Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull will tell a powerful parliamentary committee his government’s landmark foreign interference laws suffer major flaws and need to be overhauled so serious attempts to undermine Australian democracy can be rooted out.

The laws have become so cumbersome that authoritarian countries such as China, Iran and Russia may need to be singled out as nations of concern, Turnbull will tell the parliamentary joint committee on intelligence and security in a high-profile appearance on Tuesday.

Former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull says foreign influence laws introduced by his government need to be overhauled. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

The foreign influence transparency scheme, introduced with much fanfare in 2018, requires individuals and entities to register activities undertaken in Australia on behalf of a foreign principal for the purpose of political or governmental influence.

Former Labor prime minister Kevin Rudd previously lambasted the scheme for requiring him to register his interviews with state-owned media outlets such as the BBC even though they were on the public record.

“I’m sure the legislation can be improved,” Turnbull said.

“A lot of the information and relationships being reported are so benign as to be barely worth doing.

“Yet if you believe the register, there is not one representative of the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Work Department operating in Australia. That defies credulity.”

The foreign influence register does not list any agents for United Front, which is tasked with using the diaspora of citizens abroad to gather intelligence and promote Beijing’s message, even though they are widely known to operate in Australia.

“China has a very active foreign influence operation,” Turnbull said.

Meanwhile, the United States Studies Centre, a think tank at the University of Sydney that promotes the US-Australia alliance, is listed on the register.

Parliament passed the scheme following revelations that then-Labor senator Sam Dastyari had contradicted Labor’s policy on the South China Sea while seeking to secure donations from Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo.

The laws were applauded by democratic countries such as the US but contributed to the souring of relations between Australia and China, which felt targeted by the new regime.

Turnbull said the laws were designed to be “country agnostic” but, given the way they were operating, a different risk assessment might need to be applied to the activities of democratic and authoritarian countries.

Turnbull said the register “seems to be hoovering up a lot of information of marginal utility” while missing the more disturbing forms of foreign influence it was designed to detect.

“The rules have been applied in a fairly mechanical, box-ticking way,” he said, adding he believed the biggest problems with the laws might be how they were enforced and administered.

Representatives from the Home Affairs Department, Attorney-General’s Department and Australian Security Intelligence Organisation will also appear before the committee on Tuesday along with university representatives and academic experts.

In 2021, Rudd said he supported the scheme but found it “absurd” the Attorney-General’s Department had advised him he was required to register his interviews with the BBC.

“National security officials have better things to do than chase former cabinet ministers to register TV appearances that, by their nature, are already on the public record,” he said on Twitter.

Liberal senator James Paterson, a former chair of the intelligence committee, said: “The foreign influence transparency scheme is a vital part of Australia’s defences against the full spectrum of foreign interference threats, but in my view it has not achieved its intended objectives.

“It was supposed to make transparent the covert activities of foreign powers to influence Australia, but as we stand today it has failed to capture some of the most prominent actors.

“It is likely that the legislation will need to be amended to ensure the conduct it was intended to encompass actually falls within the scheme. It will also need much better enforcement options and the resources to back it up.”

Committee chair Peter Khalil said a number of submissions put to the committee pointed to areas in which the scheme was not operating as effectively as it could or should be.

“The committee will assess these submissions and the evidence at the public hearing and make appropriate recommendations to the government,” he said.

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