Subjects: Foreign Influence Laws, SAS, elder abuse register
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Obviously, Perth today is hosting the Council of Attorneys-General which is a meeting of all the state governments Attorneys-General and obviously the Commonwealth Attorney-General. So I'm very much looking forward to that, and we have a very long agenda. It's also the case that last evening, the Government was very pleased to receive a report from the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. That report represents a major breakthrough and will allow for the passage of the espionage and foreign interference legislation. 60 recommendations have been made. Whilst there's a process to go through, the expectation is that they will be accepted and that legislation will find passage through Parliament.
Also last evening, as Attorney-General, I replicated a process that had proved very successful with the espionage and foreign interference legislation, and that was to transmit up to the Parliamentary Joint Committee substantial drafting of amendments to the foreign influence register scheme Bill. Those are designed to address some of the more substantial critiques that have been put during the parliamentary public committee process. It is a replication of the process that we went through with the espionage Bill, and we hope that that will mean that the foreign influence register Bill can be considered over the next two (sitting) weeks and be ready to be debated, pursuant to a report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee again in those two weeks.
The central point here is that the espionage Bill, which is the subject to the breakthrough report of the committee, and the foreign influence Bill are meant to be Bills that operate in tandem. So it's very important that those Bills are considered together and that they secure passage as soon as reasonably possible, and we would very much hope and expect that that could occur in the next two sitting weeks of Parliament.
QUESTION: Is this about China? Will China be offended?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, these Bills are not about any single country other than Australia. They are meant to protect Australia from any known or emerging or future threat. They are not Bills that are about any particular democratic process, but the espionage Bill, for instance, will when it is passed, make for the first time it illegal, a criminal offence, for a foreign government to intentionally or recklessly interfere with a government political process or a democratic process such as an election. Which is why we think it's very important to have these Bills debated in tandem, passed in tandem as soon as reasonably possible. But they are not about any specific democratic process. They're about all of our democratic processes and government processes. They're not about any specific foreign power. They're about protecting Australia from any threat that exists or might emerge.
QUESTION: (unclear)….known threat in that space?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well again these Bills are not about any particular foreign country. You'll see from the redrafting of the amendments that I've transmitted up to the Committee on the foreign influence Bill, that originally that Bill sought to have as the first hurdle for consideration whether you worked for a foreign company, which could be defined as a foreign principal. Now, we've narrowed the focus of the Bill with this drafting to companies particularly who show and exhibit a degree of control on the part of foreign governments or foreign political organisations.
Now, we think that that affects the outcome that we want which is transparency, where people or organisations in Australia are acting at the direction and control of foreign principals and attempting to influence political processes. We think that's a more focused approach, but it's not an approach designed or meant to apply to any particular country overseas.
QUESTION: What credible threat to the by-elections does the Government see that warrants the passage of these Bills?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well the point I'd make there – and it's the point that I've made consistently – is that in the espionage Bill at about Section 92, we have for the first time, an offence for a foreign government to intentionally or recklessly interfere with a democratic or government process, including electoral process. That just makes common sense to have that passed into law as soon as possible, and before the next large democratic events in this nation.
QUESTION: Christopher Pyne doesn't seem to see the urgency here. Do you have the support of your colleagues in this?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: I unfortunately was doing an alternative media at the time that Sunrise (Today) was on, but I've read Christopher's comments. And I simply take Christopher to be making the point that this has not been a rushed process, and I think that he used the words that this has been before the committee for eight months, and it's been before the committee I think for just slightly less than that. But nevertheless, it has not been a rushed process. I don't think Christopher's comments detract from the observation that we've been making consistently, is that this has been before the committee for many, many months. With respect to the espionage Bill, we submitted amendments which allowed the process to move along more swiftly in recent days, and in the last two weeks. We want to replicate that process with the foreign influence legislation, and there is a reasonable urgency here which is to have these Bills - which have been before the committee for around about six months - passed into law during the next two sitting weeks.
