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May 20, 2019

Australia defends 'foreign agents' law despite few declarations

Australia defends 'foreign agents' law despite few declarations
'Growing fears of political influence from foreign states, particularly China, saw Canberra pass a raft of new laws last year to curb potential meddling' - By: POOL/AFP/File THOMAS PETER

Australia's attorney-general Monday defended a register meant to track the role of foreign agents in local politics, saying it was already changing behaviour despite only a handful of declarations.

Growing fears of political influence from foreign states, particularly China, saw Canberra pass a raft of new laws last year to curb potential meddling.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme register was operational from December, with a grace period ending Sunday.

But only nine institutions or individuals have so far declared their foreign links.

They include lobbyists such as former defence minister Brendan Nelson declaring his "foreign principal" as French defence giant Thales, and a 9/11 conspiracy theorist declaring interests for a US group.

So far only one individual -- Warwick King, the head of Australian coal seam gas producer APLNG which is one-quarter owned by China's Sinopec -- has declared his "foreign principal country" as China.

Attorney-General Christian Porter said there were around 18 more lodgements not yet processed or made public and he expected the list to lengthen as national elections, due by mid-May, draw closer.

Failure to register could result in penalties of up to five years' jail.

Porter said a recent flurry of departures of former Australian politicians from roles at Chinese-owned or linked organisations was proof the register was already having an impact.

"So it's likely that the register is also changing behaviour and contractual arrangements between individuals in the Australian political system," he told national broadcaster ABC.

The departures include former senior politicians departing roles with China's Landbridge Group and Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Huawei told AFP that as a private firm, it did not need to register with the scheme.

Former foreign minister Bob Carr also recently stepped down as director of the Australia-China Relations Institute, which was founded by controversial Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo.

Huang was a prominent donor to Australia's two major parties before he was blocked from re-entering the country last month -- with his permanent residency visa revoked and a citizenship bid rejected.

Huang himself has not signed up to the register.

Also missing from the public list is Chinese-Australian billionaire businessman Chau Chak Wing, who has denied links to China's Communist Party and last month successfully won a defamation suit against a newspaper that alleged he was a co-conspirator in a UN bribery plot.

Australian National University security expert Rory Medcalf said the laws were designed to have a deterrent effect.

"An ideal outcome, which is what we're probably heading for, is if we as a country can normalise transparency about this issue."

"Then I think we're well on the way to raising public awareness and well on the way to raising a public willingness for covert influence to be penalised," he told AFP.

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