Australia to introduce safeguards against covert foreign interference

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, modeled – in part – on the United States’ Foreign Agents Registration Act

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