Commentary | 20 July 2018

Managing foreign interference and multiculturalism

Originally published in Australian Financial Review. 

Originally published in Australian Financial Review. 

Not long ago I listened to four Australians of Chinese heritage speak at the Lowy Institute about the impact on their communities of the foreign interference question. Some of the issues they raised were similar to those articulated by Muslim Australians when they talked about the effect of terrorism on their relationship with broader society.

There are important differences between terrorism and foreign interference, as there are between Chinese and Muslim communities. But there are also lessons from Australia's management of terrorism that should be applied to how we approach foreign interference.

The Australian government has defined foreign interference as "covert, deceptive or threatening actions by foreign actors who intend to influence our democratic or government processes or harm Australia". Although the government has said it is concerned about a range of foreign actors, it is the activities of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) that are its main concern.

Foreign interference does not yet worry ordinary Australians in the way terrorism does. In this year's Lowy Institute poll, terrorism was cited as the No.1 "critical threat". Foreign interference ranked eighth – behind the US presidency of Donald Trump.

But while terrorism remains a threat to our security, the challenge of the CCP's foreign interference will grow. You don't have to view China as a malign, ideologically driven power bent on subverting Australian democracy to understand why.

As China's power increases, so too will its efforts to shape the policies of others. As an open society we cannot complain if China uses diplomacy to influence us. But we should act in instances where the CCP, or any foreign entity, tries to exert its influence covertly or coercively.

The government is certainly seized of this challenge. New legislation has been passed and a new position, the National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator, has been created in the Department of Home Affairs, similar to the longer-standing position of Commonwealth Counter-Terrorism Coordinator.

But alongside these measures the government will also need to protect the bonds in our society that allow people and communities to cooperate and trust each other despite cultural, ethnic, religious, or ideological differences.

This is often referred to as social cohesion and it is an obvious target for terrorist groups and foreign powers seeking covert influence. Both groups seek to subvert our values knowing it is the glue that holds us together. In the same way that al-Qaeda wants Muslims to doubt they will ever be accepted by non-Muslims, the CCP wants the Chinese diaspora to owe its first loyalty to Beijing.

But the things we do to protect ourselves from these threats can also do collateral damage to our social fabric. As communities come under increased scrutiny from government, security agencies, politicians and the media, they can feel victimised.

At the Lowy Institute event, the panellists said the discussion of foreign interference had made them feel less trusted by other Australians, or had even seen them accused of being spies and proxies for the CCP. In an opinion piece, one of the panelists, Jason Li, argued that the "socio-political environment confronting Chinese Australians today feels more menacing" than during the rise of Pauline Hanson in the 1990s.

Some social tensions are the unavoidable result of security agencies simply doing their jobs; or of a difficult, fumbling navigation by government, communities and the media of complex issues of identity and security. But they can also be caused by ignorant or opportunistic commentary by unscrupulous political or opinion leaders, keen to use a charged issue for their own ends.

Whatever the cause, we as a society – and not just government – need to manage these tensions. It is unjust for communities to be impugned because one of their number planned an act of terrorism, or in the case of foreign interference, paid for a parliamentarian's travel. But we should also manage these social tensions because our adversaries will exploit them if we don't.

A first step might be for government to take a systematic look at how our society has managed social cohesion in relation to terrorism, our successes as well as our mistakes, and apply those lessons to its evolving policy on foreign interference. It might even find a creative way to do this in conjunction with the Muslim and Chinese communities.

Some lessons are obvious, such as the importance of precise language. In the same way that it is vital to distinguish between the ideas of Islamist extremists and those of the Islamic mainstream, we must avoid using the the word "Chinese" in relation to foreign interference to ensure we are not conflating the CCP with Chinese Australians.

Another lesson is that what our leaders say matters. Government cannot control every opinion-spruiker pronounces. But clear and consistent statements from ministers and officials help reassure nervous communities and define the boundaries of acceptable debate.

No doubt some will dismiss efforts to promote social cohesion as a politically correct distraction. In fact, it is not an alternative to combating terrorism or foreign interference; it is integral to defeating both.