Legitimate lobbying or foreign agents? :: Dr. Larry Stillman

Activity in the Chinese and Jewish communities (or to be more exact, by certain well-resourced lobby groups) appears to be reaching a tipping point with respect to political influence in this country

Liberal candidate Kate Ashmor: ““I have a mezuzah on the front door of my campaign office, he doesn’t,”


Chinese food has a peculiar attraction to Jews, and has probably been so for a century or more now, ever since Jews and Chinese started to eat on the Lower East Side in NY. It’s not kosher, but it’s exotic, therefore it’s OK.

There now appears to be a new mutual political interest: influencing Western governments to prioritize their political preferences. This is to the degree that their, and their local agents’ interests, have come into conflict with local priorities, even security interests.  Australia, in a globalised world, is as much part of this as anywhere else with this phenomenon.

Both groups have an extraordinary sensitivity to those who hold critical views of their behaviour, whether in matters of human rights, territorial claims, or perceived and actual racism.

 For China, it is the sensitivity over the impact of Western imperialism, racism, or Japanese occupation of the country. There is a feeling that nobody understands “us”. It should be a respected world power, its circumstances exceptional. Overseas Chinese are expected to show loyalty to motherland, with dissenters treated badly, even kidnapped, jailed or killed on return to the mainland.

As for Jews, there has been an appalling history of hatred and destruction around the globe.  The foundation of Israel is regarded as divinely ordained, and as with the Chinese, Israel’s cultural and business genius is seen to offer much to the world.   Its physical circumstances in the Middle East are seen, through most Zionist eyes, as fraught with danger and only the toughest of stances, including a permanent occupation that belies its claims to being democratic, can offer protection.  Jewish dissenters are treated harshly, and of course, Palestinians suffer the most. 

But activity in the Chinese and Jewish communities (or to be more exact, by certain well-resourced lobby groups) appears to be reaching a tipping point with respect to political influence in this country. 

We have seen this with a host of politicians on both sides of politics quite open to accepting donations by important and “patriotic” members of the Chinese diaspora community while downplaying human rights abuses in that country. Similarly, politicians engage in robust defences of Israel, explaining away or ignoring the situation in the West Bank and Gaza in return for political favours.

The pro-Israel lobby (which also includes some evangelical Christians) is totally over-reaching itself by now attacking mainstream dissenters in Labor, not just the Greens who are seen as beyond the pale. The Lobby has also made life difficult in recent times for Liberals who support Palestinian rights.

The tipping point now is how much the Lobby is starting to directly interfere in the Australian electoral process itself, not just lobbying in Canberra or at party conventions.   In Macnamara, the Jewish Liberal candidate Kate Ashmor  attempted to discredit the Jewish credentials of the Labor candidate by bizarrely  claiming her stronger adherence to Judaism (and thus Zionism because she has a mezuzah on her office door.  Apparently Josh Burns also has a mezuzah as well, but she sought to stoop low.

We have a supporter of both the two-state solution and Palestinian rights in Western Australia, Melissa Parke, having to withdraw her Labor candidature for Curtin, because of false and misleading allegations most recently made against her concerning the abuse of a Palestine woman by a solider.  Her allegation was in fact correct, as can be seen in coverage in the Age in 2003.  Furthermore, there has been twisting of public statements she has made about BDS and Palestinian rights.  This attack was clearly engineered by the Lobby and News Limited which featured lurid front-page stories.

However, even the Israeli Ambassador dipped his toe in the waters but has now apologised for interfering in domestic politics. Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Mark Sofer, said he would work with both major parties after initially attacking the West Australian Labor duo, but Jewish leaders continued to target them.

And now, a beat-up is occurring with respect to the pro-Palestine Labor member Josh Wilson, member for Fremantle as well as Senator Sue Lines for speaking of “apartheid”. The assault continues with attacks on the political commentator Tony Walker for his criticism of how the pro-Israel lobby works in  a recent piece published in Fairfax media. And of course, attacks on critical journalists are nothing new, as well as attacks on people like Bob Carr (who while a “turncoat” on matters Zionist, is pro-China!). In fact all these people use language or take positions that are familiar in Israeli left circles, but it is deemed by those who know better as unacceptable in this country.

The argument that the Lobby is engaging in what is legitimate and their right in a democracy is spurious: like the Chinese, or the mining lobby, they operate in a situation where there is a total imbalance of power and resources and politicians are dependent on their cash and influence. Very few of us manage to get easy access to politicians like these groups, yet they expect us to believe that their ‘right’ is natural.  Of course, it is not. It is a result of privilege and influence peddling that excludes other voices and perspectives.   Opposing their political machinations is not falling into antisemitism as is claimed. It is a political issue, just like that of the Chinese.

What can be done, at least at a political level?  At the minimum, all political donations from individuals or groups and companies to politicians, their parties or associated organisations must be made available for public scrutiny in a real time register. 

Second, a full transparency regime for foreign policy interests can help to stop this rot.  Neither China nor Israel or any other foreign policy interest should be used to determine a candidate’s suitability for election. And, we see the same sort of card is played in state politics in NSW and Victoria, and even local government. Lobby groups such as various well-resourced pro-Israel or Chinese groups (which include the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), Australia Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) or the Zionist Federation of Australia (ZFA) should be required to register as political agents of foreign entities.  Such legislation exits, but currently, under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) most lobby groups are still exempt because strictly speaking they are not foreign agents.  This needs to change.  The FITS includes activities which I believe should cover the activity of many groups which while not working directly on behalf of a foreign principal (the technical term), are pretty much doing so though very close coordination:

  • parliamentary lobbying on behalf of a foreign government
  • parliamentary lobbying on behalf of other kinds of foreign principals for the purpose of political or governmental influence
  • general political lobbying for the purpose of political or governmental influence
  •  communications activities for the purpose of political or government influence
  • disbursement activities for the purpose of political or governmental influence

 This should help the public (and I hope politicians) to be able to judge who lobbyists are speaking for balanced against the broader national interest.   It might also curb blatant interference in domestic politics.   Of course, not all the work that organisations like the ECAJ (and its state versions) is foreign policy focussed, but still, there needs to be transparency in this matter.

If nothing changes, the situation in Australia will become as corrupted as it has become as in the US with its powerful interest groups such as the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee which manipulates Congress.  Progressive Jewish viewpoints will become even more marginalized, not to mention of the right of Palestinians to make their case.  And, as suggested above, the same kinds of observations are equally applicable to local Chinese political organisations or any other group for that matter.


Dr Larry Stillman has been on the executive of AJDS and a member for many years.   He works at Monash University.