Bran­dis re­veals plans to curb 'un­prece­dented' for­eign in­flu­ence on pol­i­tics

The Guardian Australia - - Headlines - Gareth Hutchens

The gov­ern­ment has an­nounced de­tails of its long-fore­shad­owed crack­down on for­eign po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions, along with plans to update Aus­tralia’s crim­i­nal code to counter for­eign es­pi­onage and covert in­ter­fer­ence.

The at­tor­ney gen­eral, Ge­orge Bran­dis, said the gov­ern­ment wanted to in­tro­duce a “for­eign in­flu­ence trans­parency scheme” to force in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions to de­clare if they are act­ing on be­half of a for­eign power to in­flu­ence Aus­tralia’s pol­i­tics.

“The threat of covert for­eign in­ter­fer­ence is a prob­lem of the high­est or­der and it is get­ting worse,” Bran­dis said on Tues­day. “The di­rec­tor gen­eral of Asio, the agency pri­mar­ily re­spon­si­ble for in­ves­ti­gat­ing es­pi­onage and for­eign in­ter­fer­ence, has ad­vised that for­eign in­tel­li­gence ac­tiv­ity against Aus­tralia con­tin­ues to oc­cur on an un­prece­dented scale.”

The Asio chief, Dun­can Lewis, said in June fol­low­ing the air­ing of a Four Cor­ners in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Chi­nese do­na­tions that he had be­come so wor­ried about the in­flu­ence of for­eign do­na­tions that he or­gan­ised meet­ings with the Coali­tion and La­bor to warn them they could be com­pro­mised.

Bran­dis said a re­view of Aus­tralia’s es­pi­onage and for­eign in­ter­fer­ence laws was now com­plete.

“Be­fore the end of this year ... the gov­ern­ment will in­tro­duce leg­is­la­tion aris­ing from my re­view, in­clud­ing leg­is­la­tion which com­pre­hen­sively re­vises our es­pi­onage, sab­o­tage, trea­son and se­crecy of­fences, and in­tro­duces a new cat­e­gory of of­fences crim­i­nal­is­ing cer­tain acts of covert for­eign in­ter­fer­ence,” he said.

The gov­ern­ment’s mea­sures will in­clude:

Leg­is­la­tion to ban for­eign po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions

Leg­is­la­tion to en­hance and re­form the es­pi­onage and for­eign in­ter­fer­ence-re­lated of­fences in the Crim­i­nal Code

In­tro­duc­ing a for­eign in­flu­ence trans­parency scheme, mod­elled – in part – on the United States’ For­eign Agents Reg­is­tra­tion Act

“Es­pi­onage and covert for­eign in­ter­fer­ence can cause im­mense harm to our na­tional sovereignty, to the safety of our peo­ple, to our eco­nomic pros­per­ity, and to the very in­tegrity of Aus­tralian democ­racy,” Bran­dis said.

“And we are in­creas­ingly see­ing pub­lic re­ports of the in­sid­i­ous ef­fect of covert for­eign in­flu­ence be­ing di­rected against other lib­eral democ­ra­cies as well, whether it be through in­ter­fer­ence in demo­cratic elec­tions over­seas, or the sti­fling of free and open de­bate within our own com­mu­nity.

“This gov­ern­ment is com­mit­ted to en­sur­ing that our po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is free from for­eign in­ter­fer­ence and covert in­flu­ence.

“We be­lieve that only Aus­tralian in­di­vid­u­als and or­gan­i­sa­tions should be able to par­tic­i­pate in Aus­tralian elec­tions.”

The process of ex­am­in­ing the po­lit­i­cal do­na­tions and dis­clo­sure regime was kicked off by the gov­ern­ment in Septem­ber 2016 when it sent a ref­er­ence to the joint stand­ing com­mit­tee ask­ing it to can­vass op­tions for re­form of for­eign do­na­tions fol­low­ing the con­tro­versy that erupted over La­bor senator Sam Dast­yari’s re­quest to a Chi­nese busi­ness­man to cover a travel over­spend.

The Coali­tion wants any ban on over­seas fund­ing to ap­ply to ad­vo­cacy groups as well as po­lit­i­cal par­ties. But those groups have ar­gued a ban would ad­versely af­fect their pub­lic in­ter­est ad­vo­cacy.

The par­lia­men­tary joint com­mit­tee pro­duced a re­port ear­lier this year which re­flected an in-prin­ci­ple agree­ment be­tween the major par­ties to ban for­eign do­na­tions. But the com­mit­tee was di­vided on the treat­ment of third-party ac­tivist groups.

Pho­to­graph: Torsten Black­wood/AFP/Getty Im­ages

Ge­orge Bran­dis said he was in­creas­ingly see­ing pub­lic re­ports of the in­sid­i­ous ef­fect of covert for­eign in­flu­ence in other lib­eral democ­ra­cies.

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