7 June 2022
By Elise Thomas
During the Australian federal election campaign, leading politicians’ decision to invoke the spectre of foreign interference introduced a dangerous new electioneering tactic. The potential for covert foreign interference efforts in Australia is real and must be taken seriously. But it is a risk which we must be able to assess and respond to in a clear-eyed, evidence driven and non-partisan manner. Australia’s ability to counter foreign influence will be hurt rather than helped by unfounded accusations that sow division around issues of national security.
During the federal election period, the Australian public witnessed a slew of extraordinary and thinly evidenced claims from its political leaders about supposed foreign influence efforts favouring opposition parties, in particular those from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In February 2022, comments of such vein by former Prime Minister Scott Morrison led to an unusual public intervention from ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) head Mike Burgess, who described the politicisation of national security matters as “not helpful”.
The aftermath of the 2016 US presidential election, during which Russia waged a covert influence campaign on social media, provides a good guide as to the real risks of misunderstanding the effects of real and perceived interference.
Studies attempting to measure the direct impact of Russia’s campaign have concluded that the operation itself likely had minimal impact and a negligible effect on the election outcome. However, this is not to say Russia’s operation in 2016 had no tangible effect: it did. It generated a domestic political storm around the spectre of foreign interference.
For four years, the US tore itself apart over the Mueller inquiry and so-called ‘Russia-gate’, compounding deep partisan divisions into American society. What should have been a bipartisan national security matter instead became a deep societal fracture. It became a distraction for US political leaders, and a serious hindrance for the US national security community in carrying out their work. This may not have been Moscow’s original plan, but they were presumably delighted with how it panned out.
The legacy of this partisan politicisation around foreign interference did not end with the Trump administration. The 2020 US election was riven with rumours and conspiracy theories about Biden and his son’s alleged connections to Ukraine and to China. These have continued well into Biden’s presidency, and accusations of foreign interference have become a profoundly partisan matter.
Arguably, this has left the US in a very weak position to defend itself from any real future attempts at foreign interference, because at least half of the population is likely to view any such claims as a partisan attack, regardless of the evidence presented.
Faced with China’s rise in the Pacific, Australia cannot afford for its political leaders to undermine national cohesion or erode public trust in the government and national security community for their own partisan gain. As the incoming Labor government settles into office, it is important that all sides of politics refrain from turning the risk of foreign interference into a source for partisan division.
The partisan politicisation of foreign interference harms Australian interests in other ways too. Polling has found that most Australians see the relationship with China as a complex issue in need of careful management, rather than purely as a strategic threat to be confronted. As Australia enters turbulent economic waters, a nuanced approach to our relationship with our largest trading partner will only become more important. If the government fears partisan attacks about being “soft on China”, it may constrain their policy choices in a way which is ultimately not in the best interests of the country.
Unevidenced, non-specific accusations of malicious Chinese influence campaigns also run the risk of alienating Chinese Australians and fuelling existing problems of racism and discrimination against Chinese and other Asian Australians. This will further undermine social cohesion and trust.
There is no doubt that the Chinese government is seeking to expand its influence in our region. The recent security deal in the Solomon Islands and China’s evident, if temporarily shelved, ambitions for a multilateral Pacific cooperation agreement have pushed the issue of countering Chinese influence to the top of the new government’s agenda.
The potential for covert foreign interference efforts in Australia is real and must be taken seriously. The public should expect and demand that our political leaders put the interests of the nation ahead of the interests of their political parties, and refrain from turning the issue of foreign interference into a source of division from which, in the long run, Australia’s adversaries will benefit.
Elise Thomas is an OSINT Analyst at ISD. She has previously worked for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and has written for Foreign Policy, The Daily Beast, Wired and others.