Kevin Rudd to register under foreign influence scheme but labels government guidance 'absurd'

Former PM says if doing a BBC interview could trigger obligations for him it’s possible media outlets such as News Corp may have to register

Kevin Rudd says he will add himself to Australia’s register of foreign influence after being informed by the Attorney General’s Department that live interviews with state-owned broadcasters, like the BBC, could trigger obligations.

In correspondence from the former Labor prime minister to Chris Moraitis, the secretary of the department, Rudd insists he is “not an agent of foreign influence” and he says the suggestion that media interviews with foreign public broadcasters could trigger obligations under the scheme is laughable.

“It is ridiculous to imagine that merely being interviewed by the BBC makes one an agent of UK government influence, not least if they use this platform to frankly criticise the UK government, as I often do,” Rudd says in the letter seen by Guardian Australia.

The former prime minister says he wholly supports the foreign influence registration regime “but your sweeping interpretation of what constitutes an arrangement with a foreign principal potentially captures any engagement I have with any foreign government, or those tangentially connected to them”.

Rudd declares this “absurd interpretation will have immediate implications for all former cabinet ministers” and, potentially, for others.

“Nonetheless, I am complying with this interpretation by disclosing on the public register that … I have communicated with entities or individuals that are closely associated with these jurisdictions,” he writes, before listing 35 countries including China, France, Japan, Russia, the UK and the United States.

The ex-Labor leader notes the department’s “expansive interpretation” of his registration obligations “has given me pause to consider how the legislation might affect others in our society, including the media, given the arrangements that sometimes exist between the Australian media outlets and foreign governments, officials and entities”.

“For instance, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation is well known for cultivating partnerships with governments, foreign and domestic, where both sides understand that favourable coverage is being exchanged for political and commercial favours,” he writes.

Rudd is currently spearheading a campaign for a royal commission into the Murdoch media. Malcolm Turnbull has joined calls for that inquiry and the Senate will conduct an inquiry into media diversity.

In his letter to Moraitis, Rudd has attached a legal opinion from the eminent barrister Bret Walker SC about whether Murdoch’s Australian arm might have an obligation to register under the foreign influence regime.

In his advice, Walker says News Corp Australia may be liable to register if “they individually or collectively undertake registrable activities on behalf of a foreign principal or enter into a registrable arrangement with a foreign principal”.

More specifically, Walker cites an example where the Daily Telegraph published an article described as a world exclusive stating it had obtained a 15-page dossier produced by western governments which declared that China had deliberately suppressed or destroyed evidence of the coronavirus outbreak that had cost tens of thousands of lives.

“It is not apparent from the article upon whose behalf the dossier was communicated except the reference to it being produced by western governments,” Walker’s advice states.

“The lack of identification of the source of the dossier would mean that the communication of that information to the public, for the purpose of political or governmental influence, was potentially registrable ‘communications activity’ under the Act.”

Walker says if a foreign principal had provided the dossier exclusively to the Daily Telegraph for publication to the public “by arrangement or request, then the communications activity was registrable and remains liable to be registered” – and he says the “identity of the foreign principal would be required to be disclosed for transparency”.

He notes that “worldwide exclusivity would not necessarily mean that it was provided to the Daily Telegraph by an arrangement with or request of a foreign principal”. Walker says “the Act simply ensures if it had been, the foreign principal should be identified either in the communication itself or by registration under the Act”.

Rudd tells Moraitis “one may suspect, as I do, that this news story was placed in the Australian media by the Trump administration so that it could influence Australian public opinion”.

He contends that if that was the case, the journalist who wrote the story and News Corp Australia “would apparently be obliged to register as potential agents of foreign influence in Australia – and disclose these sources to the government”.

“Walker’s advice raises a clear matter of public concern,” Rudd writes in his letter. “I therefore raise it as a potential matter for your department and minister to consider in consultation with officials, media organisations and, importantly, the journalists’ union, the MEAA”.

Rudd tells Moratis in the letter he intends to make the correspondence public. News Corp Australia has been contacted for comment.

Australia introduced the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme in 2018, along with a series of measures aimed at toughening up the country’s foreign interference and espionage laws.

Rudd says the department “expressed the view” in late November that he had registration obligations under the scheme’s special imposition on former cabinet ministers “despite the fact that I undertake no activities on behalf of a foreign principal and I am not an agent of foreign influence”.

Former Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott in October added himself to the register after the British government pressed ahead with his appointment to a trade position.

Abbott had previously been asked to consider registering as an agent of foreign influence for speaking at a conference organised by the Hungarian government, at which he gave a controversial speech on migration and praised the country’s far-right prime minister, Viktor Orbán.


Katharine Murphy Political editor

The GuardianTramp

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