Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced new legislation on Tuesday designed to implement the most extensive overhaul his nation’s intelligence and espionage services have seen in decades. The move is driven by what Australia’s ABC News describes as “growing concerns within the intelligence community about the influence of Chinese Government agents and political donations.”
“Foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad,” Turnbull declared.
The prime minister said his efforts were not focused on a single malignant foreign power, but he prominently mentioned China and spoke harshly of embattled Senator Sam Dastyari, who resigned from his leadership positions this week over a scandal involving Chinese influence buying.
“Senator Dastyari sold Australia out,” Turnbull charged. “China respects strength, they respect honesty, they expect the Australian Government to stand up for Australia’s interests, to be frank and honest and when we differ to do so honestly, not to sell out Australia for a few thousand dollars.”
The chief of Australia’s primary intelligence agency, the ASIO, warned in October that foreign powers are “clandestinely seeking to shape” public opinion by manipulating the media and institutions of higher education, a warning widely interpreted as referring to Chinese Communist cells.
The Chinese embassy responded by insisting China does not interfere in the domestic affairs of other countries.
“We urge the relevant people in Australia to discard prejudice and speak and act more in a way that will be conducive to boosting China-Australia relationship and deepening cooperation between them. A sound and steady China-Australia relationship serves the common interests of both sides,” an embassy spokesman told SBS News.
One of the reforms in the Australian legislative package will require people working to influence Australians on behalf of foreign governments to declare themselves as foreign agents. Another reform bans foreign donations to political campaigns, something that was permitted in Australia until now. By American standards, Australian law has been remarkably relaxed about politicians accepting jobs and donations from foreign interests.
“Being registered should not be seen as any kind of taint and certainly not as a crime,” Turnbull stressed, perhaps conscious of Russia taking umbrage at U.S. registration of its state-run media outlets and classifying a number of American organizations as “foreign agents” in retaliation.
ABC reports the new legislation will broaden the definition of espionage and make “unlawful interference in Australia’s political system” a crime.
“If you act covertly on behalf of a foreign actor, in a way that harms Australia’s national security, to influence the political process, or a Government decision, that conduct will be criminalized,” Australian Attorney General George Brandis explained.
Interestingly, the Australian legislation pointedly still allows foreign charities to participate in political activities, provided they register properly and raise the funds for their political campaigns exclusively from Australians.