IT’s as plain as the nose on your face …

ONCE passing the Party’s vetting process …

support from a foreign power is likely to come in the form of large political donations in the early stages of a candidacy

Fundraising is a really important aspect of Australian politics … as we have already witnessed it is an easy way for a foreign intelligence agency to build up the status of someone and by funnelling donations through third parties … as much as $100,000!

Alleged Chinese plot highlights lack of checks to stop foreign spies being elected, expert warns



A man with his back to camera facing out of a large window.
PHOTO A Member of Parliament who was a spy would seek to blackmail other MPs, according to one expert.UNSPLASH: NATHAN DUMLAO

Planting a foreign spy in Australian Parliament is currently easier than it should be, according to a foreign influence expert, who says there are shockingly few security checks in place.

Key points

  • Nick Zhao was allegedly asked by Chinese intelligence to run as a Liberal candidate, before being found dead in a Melbourne motel room
  • Alex Joske says there is no security clearance process for entering Parliament
  • Former ASIO chief has warned foreign influence may only become apparent once it is too late

ASIO, Australia’s domestic intelligence agency, has announced it is investigating whether Chinese intelligence agencies tried to convince luxury car dealer Bo “Nick” Zhao to run as a Liberal Party candidate with the indebted businessman reportedly offered a seven-figure sum for his cooperation.

In March, after allegedly approaching ASIO, he was found dead in a Melbourne motel room.

A man claiming to be a defector from Chinese intelligence, Wang Liqiang, went public about the plot to put Mr Zhao in Parliament in an interview with 60 Minutes and Nine Newspapers on Sunday.

The Signal

How to plant a spy in Parliament

The Signal is the ABC’s daily news podcast that helps cut through the noise to cover the biggest stories.

A foreign country trying to place a spy into Australian Parliament would not face many obstacles, according to Alex Joske, an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI).

“Frankly, there aren’t many checks currently in place that could pick up this kind of activity easily,” he said.

He said political parties do run checks, “but I don’t think they’d have much luck if they’re looking at someone who’d been successfully recruited by a foreign intelligence agency”.

Planting a spy

While we don’t know why Mr Zhao might have been approached by Chinese spies, we do know how a foreign government could try to execute that type of political infiltration.

A selfie photograph of Bo "Nick" Zhao. He is wearing glasses, a dark suit jacket and white t-shirt.

Mr Joske told the ABC’s daily news podcast, The Signal, which countries he believed would be capable of that level of espionage.

“Russia for example, but I don’t think there’s any country that engages in such high levels in Australia apart from China,” he said.

He explained the first step for a foreign power is finding the right person.

“You’re looking for someone who could plausibly present themselves in political circles, someone who speaks the local language, has at least a couple of years in the country and is relatively intelligent,” he said.

“You’d be trying to work out where the real levers in politics are, what constituencies can be exploited, what easy and normalised ways are there to quickly build influence in the political world.”

Once a candidate has passed the party’s vetting process, it’s a matter of getting them elected.

*The support from a foreign power is likely to come in the form of large political donations in the early stages of a candidacy.

*”Fundraising is a really important aspect of Australian politics and that would be a relatively easy way for a foreign intelligence agency to build up the status of someone they were hoping to get into Parliament, by funnelling donations through third parties,” he said.

An easy target

*The recruitment and election process might be one of the more difficult steps because once you’re in Parliament it’s a much easier ride.

Chinese flags fly high outside the Australian Parliament House in Canberra

*“There’s no security clearance process for members of Parliament,” Mr Joske said.*

*”As far as I know, becoming a member of Parliament or a cabinet minister is the only way you can access classified material without having a security clearance.*

“I think [foreign powers] recognise it is a weakness.

*”Even now when accusations of this come out it benefits them in the sense it questions the legitimacy of some of our democratic institutions, the potential that someone could be in Parliament not as a representative of the Australian people but as a representative of a hostile foreign power.” *

Blackmail, votes and committees

*Once inside the walls of Parliament House, Mr Joske said the agent would start to build trust, gather information and may even seek to ultimately blackmail other MPs and staffers.

Internally within the party they’d be able to learn a lot more about factions and staffing and that would help a foreign intelligence agency to build up an even larger number of operatives within Parliament,” he said. *

*”There are so many rumours going around Parliament House for example and some of these could be quite valuable if they turn out to be true, in terms of being able to compromise someone through blackmail, for example, and get them to become an agent that way.”

House of Representatives

He said these agents wouldn’t just be gathering information to feed back to their government, it’s likely they would take a more proactive role.

*”One step would be to join some of the intelligence, security and foreign affairs-related committees,” Mr Joske said.

He said obvious targets would be to undermine foreign interference laws or the agencies trying to enforce them. But any foreign agent would also have loftier goals.

*”They would also have significant foreign policy objectives … for example, seeking to change Australia’s position on a territorial dispute that that country is engaged in, signing up to more trade deals that give the other country more leverage,” he said.

“In the West, we have a picture of spies as people who steal information whereas I think in Chinese history the spies they really look up to and praise are people who specialised in political influence.” *

Sleepwalking into foreign influence

Former ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis issued a stark warning on Chinese influence in the latest edition of the Quarterly Essay.

Duncan Lewis

Espionage and foreign interference is insidious. Its effects might not present for decades and by that time it’s too late,” he said.

“You wake up one day and find decisions made in our country that are not in the interests of our country.”

Mr Joske said that’s standard thinking for people who’ve got an eye on Chinese influence operations.

“Quite often they’re not necessarily seeking to just break down democracy, they’re also seeking to repurpose them and manipulate them,” he said.

“It’s not about exporting, for example, an authoritarian model of government, it’s being able to co-opt the players in a democratic system so that it’s superficially democratic, you still go out to vote, as people just did in Hong Kong, but your elected leaders don’t actually reflect your views.

“By the very nature of these activities, we will probably only ever know the tip of the iceberg.”

A man with his back to camera facing out of a large window.