Government needs to tackle foreign influence “grey zone”

17 February 2021

Foreign influence has shifted from a mostly closed-door, elite practice to a constant that affects all parts of society

A new report from The Australian National University (ANU) has provided a roadmap for the Government to navigate the "grey zone" between acceptable foreign influence activities and unlawful interference.

Australia is a global leader in updating its laws and policy to manage foreign interference in the 21st century, according to the report's author and national security expert Katherine Mansted.

"Australia has had, since Federation, a range of laws that manage foreign influence risk, but globalisation and digitalisation, and the rise of modern authoritarian countries such as Russia and China, mean that Australia's foreign influence policy settings now need updating," Ms Mansted, a Senior Adviser for Public Policy at the National Security College, said.

"The Federal Government has focused on disrupting and deterring foreign interference - a relatively narrow set of activities, covering coercive, covert or deceptive influence by or on behalf of foreign governments."

Not all political influence short of foreign interference is acceptable or appropriate in a democracy, Ms Mansted said.

"This has been underscored by recent concerns in Australia and other democracies about state-sponsored social media manipulation, the power of foreign government-affiliated tech platforms like TikTok, and the operation of foreign-government linked political movements and groups."

The report recommends establishing an independent sovereignty commissioner, creating a dedicated national online portal for reporting problematic foreign influence, and updating laws on media freedom, data protection and privacy to reduce the scope for problematic foreign influence.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Register was intended to provide transparency and visibility about the nature of foreign influence in Australian politics and key sectors.

"There are a range of problems with how that register has been designed and implemented," Ms Mansted said.

"The result is that it is perceived as a blacklist rather than an informational resource for decision-makers in civil society, business and government."

Ms Mansted said all Australians have a role to play in countering unwelcome foreign influence, but governments need to do more to empower people to make informed choices.

"Foreign influence has shifted from a mostly closed-door, elite practice to a constant that affects all parts of society," she said.

"There's a role for government, but ultimately it's often up to businesses, civil society groups and ordinary Australians to decide what forms of influence are acceptable to them and in line with their organisational and personal values." 

Read the full report online