Subjects: Foreign Influence Laws
LAURA JAYES: Government ministers appear to be at odds over the urgency of new laws targeting foreign influence. The Attorney-General wants the amended laws passed when Parliament sits later this month, warning there is a potential of foreign disruption at the next month's super Saturday by-elections. The leader of the House, Christopher Pyne, has said this morning but there's no rush.
MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:
Look, these laws and the by-elections are not linked at all. The foreign interference…
Then why the rush to get them through before the recess?
MINISTER FOR DEFENCE INDUSTRY:
Well, there's no rush. We'd been discussing these laws since last November, December, when George Brandis first put them on the table and there's been a long committee process which has been gone through with Labor and the crossbenchers, and this is where we've arrived.
[END OF EXCERPT]
MINISTER FOR FINANCE:
I think that the Attorney-General is precisely saying that we should pass them as soon as possible and that's what I'm saying, that's what the government is saying.
And Christopher Pyne saying no link? That there's no rush?
MINISTER FOR FINANCE:
Look, I'm not going to get into the commentary between colleagues here. I mean, obviously Christian as the Attorney-General has got lead responsibility here.
[END OF EXCERPT]
LAURA JAYES: It follows a bipartisan committee report which proposed almost 60 changes to the legislation, including protections for journalists, whistle-blowers and charities. While the Government insists the laws aren't aimed at a specific country, they have sparked diplomatic tension with China.
Joining me now is the Attorney-General Christian Porter from Perth.
Attorney-General, thanks so much for your time. Do these laws need to be passed urgently?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Morning, Laura.
Well I think- obviously, I've heard Christopher's comments and I think that what he's saying is it hasn't been a rushed process and it certainly hasn't. I mean these laws have been before the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security for about eight months.
We've had a very significant breakthrough with respect to the first half of these laws - the espionage and foreign interference laws - and there's no reason why they should not have passage in the next two sitting weeks. My point is simply that the two Bills operate in tandem. They're not meant to protect any specific democratic event or process, they're not meant to protect Australian processes from any specific country. They're meant to protect our democratic processes at large.
And it is highly desirable that they are passed in tandem together and as soon as possible, and it has been eight months and my observation is passing the legislation is overdue. And we've made some very significant changes and concessions, first on the espionage laws and then last evening, we transmitted a range of amendments up on the foreign influence laws as well.
LAURA JAYES: But Minister, you have spoken of the threat changing in just the last 12 months. Is there an urgent need to get these changes through before the super Saturday by-elections?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I want to see the legislation passed as soon as possible. I mean, it's meant to protect all of our democratic processes and obviously elections are the more of important democratic processes that occur in Australia.
But the experience that we've had is that the threat environment is evolving and changing. The advice from Duncan Lewis as the director-general of ASIO has been quite clear that we live, unfortunately, in an unprecedented age of espionage and foreign interference and this is the advice that he has given publicly to the committee.
All of that says to the Government that passing laws that protect our democratic processes is a matter of reasonable urgency and it's something that should happen as soon as possible. And as Christopher said, these Bills have been under consideration now for eight months. And what I'm putting is that the breakthrough that we've had with respect to the espionage laws, there's no reason that that can't be replicated with the foreign influence laws; particularly not in the context of the not-insignificant amendments that we've transmitted up to the committee now.
LAURA JAYES: Sure. But if these laws do not pass the Parliament before 28 July, before those super Saturday by-elections, could we have an added layer of vulnerability for foreign interference into these by-elections?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, after eight months consideration, every day that the laws aren't passed means that we are more vulnerable than if the laws were passed. And if I give the example, Laura, of the espionage laws where we've had a breakthrough with the committee, whose work I thank them for. It was a very good bipartisan process. But before those laws are passed, Australia does not have a criminal sanction for the espionage-based theft of trade secrets. Before those laws are passed, Australia does not have a foreign interference offence. So it's highly desirable that those laws are passed as soon as possible to protect all of our democratic processes, to protect all of our parliamentary processes, to protect political parties with respect to donations and financing. So it's very important that they’re passed together in tandem, because they're meant to work together in tandem, and passed as soon as possible. And the aim, publicly stated, is to try and have that achieved in the next two sitting weeks of Parliament.
LAURA JAYES: What are these unprecedented espionage threats, and where are they coming from, and in what form? I mean, we've seen this around the last US presidential election. Is this coming via the form of fake news around elections and by-elections, or is it money coming to special interest groups via a third party which a foreign government or foreign entity might be behind?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I think the very point that Duncan Lewis has made before the Parliamentary Joint Committee is that the vectors - the mechanisms by which foreign interference, foreign influence and espionage is occurring - is now far broader than it ever was. His language was that there was a narrow range of technologies available, a narrower range of vectors available to affect espionage and foreign interference and foreign influence at the time of the Cold War. And now, with new technologies, new processes, new tradecraft as he described it, we have an evolving threat. It is manifested, it is real, and what we need is strong laws in response to ensure that we protect our government processes, parliamentary processes and democratic processes.
LAURA JAYES: Who is seeking to influence our elections, and what is the motivation behind it?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well again, there's a whole range of areas where espionage, foreign interference, foreign influence exists and occurs in Australia. One need only read the newspaper to see that, and obviously government decisions and parliamentary processes are very important parts of our system, our open and transparent system. And again, an example; with the Foreign Influence Register Bill, what we are seeking to establish is transparency; so that if a person in Australia is seeking to affect a political outcome, seeking to affect a parliamentary or democratic process and they're doing so at the instruction or under the control of what's described as a foreign principle - which may include a foreign company or a government- foreign government-owned company - that we know about that. Now, that is the sort of problem that we are dealing with, and with respect to the second of these Bills, foreign influence, the problem is a lack of transparency.
LAURA JAYES: Okay.
If I could just ask you one final question about members of Australia's elite special forces. They've been accused of committing war crimes in Afghanistan; the details of which are contained in a confidential report, published in part by Fairfax papers today. Should this report be brought into the public domain?
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Well, I understand that report is with the Minister for Defence, Marise Payne.
I've not had the benefit yet of seeing that report, so I'm not going to go into elaborate comment on the report and whether it should or should not be made public without knowing its contents. But obviously, reports like that are commissioned for a reason and that's to ensure the highest standards. I am absolutely certain that Marise Payne will be examining that report in great forensic detail, and answering those types of questions that you've put carefully and soberly, and in due course.
LAURA JAYES: Christian Porter, thanks for your time.
ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you.