The head of Australia’s spy agency is worried that too few people in Australian business and academia share his concerns about foreign interference, in effect facilitating efforts by unfriendly autocratic governments to undermine Aussie democratic institutions.
This week, Australian Security Intelligence Organisation director-general Mike Burgess warned that “more Australians are being targeted for espionage and foreign interference than at any time,” making his agency busier than ever. “Busier than the Cold War; busier than 9/11; busier than the height of the [Islamic State] caliphate,” he said.
Yet, Mr. Burgess bemoaned the lackadaisical attitude of bureaucrats, university presidents and businesspeople who seek to minimize the threat posed by the covert and not-so-covert activities of foreign governments seeking to influence Australian affairs.
“They are entitled to their views but the reasons they offer for them are flimsy, such as: ‘all countries spy on each other,’ ‘we were going to make the information public anyway,’ ‘it’s no different to lobbying or networking,’ ‘the foreign government might make things difficult for us,’ and so on,” Mr. Burgess noted. “Anyone saying these things should reflect on their commitment to Australia’s democracy, sovereignty and values – because espionage and foreign interference is deliberately calculated to undermine Australia’s democracy, sovereignty and values.”
Canadians have yet to hear any official at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service deliver such a full-throated public admonishment to political, business and academic leaders in this country, many of whom seem to think Chinese interference in Canadian affairs is no big deal. Instead, we have had to rely on leaks to the media of CSIS documents outlining efforts by China to influence the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 federal elections to get wind of the spy agency’s concerns about the integrity of our democratic processes.
The reaction to revelations in The Globe and Mail about China’s deliberate use of disinformation, illegal donations and proxies to obtain its preferred outcome of a Liberal minority government in 2021 was disturbing but predictable. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s first response to the leak of secret CSIS documents was to call for a review of the spy agency’s security procedures. Then, he said this: “Canadians can have total confidence that the outcomes of the 2019 and 2021 elections were determined by Canadians and Canadians alone at the voting booth.”
Efforts to minimize the seriousness of Chinese espionage and interference are par for the course for this government. Canada was years behind our Five Eyes partners in the United States, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand in restricting Chinese telecom equipment giant Huawei’s participation in our 5G networks. Ottawa has been slow to regulate Chinese investment in Canadian critical minerals and Beijing’s funding of dual-purpose (military and civil) research projects at Canadian universities. The long-delayed release by the Trudeau government of a new Indo-Pacific strategy was a belated effort to course-correct in the face of our allies’ moves to counter Chinese dominance of global supply chains.
Compared to Canberra, however, Ottawa continues to tiptoe around the Chinese-interference elephant in the room, in part to avoid having to say anything that might upset Chinese-Canadian voters or elicit Beijing’s ire. Canadian business and university leaders prefer it that way. After all, they see China as their golden goose.
Australia, which is more dependent on Chinese trade than Canada, has cemented a new security pact with the U.S. and Britain, called AUKUS, and undertaken a massive investment in nuclear-powered submarines. It has moved ahead with ordering long-range cruise missiles and developing hypersonic weapons. The country’s beefed-up defence strategy, announced under former Liberal prime minister Scott Morrison, has been embraced by his Labor successor, Anthony Albanese.
Another Liberal prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, in 2018, created Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, or FITS, which became the model for the foreign-agent registry that former British Columbia Conservative MP Kenny Chiu proposed in his private member’s bill tabled in 2021. It became the subject of a disinformation campaign on Chinese-language social media that likely contributed to his defeat in that year’s federal election.
It should be noted that Mr. Turnbull has criticized FITS for failing to cast a wide enough net, noting just this week that, according to FITS, “there is apparently no organization in Australia that has any association with the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party of China,” he said. “I would love to think that was true, but regrettably, I can say absolutely that it is not true.”
Still, at least Australian leaders are wise to the problem. The UFWD, which uses covert tactics to influence overseas ethnic Chinese communities, is also active in Canada. CSIS noted in the documents referred to by The Globe that China’s former consul-general in Vancouver, Wang Jin, has direct ties to the UFWD. Mr. Wang, CSIS said, made “discreet and subtle efforts” to help rally Liberal votes in 2021.
And what has Ottawa done about it? Nothing, as far as anyone can tell.