QUESTION: Was there any evidence of interference in the Bennelong by-election, foreign interference?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Look, what I'd put to you is that the best evidence of the types of behaviours that we are trying to combat and make transparent was the evidence given by Duncan Lewis before several of these committees. I thought just for complete accuracy, I'd read to you what he said. He said: foreign actors from a range of countries are seeking to access privileged and classified information on Australia's alliances and our partnerships, our position on international diplomatic economic and military issues, on our energy, on our national mineral resources, on our innovations in science and technology.
The consistent evidence that Duncan Lewis has given before the relevant committees has been that the dangers, the threats and the things that we want to make transparent are occurring at large. It's for that reason that we want to prepare ourselves against any possible interference with any possible democratic processes, which is why these Bills have now- why the espionage Bill has now received bipartisan support and why we want the foreign influence Bill, which is a tandem Bill, dealt with expeditiously.
QUESTION: And what threshold Minister do envisage for the prosecution of journalists?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, the bipartisan agreed approach with respect to that now is quite clear; that there will be a clearly stated defence for all journalists, as defined in the Bill, where if a journalist publishes even highly classified information in the public interest, as they reasonably believe it to be, then they have a defence. Now, that defence is again at large and only subject to a very narrow range of exceptions. And if I can summarise those exceptions here, they are that it can never be in the public interest for a journalist to publish highly classified information, if in publishing that information they endanger the lives by showing the identity of an ASIO or ASIS agent.
Now, that I think is now a bipartisan position. It's a protection that would extend to editors and senior staff in the newspapers, as well as junior staff in newspapers and other media. But the point is a bipartisan position has now been reached on what is the appropriate protection for journalists in Australia and I don't think that many Australians would argue that it should not be considered to be in the public interest to publish information which endangers the life by uncovering the identity of an ASIO or ASIS operative. But otherwise, there's a very strong defence for journalists contained in what is now a bipartisan position on the Bill.
QUESTION: There's always been a possibility for a foreign interference in the democratic process why now do we need to take so seriously to give the Bill special powers…what is the specific instances that has pushed this?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I mean again, I might read to you from Duncan Lewis, who is the authority in these matters. What he said was...
QUESTION: But there is a reference to a particular democratic process that has been interfered with?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, it's about preparing ourselves and protecting all of our democratic processes. Again, this was Duncan Lewis's summary of it and he said: that in contrast to say the espionage and foreign interference that occurred during the Cold War: the contemporary international security environment is far more integrated. It's fluid. It's complex. There are a wider range of foreign powers independently jostling for advantage, with many aggressively pursuing espionage and foreign interference activities to advance their cause. He is describing a manifest threat that is at large.
We are now seeking a further bipartisan position around legislation that protects all of our processes and creates a far higher standard of transparency for those processes. And that is a protection at large. It's not a protection designed for any particular process or against any particular country.
QUESTION: Can we get you on some other issues?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Sure.
QUESTION: Very serious misconduct allegations are being made against special forces soldiers. Can you guarantee the public will be fully briefed on these ones?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well look that- I'm not going to comment in detail on a report that I've not read. I understand that that report is before the Defence Minister Marise Payne. As to how that report will be dealt with publicly, I'm not going to comment without having read the report.
But the purpose of commissioning those sorts of inquiries, and the relevant minister having a report of that nature, is to ensure that the Government upholds the highest levels and standards of integrity and behaviour in all our armed services. So, I am absolutely certain that Marise Payne will consider that dutifully, soberly and in great detail and make the right decisions around how that should be transmitted publicly.
QUESTION: And if the special investigator Paul Brereton recommends that war crimes charges do be laid against SA soldiers who would be the prosecuting force there…the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, it would depend very much on the nature of the charges and the forum, and I just wouldn't want to comment about process again without having read the report.
QUESTION: I have four questions just in from Canberra…
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Sure. We love Canberra.
QUESTION: Has ASIO warned that next month’s by-elections are being targeted?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Look, ASIO's warnings to government mirror very closely the general public warnings that Duncan Lewis has given in a variety of forums, including the committee hearings. I can't elaborate on those, other than to read them to you, which I've done today. But they are warnings about the vulnerability of all of our political governmental and democratic processes.
