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Losing our agnosticism. How to make Australia’s foreign influence laws work

By Daniel Ward

Country agnosticism, under which Australia’s laws treat all foreign influence efforts in the same way, regardless of their source country, is the key failing of Australia’s statutory response to foreign governments’ influence activities.

It has imposed sweeping, unnecessary regulatory costs. It has caused waste of taxpayer-funded enforcement resources. It has diverted those resources from the issues that really matter. And it has brought unnecessary legal complexity. Yet for all that, nobody believes that the laws are truly country agnostic. Not the Australian media, which routinely describe them as ‘aimed at’ China. Nor, presumably, the media’s audience. Nor, certainly, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which regards itself as the target, explicitly citing the laws as a key grievance.

Perhaps the greatest cost of country agnosticism is that the current statutory framework isn’t as effective as it needs to be. Why? In adopting a country-agnostic stance, we blinded ourselves to the very factor that matters most in evaluating and responding to foreign influence—its source country.

It’s time to remove the blindfold. We should recognise this basic truth: foreign influence transparency requirements must be more stringent in relation to some source countries than others.