Australia's highest court upholds foreign interference law

FILE - In this May 6, 2021, file photo, Andrew Cooper, founder and president of libertarian group LibertyWorks, arrives at Federal Court in Sydney. Australias highest court on Wednesday, June 16, 2021 rejected a challenge to foreign interference laws in a case that involved a U.S. conservative political organization and free speech arguments. (AP Photo/Rick Rycroft, File) (Rick Rycroft, Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

CANBERRA – Australia’s highest court on Wednesday rejected a challenge to foreign interference laws in a case that involved a U.S. conservative political organization and free speech arguments.

China has condemned the laws introduced in 2018 that are widely seen as a means of preventing covert Chinese interference in Australian politics, universities and other institutions.

People working on behalf of a foreign powers have to be publicly registered with the Attorney-General’s Department in the interests of transparency.

But LibertyWorks Inc., an Australian libertarian think tank, objected to having to register while working on communications for the American Conservative Union ahead of conferences held in Australia. LibertyWorks promotes the American group's annual political conferences.

LibertyWorks argued the so-called Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act was not valid because it burdened the implied right to free speech in Australia.

LibertyWorks said the registration process was ”onerous” and therefore deterred political communication.

But six of the seven High Court judges found the law was valid and any burden was justified.

“Even when the purpose of the foreign interference is not to damage or destabilize Australia, if left undisclosed it can impede the ability of decision-makers in Australia,” Justices Susan Kiefel, Patrick Keane and Jacqueline Gleeson wrote.

Attorney-General Michaelia Cash welcomed the ruling.

“Foreign influence activities, when conducted in an open and transparent manner, can contribute positively to public debate and are welcome in Australia,” her office said in a statement.

“The scheme is not there to prohibit people or entities from undertaking these activities. Rather, it acknowledges that it is in the public interest that these arrangements are transparent,” the statement added.

LibertyWorks president Andrew Cooper could not be immediately contacted for comment.

The case was the first challenge to Australia’s Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.

John Shi Sheng Zhang, a Chinese-born political adviser to a state government lawmaker, last month lost his High Court challenge to charges under the foreign interference laws. He remains under police investigation.

The leader of a Chinese community organization in November become the first person to be charged under Australia’s foreign interference laws.

Di Sanh Duong, 65, who lives in the Australian city of Melbourne, has a relationship with a foreign intelligence agency, police said.