Kevin Rudd to shed media disclosure obligations as ambassador to US

<span>Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP</span>
Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP

For years, the former prime minister Kevin Rudd has disclosed details of state-linked media interviews – including with the BBC and Radio NZ – and other public speaking commitments on the Australian government’s foreign influence register.

His prolific postings are based on what the former Labor leader once labelled an “absurd interpretation” of his obligations by government officials.

But Guardian Australia can reveal Rudd’s listings are about to go into a form of hibernation as a result of his looming appointment as Australian ambassador to the US.

Rudd has so far disclosed 84 activities linked to 70 foreign principals, all of which will soon be marked as “ceased”.

As a former cabinet minister, Rudd would ordinarily be subject to lifetime disclosure obligations under the foreign influence transparency scheme.

But the Turnbull government-era laws included exemptions for current MPs and also for anyone who “holds any office or appointment under a law of the Commonwealth, or under a law of a State or Territory”.

The attorney general’s department confirmed commonwealth public officials, including ambassadors, were “generally not required to register activities that they undertake while they hold that appointment or position”.

A spokesperson for the department said the scheme “contains additional registration obligations that ordinarily apply to former cabinet ministers”.

“However, these obligations do not apply to former cabinet ministers who are serving in a ‘designated position’, including as an ambassador,” the spokesperson said in response to questions about Rudd’s situation once he becomes ambassador.

Related: Kevin Rudd to register under foreign influence scheme but labels government guidance ‘absurd’

“This ensures that former cabinet ministers who serve in senior roles in their post-parliamentary careers are subject to the same obligations as other senior officials.”

The departmental spokesperson said previously registered activities would not be removed from register but would “instead be marked as having ceased” to ensure “continued transparency”.

“The attorney general’s department is engaging with Dr Rudd’s office in relation to his forthcoming appointment.”

A spokesperson for Rudd’s office said: “Dr Rudd has always supported this legislation and will continue to take official advice regarding his obligations.”

Rudd has maintained an active public profile as head of the Asia Society over the past few years and has placed numerous activities on the register out of an abundance of caution.

In December 2020, Rudd wrote to the then-head of the attorney general’s department saying he supports the foreign influence registration scheme but to raise concerns about “your sweeping interpretation of what constitutes an arrangement with a foreign principal”.

At the time he wrote: “It is ridiculous to imagine that merely being interviewed by the BBC makes one an agent of UK government influence, not least if they use this platform to frankly criticise the UK government, as I often do.”

In early 2021, Rudd registered unpaid interviews with numerous broadcasters including the BBC, Radio NZ and a Chinese state-owned media group accompanied by a statement chastising the department for its “strange view” of the extent of his registration requirements.

Related: Kevin Rudd complaint questions why News Corp did not need to register under foreign influence scheme

“I am not an agent of foreign influence and any such suggestion is forcefully rejected,” he said in the “description” section of the register.

Rudd is expected to take up his diplomatic posting in Washington DC in February or March.

Rudd is not the only former prime minister to register under a scheme that was first launched by the Turnbull government in an attempt to stamp out undisclosed attempts to influence Australia’s democratic processes.

Malcolm Turnbull has disclosed speeches to Taiwan’s Yushan Forum and South Korea’s Jeju Forum, based on advice from officials.

Turnbull has since also questioned the sweeping interpretation, telling the department that “recording speaking engagements of the kind referred to herein was not in the contemplation of the government when the law was enacted”.

Tony Abbott disclosed his speaking commitment at the Yushan Forum in late 2021, and his ongoing role with the UK Board of Trade – and reconfirmed the latter position in an email obtained under freedom of information laws.

“Dear Transparency,” Abbott wrote in an email to the department’s generic mailbox on 13 April 2022.

“Please accept my assurance that I continue as an honorary adviser to the UK Board of Trade.”