Subjects: Foreign Interference Laws
SABRA LANE: Joining us now to discuss the foreign interference laws is the Federal Attorney-General, Christian Porter. Welcome back to AM.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you, Sabra.
SABRA LANE: You've got a bipartisan deal on this now and you're also offering big changes on companion legislation regarding a new foreign register of agents and you want the laws passed in time for the five by-elections next month. Why the haste?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, it's not about- these laws are not about any specific country and they're not about any specific democratic event or process. They're about protecting Australia's democratic processes and events - and all of them from any threats that might be exist or emerge.
So, I would say though that these laws are overdue. They are very important and they are long overdue and what we've seen - and I give great thanks and congratulations to the committee and particularly the Labor members of the committee, Anthony Byrne and Mark Dreyfus in working with me and my office and with the Liberal Members of the committee to ensure a bipartisan approach in the first of these Bills. But they are meant to work in tandem, and we would very much like to see them pass in tandem.
SABRA LANE: What's the nature of the threat that you're alluding to - is it meddling with the mechanics of the vote or influencing voters or the use of influence in the people who are actually nominated as candidates?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well I don't think I can put it any better in terms of describing the threat environment than Duncan Lewis, the Director-General of ASIO, has put it and he has said that – I'll just use his words; ‘This is not a theoretical proposition – the reality is that acts of espionage and foreign interference are occurring against Australian interests both in Australia and overseas, foreign actors from a range of countries are seeking to access privileged and/or classified information on our alliances, our partnerships, our position on international, diplomatic, economic and military issues, on our energy, on our mineral resources, on our innovations in science and technology.’
So the threat I would say and argue, based on advice that we get in public statements like that from Duncan Lewis, has evolved, it is manifest. Duncan Lewis has described it as a threat which is worse than it was during the time of the Cold War.
These laws are designed to operate in tandem, to update our legislative response and prosecuting environment to offences such as espionage and treason and sabotage. For the first time ever with this new Bill we will have a criminal offence for the theft of commercial trade secrets. So these are meant to update the legislative regime. And the second part of this – the tandem Bill, Foreign Influence – is meant to be able to allow better and more complete transparency with respect to individuals and organisations in Australia who are working to influence political outcomes –which is obviously not wrong per se – but working to influence political outcomes because they are funded or directed or controlled by a foreign enterprise or organisation or government and the transparency is what we want to effect.
SABRA LANE: On that transparency Bill you've offered some pretty big carve outs now. Executives and lobbyists connected to private multinational companies will be spared from requirements to register.
Yet Amnesty International says the risk will remain for groups like Amnesty who hold the Government to account on human rights and it's described the Bill as outrageous and downright terrifying and the Law Council remains concerned about limiting freedom of expression. How do you respond to that?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: So with the espionage Bill, the first of the two tandem Bills, we submitted up a range of amendments based on our assessment of the most rational and fair minded critiques of the legislation and they were around journalist protection and that's resulted now in a bipartisan approach.
We've taken a very similar approach here with respect to the Foreign Influence Bill. We offered up, last evening a range of amendments, and as you note the most substantial of those was to take out from the list of foreign principals, all foreign corporations, and instead have a more focused definition on organisations that exhibit high degrees of control by foreign political organisations or foreign governments.
Now I've heard just listening to the promo for the show what the representative from Amnesty said. I think legally that's not correct. It's certainly not correct with respect to the amendments that we've now transmitted to the committee and I look forward to meeting with the representatives from Amnesty and speaking them through it.
But what this is designed to do, as a Bill, is where an individual or a body in Australia exerts influence, tries to affect outcomes in our democratic processes or political outcomes, and they do so because they are engaged in activity on behalf of a foreign government related entity – which might be a foreign government itself, which might be a company controlled by a foreign government, which might be a body or company controlled by a foreign political party – that influence and effort to affect an outcome in the Australian democratic process should be knowable to all Australians. That is central principle we are trying to affect.
SABRA LANE: What's your expectation once these laws are passed about ASIO and other agencies using the new powers they'll have?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well what has proven very, very difficult in the past is to successfully prosecute activities that we might be able to investigate or detect and very often disrupt – but successfully prosecuting them has been another matter entirely.
So between these two Bills – having a register of individuals and bodies who are trying to influence our processes at the request or the directional control of foreign governments or foreign bodies or companies and also having updated laws which stipulate the terms by which modern espionage, modern theft of trade secrets, modern political interference from foreign espionage agents can be prosecuted – would mean, and our expectation is, that you will actually be able to prosecute some of the conduct that we know is occurring.
SABRA LANE: Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter, thanks for joining the program this morning.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you, Sabra. Cheers.