One Nation
One Nation staffer James Ashby, caught on camera.

Pauline Hanson’s One Nation staff have been caught on camera asking the National Rifle Association for $20 million to help water-down Australia’s gun laws, as revealed by an extraordinary Al Jazeera investigation. In doing so, did they break the law?

The NRA has had a stranglehold on Washington for decades and is a key force in keeping American gun laws weak. Pauline Hanson’s chief of staff James Ashby and One Nation’s Queensland leader Steve Dickson are both filmed meeting figures from the NRA, discussing the threat of Islamic extremism in Australia, and the need for NRA money to help emerge as a pro-gun force. “I mean, you’d have the whole government by the balls,” Dickson said of the need for donations.

Al Jazeera’s investigation hinged on undercover reporter Rodger Muller posing as a gun lobbyist, and brokering meetings between One Nation and the NRA which he then filmed. This morning One Nation lashed out at Al Jazeera, labelling the channel a “propaganda arm of the Qatari government that supports Islamic extremist groups”.

One Nation has referred Al Jazeera to the Australian Federal Police, alleging that they were interfering in Australian elections. Despite One Nation’s bluster, Al Jazeera aren’t the only ones facing legal questions.

Did they break foreign interference laws?

In 2018 Australia passed a bunch of sweeping laws intended to curtail foreign interference, amid growing concerns about Beijing’s influence in domestic politics. But at first glance, nothing in Al Jazeera’s investigation seems like a breach of the new laws.

The laws created a scheme whereby certain people working for foreign governments have to register. It’s unclear whether a media organisation like Al Jazeera would be deemed a foreign government-related entity for the purposes of the law — although the channel is owned by the Qatari monarchy, which it is notoriously reluctant to criticise. But more importantly, Al Jazeera’s reporting does not seem to fall within the kind of political lobbying that the act deems to be “registerable activities”.

The new laws also significantly expand espionage offences, to the extent that even journalists could find some of their work criminalised. Notably, these laws are generally triggered by dealing with information which is classified or which relates to Australia’s national security. One Nation’s assertion that Al Jazeera interfered in an election might make for strong rhetoric, but nothing the reporters did appears to have breached any of the new laws.

Can parties seek foreign political donations?

The foreign interference legislation was accompanied by new laws which banned foreign political donations of more than $100. Under that legislation, a foreign entity includes one that is not based in Australia, meaning any money from the NRA would be deemed a foreign donation. One Nation’s discussions with the NRA happened just months before Australia banned foreign donations.

Ironically, Hanson herself spoke out against foreign donations just two months after meeting the NRA. “Overseas money should not have an influence on our political scene, so I believe that foreign donations should be totally stopped,” Hanson said.

The laws, passed late last year, would have stop Ashby getting his $20 million donation.

Earlier today, Attorney-General Christian Porter wouldn’t comment on whether One Nation breached Australian laws by trying to solicit money from the NRA. “I don’t want to comment about what provisions or laws or regulations may or may not have been broken,” Mr Porter told Today. “I need a lot more information than that.”

Last year’s laws made changes to the Commonwealth Electoral Act surrounding donations. Initial drafts of the amendment flagged a new section, which prohibited soliciting gifts from non-allowable donors (say, a foreign entity like the NRA) in certain circumstances.

A person who breached this section by soliciting a gift from a foreign entity could have faced five years imprisonment, irrespective of whether the gift was actually made. However, this section didn’t make it into the final version of the legislation, and the Electoral Act currently has no clear prohibition on seeking such a donation. Still, the AFP is now on alert and Porter has promised that this question will be “thoroughly considered and investigated”. The embarrassment for One Nation might not be over yet. 

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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