AUSTRALIA will negotiate a security treaty with Vanuatu, amid concerns the Pacific Island nation was slipping into China’s orbit following claims Beijing was planning to establish a military footprint there.
The Turnbull government’s latest diplomatic push with Pacific island nations coincides with Parliament’s joint intelligence and security committee urging serving and former politicians face greater scrutiny over their advocacy on behalf of foreign governments through further changes to the proposed foreign influence transparency scheme.
The bipartisan committee recommended that former cabinet ministers should remain on the register for the rest of their life if they begin lobbying on behalf of a foreign principal in their post-political career.
And a separate register would be established for current MPs and senators forcing them to declare ‘when they are representing foreign government and related interests’, which would potentially cover conduct similar to that of former Labor senator Sam Dastyari, who resigned from politics amid controversy over his links to China.
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull confirmed negotiations for the new security agreement during a visit to Canberra by Vanuatu’s Prime Minister Charlot Salwai.
The bilateral treaty will focus on aid, disaster response, maritime surveillance and border security, training 200 police officers and greater defence co-operation.
“This strategy will support Vanuatu’s vision for a ‘stable, sustainable and prosperous Vanuatu’, in line with its National Sustainable Development Plan,” Turnbull said.
Talks will also take in Vanuatu’s request for Australia to help pay for a high-speed telecommunications cable linking the two countries, similar to how the government confirmed it would spend $137 million (US$101 million) from the overseas aid budget to build a new undersea cable to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, blocking Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei from the project.
In May, Vanuatu and Chinese officials denied Fairfax Media reports that China would establish a military presence in Vanuatu but there has been growing disquiet over Beijing’s efforts to gain regional influence through the use of foreign aid and infrastructure funding.
While the government hopes to mitigate against Chinese influence in the Pacific, it wants new laws to counter foreign meddling in Australian politics through Parliament by Wednesday.
The intelligence and security committee’s bipartisan report made 52 recommendations for the foreign influence transparency scheme, which Attorney-General Christian Porter said would be accepted.
Many were technical in nature but key changes the committee wants include exemptions for charities, trade unions and arts organisations which work with foreign governments from registering if they not trying to influence the domestic political debate.
But the committee has also zeroed in on concerns that politicians, political staffers and bureaucrats are uniquely placed to be an influential voice on behalf of a foreign regime.
The committee wants former cabinet ministers to stay on the register in perpetuity after acting on behalf of a foreign government compared to the 10 years previously proposed.
Similarly, former senior bureaucrats would have to register for 15 years (up from seven) while the committee has also called for former ministerial staff at the senior adviser level or higher to register for the same length of time.
While mindful not to impinge on parliamentary privilege, the committee also believes a separate register should be set up for politicians to disclose any links to foreign principals, as a demonstration of transparency. Any breaches would be dealt with by Parliament’s powerful privileges committee.
Registrable activity could take in membership of parliamentary friendship groups with overseas nations and advocacy on behalf of foreign interests. In Dastyari’s case, he came under attack for contradicting Labor policy on the South China Sea by taking a pro-Beijing stance.
A further change is requiring executives of a group ‘accustomed to’ following the direction of a foreign government to register, which will capture many more organisations.
After Labor raised concerns individuals wrongly issued a ‘transparency notice’ by the government would not be able to sue for defamation if they suffered reputational damage, the committee also recommended that people be given one month to respond before being added to the register.