy.
- Aidan Philip Byrne – Member of the Science Board for the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment, New Zealand. The board is responsible for research funding decisions in New Zealand.
- From 2012-2016 Byrne was CEO of the Australian Research Council, and is therefore a recent designated position holder under Section 23 of the Act.
Penalties for non-compliance
There are penalties for failures to comply that are intended to encourage compliance and deter people from evading their registration obligations. Offences include undertaking registrable activities while not being registered under the scheme, failure to fulfil responsibilities (e.g. reporting and disclosure obligations) and providing false or misleading information.
The maximum penalties range from six months to five years imprisonment, depending on the type of offence and the seriousness of the conduct.
Individuals and entities that undertake certain activities on behalf of foreign principals must register with the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, to help ensure transparency of foreign influence on Australia’s government and political processes. Penalties apply for non-compliance.