Sat, Jun 09, 2018 - Page 6 News List

Australia’s Porter urges interference laws enactment

AP, CANBERRA

Australia’s attorney general yesterday urged parliament to pass anti-foreign interference laws this month ahead of five by-elections scheduled for late next month.

Australia has blamed the legislation that would ban covert foreign interference in politics and expand espionage offenses for diplomatic strains in ties with China.

Australian media last week reported that two bills were the result of a classified government report commissioned by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 that found that the Chinese Communist Party had tried to influence Australian policy, compromise political parties and gain access to all levels of government for a decade.

The government would not comment on those media reports.

Australian Attorney General Christian Porter, citing Australian Secret Intelligence Service evidence, said that the threat of foreign interference in Australian politics and commerce was constantly evolving and becoming more acute.

The legislation would for the first time outlaw a foreign government intentionally or recklessly interfering with a democratic or government process, including an election, he said.

“It just makes common sense to have that passed into law as soon as possible and before the next large democratic events in this nation,” Porter told reporters.

Australia is to hold five by-elections on July 28 and likely general elections early next year.

A parliamentary committee that has since December last year scrutinized the two bills recommended late on Thursday that one of the bills be passed with 60 amendments.

Porter expected that to happen when parliament next sits from June 18 to June 28.

The government had redrafted the second bill to reduce the number of people and organizations that would have to register as having obligations to a “foreign principal” — a foreign government, public enterprise, political organization, business or individual.

The register aims to create more transparency in political lobbying.

The scope would be narrowed to answer concerns of charities, universities and churches that feared they might have to register due to foreign funding, Porter said.

However, the proposed changes to the bills have not swayed all critics.

Amnesty International spokeswoman Claire O’Rourke said all charities should be completely exempted from the bills so that they could perform advocacy work without fear of prosecution.

“The bill as it stands will create great problems for organizations that are advocating for human rights and other issues within Australia or internationally,” O’Rourke said.

Morry Bailes, president of the Australians Law Council, a lawyers’ advocacy group, said he feared the laws would affect freedom of speech.

“The grand theme to these bills is that it’s going to include a definition of national security that picks up economic and political issues. These are matters that would ordinarily be the source of discussion of political and democratic discussion across Australia,” Bailes told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“What we are concerned about is that by criminalizing some conduct, we are going to discourage people having legitimate political and democratic discussions,” he added.

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