Australia is to review its espionage laws, the government’s chief legal officer said yesterday, as the country seeks to strengthen spy agencies strained by juggling counterterror work and worries about China’s rising influence.
For years Australia has been handing extra cash and extra powers to its police and spy agencies to bolster their counterterrorism abilities.
Then in December last year, responding to “disturbing reports about Chinese influence,” the government turned its attention to interference in politics and announced a crackdown on political donations and the outlawing of foreign interference.
“We live in an unprecedented age of foreign interference, influence, espionage and domestic terrorism,” Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter told radio station 5AA in Adelaide.
“We think it’s very appropriate to step back and look at the whole system from top to tail,” Porter said, adding that the government was not aiming its intelligence laws at “any one international country.”
However, the review, which is to run 18 months and is the deepest in four decades, is to be headed by former Australian spymaster Dennis Richardson, who last year warned that China in particular was conducting extensive espionage against Australia.
“With China we’re in a situation which we were never in previously, where we now have levels of concern — because they have levels of capacity and ambition — that weren’t the case,” said Greg Barton, a professor and security expert at Deakin University in Melbourne.
Outdated laws that have not kept pace with the advent of the Internet and cybersecurity challenges, as well as arcane information sharing rules between the nation’s intelligence agencies, are likely to be candidates for reform, Barton added.
A staunch US ally, Australia’s intelligence agencies have expanded while the nation has been on heightened alert from 2014 for attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East.
That has helped to foil about a dozen plots since, authorities said.
At the same time, intelligence officers have found themselves increasingly focused on thwarting Chinese influence as public concern has deepened, while ties between the trading partners have soured.
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Director-General Duncan Lewis, the nation’s spy chief, has said that universities need to be “very conscious” of foreign interference — an apparent reference to China’s perceived involvement on campuses.
This month, the rift between the two countries, opened in the wake of Australia’s foreign influence crackdown, widened.
Chinese Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi (王毅) on Monday last week rebuked Australia for applying “colored glasses” to the relationship, as Australia’s largest winemaker — Treasury Wine Estates Ltd — suddenly encountered problems clearing its products through Chinese customs.
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