Foreign influence in our politics must be checked

With a fortnight’s hindsight, it is worth looking back at the Bennelong by-election and a valuable lesson Australia must learn from it. With the vote fully counted, we know the government has breathed a sigh of relief — the incumbent, Liberal John Alexander, was returned with a comfortable majority. But the other story — with national security implications — emerged once we had looked at a more detailed analysis of the voting.

Days before the Bennelong poll, a 1700-word open letter was widely circulated among the Australian Chinese community, urging it to vote Labor and, in doing so, “take down the far-right Liberal ruling party”, which it described as “against China, against Chinese, against ethnic-Chinese migrants and against Chinese international students”.

It concluded with an appeal to vote against the Liberals to “protect the dignity of we Chinese!”.

Written in Mandarin, but unsigned, it was attributed to “a group of Chinese who call Australia home”. It was shared on the Chinese social media app WeChat by Yan Zehua, an Australian citizen who is vice-president of the Australian Council for the Promotion of Peaceful Reunification of China, a group so manifestly a mouthpiece for Beijing, with close links to China’s notorious United Front Work Department, that even Bob Carr has urged it be closed down.

As The Australian has reported, Alexander fared markedly worse at those booths with a high proportion of residents of Chinese ancestry.

Was this the result of the “China-phobia” accusations hurled against the government by Labor in the last week of the campaign? Or was it the result of this letter? If the letter played a part, and was linked to agents of the Chinese government — entirely plausible — this marks a shocking, blatant attempt at gross interference in Australia’s internal affairs, and at the very least an investigation into the provenance of the letter is warranted.

There can be little more affronting than a foreign power interfering in the electoral process of a democracy.

Apparent attempts by Russia to intervene in last year’s US presidential election are, quite rightly, a matter of serious investigation. Former FBI director Robert Mueller has been appointed special counsel with the express purpose of investigating such efforts.

Australia needs to confront attempts to undermine our institutions and the integrity of our political system with similar seriousness.

Newly announced measures to strengthen our legal framework against foreign interference and subversion are a welcome step. Increasingly, we also will need to improve the resources of our intelligence community devoted to this task.

“Active measures” — operations designed to exert clandestine influence over domestic politics in foreign countries, including by interfering with elections — are re-emerging as a favoured tool of statecraft.

The modern digital landscape offers far more opportunities for effective “active measures” than the Cold War ever did. Though Russia is the most accomplished practitioner, China’s capabilities in this area are growing, and Australia is an obvious target.

Today’s digital age means that disinformation, propaganda and rumours designed to influence or destabilise an opponent’s political system can be launched almost instantaneously, from across the globe, timed for maximum impact and targeted towards a narrow audience. Unlike overt steps or traditional covert action, such measures are low-cost, low-risk and come with a high degree of deniability.

It is little wonder that, in the words of one of the leading proponents of this new doctrine, Valery Gerasimov, chief of the general staff of Russia’s armed forces, “long-distance, contactless actions against the enemy are becoming the main means of achieving combat and operational goals”.

The use of foreign political donations in a crude attempt to sway the policy positions of politicians and political parties, which we have seen here already, is merely a low-sophistication sampling of what we can expect in the future.

If we are to be successful in combating such attacks, we need to start recognising that our very sovereignty — our freedom to make our own choices and determine our own course of action — is at stake.

We also need to drop the morbid fear we have acquired of causing offence to China, which these days seems to shadow every policy measure.

I know of few other countries with such avid readers of the editorial pages of the Global Times or who seize on predictable comments from a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman to warn that the entire bilateral relationship is imperilled.

Claims the other day that the Australia-China relationship is “finely balanced” or at a “tipping point” because Australia has taken measures to protect our sovereignty from foreign interference are ridiculous.

Australia behaves entirely respectfully towards China’s sovereign prerogatives and internal affairs, and when we disagree we declare so openly and respectfully. We have every right to expect and demand the same.

Can anyone doubt that China would take equally fervent measures if it believed a foreign power was seeking to stoke independence sentiment in Hong Kong or subvert the composition of the politburo standing committee?

Commentators like to frame the strategic dilemma for Australia as one of having to choose between the US and China. But in truth the more acute choice we face is whether we are prepared to risk the relationship with our largest trading partner and export market to defend our freedom of action, sovereignty and preferred world order, or whether we will allow the creeping Finlandisation of Australian external policy.

Published as an opinion piece in The Australian, 28 December 2017

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