QUESTION: If yes, by who and if not why the rush to get the laws done before then?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I'll just point out again that the laws have been before the committee for six months. You've got the director-general of ASIO describing how the threat environment is constantly evolving and becoming more acute. These are laws which, for the first time, will have a criminal offence with respect to foreign governments stealing commercial trade secrets in Australia. For the first time, we will have a criminal offence for foreign governments intentionally or recklessly interfering with our political and governmental processes. The simple point that we're making as a government is given that there is a manifest need for this legislation, which is now a need that's been recognised on a bipartisan basis, that these Bills should be debated and passed in tandem because they are meant to cover the field in terms of protecting Australian political processes.
QUESTION: Without any evidence that this is actually occurring, why should Australians take this seriously?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I mean there's obvious reasons why governments don't comment on matters of that nature in the national security space and that has been an essential feature of Australian governments of both political stripes for round about 100 years. But again, I think that Australians can take very seriously the proposition that is being put by the director-general of ASIO in public hearings, that the problem is manifest, it's acute and it's evolving at a rapid rate and has evolved over the last 12 months.
QUESTION: Do the changes to protect charities and universities go far enough?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, the essential drafting change that we've made to the foreign influence Bill, which we've transmitted up to the committee last evening, is that rather than all foreign companies being described as a foreign principal, foreign companies will need to exhibit a level of direction and control to a foreign government, or from foreign government, or from a foreign political organisation. Now that will mean that a whole range of companies that would have been facing the regulatory burden of potentially having to register will now no longer face that burden. And inside that group will be a range of charities and NGOs, who may have previously in some instances faced the regulatory burden of having to register but now it will no longer have to do so.
What people will have to do, who operate in Australia inside the political system [indistinct] government relations, persons or people seeking to exert political influence, is ask the question: are they acting on behalf of a foreign company where the foreign company exhibits a degree of control from a foreign political organisation or a foreign government? And I think the early signs, both from Labour and from stakeholders, is that this is a more focused approach and one certainly worthy of consideration over the next 10 days.
QUESTION: Transparency notices for people hiding foreign connections, what will be the penalties for that?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, a transparency notice itself carries no penalty. A transparency notice that this system would allow the secretary of my department to, in effect, make a public observation and record that a certain organisation is a company or organisation that's controlled by a foreign government or foreign political party, and that declaration could be overturned in the AAT. If the organisation or company in question took a different view they could argue that case in the AAT. But what it allows is a transparent mechanism to establish whether or not an organisation, a company, a body is a foreign principal or is working for a foreign principal.
QUESTION: On elder abuse, how confident are you that you can reach an agreement with the states on a national register?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Look, I am very confident. The essential problem here is that, in some states, there are [indistinct] powers of attorney on financial matters and then a separate one on other matters. And in some states, they are the same document. It seems to me wise that Australia harmonise that approach. Now, whether it is a harmonised two-document approach or a harmonised one-document approach is something that we will discuss. But ultimately a single approach, and importantly a single register so that anyone - whether they be financial institutions who is dealing with an enduring power of attorney - has a simple way of working out whether or not the enduring power of attorney is actually real or represents the real documents. So, I'm very confident that we will reach an in-principle resolution here because it is actually a very important issue for older Australians.
QUESTION: And another one from Canberra, sorry. Do you support New South Wales' push for companies to be allowed to sue for defamation and what impact could that have on freedom of speech.
ATTORNEY GENERAL: It's an immensely complicated area and it's being led by New South Wales, and that's one of the wonderful things about the Council of Attorneys-General process, is that states take the lead on different issues.
New South Wales has taken the lead on looking into a range of complex balancing exercises in the law of defamation. I'm not going to put my position before listening to their position, but I'm very interested in what Mark Speakman, who is very skilled in these areas, has to say on this issue.
QUESTION: Do you have an in-principle position?
ATTORNEY GENERAL: Well, I think these are delicate balancing exercises and I just don't want to get ahead of the presentation from the New South Wales Attorney-General.