Positive measures for strengthening Australia’s China debate
27 Nov 2019|

Given the global rise of authoritarian powers with very active repressive security and intelligence regimes that, as the European Commission noted in March this year, pose a systemic challenge to the liberal democratic model, it’s more important than ever that nations invest in the functioning of their own polities and public institutions. For Australia, that means investing in our open democratic system.

The steps taken on foreign interference laws and foreign political donations are protective measures; however, it’s increasingly obvious that the best protection of our democratic institutions and public environment will come from positive investments in their health and operation.

So, Australia needs to model the values and principles we see as important—and open debate and accountability before parliament, the law and the public are key here, as is a strong, independent media sector with capable and enquiring journalists.

Open government that prioritises transparency and disclosure is an element here, as is education on the principles and operation of our democratic society and institutions.

Done well, national security enables democracy. It protects our people and our democratic institutions from coercion and allows us to operate a free and open society governed by parliament and law in an environment of healthy, open debate.

However, at a time of decreasing public trust in most institutions, public and private, there’s the risk of a gap opening between the Australian public and government ministers and agencies on national security. To address this, it’s becoming increasingly important for Australia’s national security agencies to take a more open approach to public disclosure. This is about information leaving through the front door, not being leaked out the back door.

Growing public understanding of and trust in the measures needed to ensure national security can be achieved through a number of simple steps. Reinvigorating the implementation of freedom of information processes to ensure that the default setting is ‘release’, unless there are strong security grounds for not doing so, requires only a clear policy statement from ministers. More statements on policy and the operations of national security agencies by ministers will revitalise parliamentarians’ understanding of national security and result in wider media reporting and analysis. And a more public presence by senior officials who are able to explain policy and implementation activities will raise the level of available public information.

This involves recognising that the benefits of transparency are high. While risks need to be understood, so do the benefits of strong public understanding of and trust in government institutions and their operation.

There’s one other obvious practical area where this strengthening of the quality of our civil society and its debates is directly related to the future of Sino-Australian relations. This is the opportunity the government has to use the new National Foundation for Australia–China Relations to go beyond simply setting up an organisation that cheerleads the relationship and adds little to how our two nations and our peoples relate.

Instead, it should do what our current government-to-government, business and university connections don’t. This principle would also mean that it should avoid having its main engagement with groups that are already strongly connected to the official institutions of either government (friendship associations with connections to Chinese embassies and consulates being good examples) because those voices are already prominent and don’t need amplification.

The foundation’s focus should be on broadening the voices in our public debates and discussions on China, the Chinese state and the relationship between our peoples and our governments. A primary objective would be to improve our domestic understanding and debate on the multiethnic and diverse Chinese peoples, giving voices other than those enabled by our respective embassies and consulates a place to speak and have their views affect policymaking and decision-making (including Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers, Cantonese and other language speakers, as well as other ethnic groupings within China and our Australian Chinese population). No one ‘Chinese Australian’ can speak for this diverse community within Australia or build the understanding of the broad population within China that the Australian government and public need to navigate this relationship into the future. The foundation also needs to bring a national security perspective to the relationship if it’s to be credible.

Getting our own house in order is an essential protective measure to ensure that Chinese state and corporate engagement does not split our system of government in a way that undercuts our national interests.

This post is an edited excerpt from Michael Shoebridge’s latest ASPI Strategic Insights paper, Indo-Pacific immune systems to enable healthy engagement with the Chinese state and China’s economy, released today.