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‘Such a difficult website’: Malcolm Turnbull’s tech troubles with foreign influence register he created

·4-min read
<span>Composite: Mick Tsikas/Joel Carrett/AAP</span>
Composite: Mick Tsikas/Joel Carrett/AAP

Even former prime ministers sometimes tangle with the bureaucracies they once led.

Malcolm Turnbull hit a tech roadblock that would be familiar to Australians who have struggled with government websites: the form had “saved” but not “lodged”.

In his case, though, the glitch happened as Turnbull tried to update the very foreign influence register that he created when he was PM.

A public servant offered to phone Turnbull to help him finish the process of registering some speeches, according to documents obtained by Guardian Australia under freedom of information (FoI) laws.

Alternatively, the attorney general’s department offered to email instructional screenshots “to step out the relevant processes to lodge your registrations”.

“Thanks that would be great, it is such a difficult website to use,” Turnbull emailed back on 21 July, adding: “Can I just leave it to you to complete the registration, I really don’t have time to struggle with such a frustrating form.”

When he tried to phone the officer minutes later, Turnbull couldn’t get through. Instead, he was transferred to a voicemail system. He wouldn’t be the first citizen to have struggled to get through to a person when contacting government services.

Our register of discontent

The exchange is part of a 41-page bundle of documents containing all of the department’s correspondence with former prime ministers about the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (Fits) over the past year.

A public servant offered to phone Turnbull to help him finish the process of registering some speeches

The FoI documents show both Turnbull and Kevin Rudd have questioned how broadly the department is interpreting their reporting obligations under Fits, which was launched by the Turnbull government more than three years ago in an attempt to stamp out undisclosed attempts to influence Australia’s democratic processes.

In a detailed back-and-forth with the department over his obligations, Rudd’s lawyer said the former Labor leader had “always been aggressively independent often to the irritation of various state media outlets”.

The Turnbull exchange began when the department contacted Turnbull on 19 July 2021 to ask him to consider registering a speech to the Jeju Forum for Peace and Prosperity – a South Korean government-linked event – that occurred two years ago.

Former cabinet ministers had a lifetime obligation to register any activities undertaken “on behalf of” a foreign principal, the letter noted. The obligation “is defined broadly in the Act”.

Turnbull replied to say he had registered “with some difficulty” and had disclosed the Jeju speech. He had also tried to list his address to Taiwan’s Yushan Forum by Zoom in 2020, but it was difficult to register more than one foreign principal. Turnbull added that he had “no involvement with either entity beyond the two speeches”.

“As you know I introduced this legislation into the parliament, and so can hardly complain about the drafting,” Turnbull wrote on 20 July.

“But I must note that recording speaking engagements of the kind referred to herein was not in the contemplation of the Government when the law was enacted!”

With parliament’s intelligence and security committee launching an inquiry into the operation of Fits, Turnbull told Nine newspapers it was time to ask whether it was “achieving the purpose of greater transparency”.

‘Ridiculous’ interpretation

The documents show the government dismissed Rudd’s request for exemptions for “public speeches, interviews, presentations or other public activities where the connection to a foreign principal is obvious”.

Related: Former PMs apologise to Pacific leaders for Australia’s apathy on climate crisis

Around the same time, Rudd’s lawyer provided an up-to-date description of his activities, including as president of the American not-for-profit thinktank the Asia Society Policy Institute and as a consultant.

Lawyer Patrick George told the department Rudd’s policy positions were “always independent and never reflect the bidding of any particular government”. Rudd expressed his own views when interviewed by the BBC in the UK, the PBS in the US, and Chinese state-owned outlets.

Department secretary Chris Moraitis advised that “if Mr Rudd is likely to give multiple interviews to a foreign state-owned broadcaster, he may simply register that, noting that he often gives interviews to that broadcaster on a variety of public policy topics, and log each interview under that entry”.

In January, Rudd added details of his interviews to the register, accompanied by statements declaring his independence and blasting the department’s “ridiculous” and “sweeping interpretation” of the obligations.

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