Shades of East Germany in Attorney-General’s office

Shades of East Germany in Attorney-General’s office, by Janet Albrechtsen.

This week [Tony] Abbott spoke to The Weekend Australian about a most ­bizarre pursuit of him by bureaucrats in the Attorney-General’s Department, using new laws ­intended to weed out nefarious foreign influence undermining our democracy.

Abbott received a letter dated August 8 from the deputy secret­ary of the Integrity and Inter­national Group of the A-G’s Department, Sarah Chidgey. Chidgey is part of the team administering the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act, which came into effect last ­December.

The former prime minister caught her attention because the media reported that he would speak at the Conservative Political Action Conference. I heard Abbott deliver that address. It was about the need for civility in politics; he asked us to be the best we can be. How dreadfully subversive of him.

In her letter to Abbott, sent the day before he spoke on Saturday, August 9, Chidgey told Abbott that, as a former cabinet minister, he has “a lifetime obligation to register any activity you undertake on behalf of a foreign principal”. The busy bureaucrat sent other letters during that week in August — to others involved with CPAC. …

Last December, Attorney-General Christian Porter said the new foreign influence transparency scheme would safeguard the nation’s democracy. “FITS will provide visibility of the forms and sources of foreign influence in Australia’s governmental and ­political processes,” he said.

Sam Dastyari spectacularly implod­ed his political career by ­accepting money from a company owned by Chinese billionaire Huang Xiangmo to pay legal bills. There has been a rise in Chinese propaganda emanating from Confucius Centres at Australian universities. There were allegations that banned donor Huang gave $100,000 cash in a plastic Aldi bag to NSW Labor’s then general ­secretary Jamie Clements at a ­dinner in 2015. These, and many other ­serious issues, raise legitimate questions about wicked foreign ­influences in our democracy. …

Ah, but look how the bureaucrats selectively enforce the new rules:

The department also has more draconian powers under section 45(2) to demand mountains of documents to establish whether a person is liable to register under the act. This notice carries serious consequences: it is a criminal offence not to comply, with a maximum penalty of six months in jail. …

The Weekend Australian discovered this crack team of eight bureaucrats charged with exposing devious foreign ­influences in our democracy has sent a single section 45(2) notice. Not to one of the many Confucius Centres. Not to Hizb ut-Tahrir, a Muslim group that ­loathes democracy. The department’s sole section 45(2) notice was sent late last month to a bloke in Queensland called Andrew Cooper, who runs a one-man think tank advancing freedom. … The Queenslander co-hosted CPAC in Sydney together with the American ­Conservative Union.

“I just wanted to run a conference,” he told this newspaper this week. The aim was to thrash out ideas on the centre-right of politics among a range of people from conservatives to libertarians from Australia, Britain and the US. Speakers included ­Abbott, former deputy prime minister John Anderson­, senator Amanda Stoker, MP Craig Kelly, former Labor leader Mark Latham, Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage and US ­Republican congressman Mark Meadows. I also spoke at the conference.

Founded in 1974 by the ACU, CPAC has a long heritage, with ­Ronald Reagan delivering the ­inaugural address. ACU offered to help Cooper, paying for some US speakers to travel to Australia.

In the section 45(2) notice dated October 21, Chidgey ­demanded that Cooper provide documents to the department, ­including, but not limited to, any agreement, contract or other ­document detailing any understanding between LibertyWorks and the ACU, any invitations, ­letters or other correspondence from Lib­erty­Works or the ACU sent to ­individuals invited to speak or ­attend CPAC, copies, transcripts or video or audio recordings of speeches made by the speakers at CPAC, including of speeches by members of LibertyWorks or the ACU to introduce or conclude the conference or a specific day or event at the conference, summaries of topics covered by speakers at the conference, and materia­l produced or distributed by LibertyWorks promoting CPAC or the ACU.

The deadline is next Tuesday. Cooper has invited the department to treat what he told this newspaper on Thursday as his ­response to their inquisition. “I will not be complying with this notice despite the threat of criminal prosecution and jail time,” he said. “I established LibertyWorks to argue against this type of government control over speech and citizens. I will not sell out our speakers and delegates by kowtowing to government overlords.”

The “conservative” minister is powerless:

The Weekend Australian unders­tands that Porter was, to put it mildly, incandescent with rage when he learned, after he asked for details, that this was the sole ­instance of the department issuing the draconian section 45(2) notice. And why wouldn’t he be livid? Going after Cooper, and not a real threat to our democracy, makes a mockery of these laws and the ­department.

For reasons of probity, the ­Attorney-General has no power to direct those departmental ­bureaucrats who administer the FITS. But that independence should not be a licence to use wide-­ranging laws that carry serious penalties in highly questionable circumstances. …

Labor at work:

Remember when Labor senator Kristina Keneally insinuated in a silly swipe in late July that conservative politicians who spoke at CPAC would be condoning the views of everyone there? CPAC was trying to mastermind an alt-right takeover, she said. It was ­demented logic but that’s politics — well, Keneally’s kind of politics.

Bizarrely, the department sent letters to Abbott and Cooper within days of her comments, making it hard for these boffins inside ­the Attorney-General’s Department to divorce themselves from the politics of the day. …

The evil nature of totalitarianism is not what happens outside the law. It happens when the law, or a veneer of legality, is used, often in the name of national ­security, to control what good ­people do, be it sharing ideas or speaking out against tyranny.

Too many conservatives think that “if only we were in charge of the big government, all would be well.” No, the problem is big government per se. Every politician should heed the warning: the powers get used by the least scrupulous, and your political opponents are in power much of the time.

The left invariably end up in control of the bureaucracy, which effectively gives them all the power — via selective enforcement. Like in this case. The Liberals set up a tool with legislation, but now the left gets to wield it — only against them! Fools.