Foreign influence scheme under close watch

Katina Curtis, AAP Senior Political Writer
German ambassador Dr Thomas Fitschen says Australia has a neutral approach to foreign influence

Germany is keeping a close eye on Australia's foreign influence transparency register to see if it's something they could use in an adapted form.

Ambassador Dr Thomas Fitschen, who arrived in the Canberra posting in August, says Australia's approach to the vital issue all democracies are grappling with is an interesting one.

The nearly year-old laws to limit and track foreign influence on politicians have added to the frosty relationship with China, which believes it is the sole target.

But Dr Fitschen said from his perspective, Australia had taken a country-agnostic or neutral approach, applying the same criteria to all.

He saw that as a good thing, avoiding "heated debates right up front".

"The Australian authorities very much think about this as an issue of political and democratic resilience of the entire Australian society," he told AAP.

"It's not a matter of policing things, it's not a matter of espionage or of intelligence, but rather to strengthen Australian and, in that sense, also our society ... to make people aware of how influence is being exerted or an effort to influence our societies, our thinking, or the working of our democratic institutions from the outside.

"This is a very interesting approach that you are taking and we follow that very closely."

"How to make sure that our people understand that they are democratically minded, that they are open and freedom-minded and that they are able to differentiate between wrong news and facts on the one hand and how to deal with these issues of perceived or actual influence into internal debate."

The transparency register was established in December 2018.

People and organisations who lobby Australian politicians or communicate information to the public on behalf of a foreign government, state-owned enterprise or political party with the aim of influencing policy must register.

So far it has 196 entries, mostly from resources companies and political lobbyists.

Dr Fitschen said the register appeared to be a very complicated system and Germany was about to analyse it to see if it could be adapted.

"I think all of us are still in the new learning phase, trying to compare good practice, best practice, not-so-good practice," he said.