31 Jan Agent of interference: How Labor’s top lawyer steered bureacrats against ex-PM
Joe Kelly – The Australian – Friday 31 January 2020
Labor frontbencher Mark Dreyfus sparked the Attorney-General’s Department’s push for Tony Abbott and the Australian organiser of last year’s Conservative Political Action Conference to register as agents of foreign influence.
In a meeting with senior representatives of the department’s integrity and security division on July 22, Mr Dreyfus encouraged officials to examine whether the three-day CPAC event held in August would trigger registration requirements under the government’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. The exchange is revealed in documents obtained under Freedom of Information laws and has triggered fresh claims that Labor sought to use the scheme to “censor the free speech” of political rivals, a move that threatened “Australia’s democracy and national security”.
It has also stoked fears from conservatives that senior bureaucrats were “conspiring in secret with the Labor Party” to pursue the ALP’s opponents rather than using the scheme to identify more pressing threats to the national interest.
An internal document from the Attorney-General’s Department, obtained by free-market think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, states that Mr Dreyfus, Labor’s legal affairs spokesman, “queried the application of the scheme to foreign political organisations holding events in Australia”.
“He specifically raised the upcoming Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) to be held in Sydney on 9-11 August 2019, as an example of an event that may trigger registration obligations under the scheme and asked what the department planned to do about it,” the document says.
Following Mr Dreyfus’s intervention, the department wrote on August 2 to the event’s Australian organiser, Andrew Cooper, whose not-for-profit group LibertyWorks co-hosted CPAC with the American Conservative Union.
Mr Cooper was asked to register under the scheme and later, in October, became the first person under the scheme who was ordered to hand over documents and threatened with jail time.
The department sent a separate letter to Mr Abbott on August 8, asking him to register because he was scheduled to speak at CPAC.
Both men rejected the requests, moves that challenged the integrity of the new foreign influence laws.
The letters followed a speech in the Senate by Labor’s home affairs spokeswoman, Kristina Keneally, on July 30 in which she railed against the ACU and LibertyWorks, questioning the extent to which they and their donors sought to “influence Australian politics”.
She also suggested that CPAC, which featured prominent international speakers including Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and British political activist Raheem Kassam, would give a platform to “hate speech”.
The Australian can reveal that the Attorney-General’s Department secretary, Chris Moraitis, has ceased the probe into LibertyWorks and wrote to Mr Cooper on December 20 informing him that he would not be pursued under the new foreign influence regime.
While Mr Moraitis remained of the view that LibertyWorks “may have registration obligations in relation to the ACU and CPAC”, he said Mr Cooper’s statements to the media had provided sufficient transparency for the department to drop the issue.
“I do not consider that it would be an effective use of the department’s resources to take further action under the scheme in relation to this matter,” Mr Moraitis said.
The decision means that Mr Cooper, who previously accused the department of acting like the “old East German Stasi”, will no longer face the prospect of being jailed for up to six months.
Mr Cooper said on Thursday he wanted an apology from Mr Dreyfus and argued that freedom of speech was a “fundamental value of Australian democracy”.
“Mr Dreyfus has deliberately and methodically sought to use the state to censor the free speech of his political opponents at CPAC,” Mr Cooper said.
“It is a contemptible and cowardly act.”
A spokesman for Mr Dreyfus said he attended a briefing provided by the Attorney-General’s Department in which a senior adviser to Attorney-General Christian Porter was also present.
“The opposition cannot direct the Australian public service to do anything,” the spokesman said. “Whatever actions the Morrison government has taken in this regard are entirely as a result of decisions taken by the Morrison government.”
Liberal senator James Paterson said it was “alarming to learn that Mark Dreyfus thinks it is appropriate to use our foreign-interference laws to pursue the domestic political opponents of the Labor Party”.
“They were designed to protect Australia’s sovereignty from foreign meddling, not as another tool for his vexatious attempts to use state power to punish people he disagrees with,” Senator Paterson said.
IPA communications director Evan Mulholland said there needed to be an “independent and public inquiry into this scandal to establish how far and deep this conspiracy has spread”.
He also argued that the use of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme to target Mr Abbott and Mr Cooper showed the law was deeply flawed and needed to be revisited.
“This absolutely disgraceful scandal shows why this law needs to be completely recast so this can never happen again,” Mr Mulholland said.
Mr Dreyfus has previously asked for investigations into a range of issues of political issues that could potentially advantage the Labor Party.
In October, he asked NSW police to probe how Energy Minister Angus Taylor’s office came to use incorrect figures in a political attack against Sydney Lord Mayor Clover Moore and whether a fake document had been created by Mr Taylor’s staff to mislead journalists. He also asked last March for an AFP investigation into whether the appointment of lawyer Jane Bell as a member of the Administrative Appeals Tribunal by Mr Porter was aimed at influencing her push to win the Liberal preselection for the seat of Higgins in Victoria.