Brandis reveals plans to curb 'unprecedented' foreign influence on politics
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.
George Brandis said he was increasingly seeing public reports of the insidious effect of covert foreign influence in other liberal democracies.