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Australia to ban covert foreign interference in politics

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CANBERRA, Australia — Australia’s House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved national security legislation on Tuesday that would ban covert foreign interference in domestic politics and make industrial espionage for a foreign power a crime.

The two bills covering foreign interference, espionage and influence transparency have been criticized as criminalizing dissent. But the Senate is expected to make them law by Thursday with the support of the centre-left Labor Party opposition.

Individuals lobbying for foreign governments would have to be listed on a public register in a step toward making foreign influence on Australian politics more transparent.

The conservative government says the legislation, first proposed in December, is the major cause of a rift in diplomatic relations with China, Australia’s most important trading partner. But the government maintains that it is not aimed at any particular country.

Attorney General Christian Porter told Parliament on Tuesday the bills include the most significant counter-spying reforms in Australia since the 1970s.

“The practices of modern espionage are now being encountered in so many Western democracies around the globe,” Porter said.

The bills include 38 new crimes plus existing crimes with broader definitions. The new crimes include stealing trade secrets on behalf of foreign government, which would become punishable by 15 years in prison.

“Until this point, astonishingly and dangerously, no criminal offence in Australia existed to criminalize economic espionage of the type defined in this bill,” Porter said.

A person who engages in covert or deceptive activity to influence political or governmental process, such as organizing a rally, without revealing he or she was operating on behalf of a foreign government could be guilty of a range of foreign interference crimes with maximum penalties ranging from 10 to 20 years in prison.

Both bills have been substantially amended in recent weeks on the advice of a parliamentary committee that scrutinized them, narrowing their focus and reach and increasing the number of organizations that are exempt.

Charities that accept foreign funding but not foreign government direction are exempt, the Catholic Church will not have to register as an agent of the Vatican, and the media have legal protections in reporting leaked national security information.

Speaking in support of the legislation, senior opposition lawyer Mark Dreyfus said there was no evidence that Australia had experienced the type of foreign interference evident in the latest presidential elections in the United States and France and in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum.

“It’s apparent that in other parts of the world, covert actors are seeking on an unprecedented scale to interfere with and manipulate the political processes of democratic countries, particularly by attacking free and fair elections,” Dreyfus told Parliament. “Australia will not allow this conduct to arrive on our shores.”

But independent lawmaker Andrew Wilkie, who quit his job as a defence intelligence analyst in 2003 in protest against the then-government’s use of non-existent weapons of mass destruction to explain sending Australian troops to back the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, voted against the bills. Wilkie argued their definitions of national security and foreign interference were too broad.

Environmentalists protesting against the enormous Adani coal mine proposed for Australia’s north could be prosecuted for a crime of sabotage under the legislation if that protest was defined as a threat to the nation’s economic security, Wilkie said.

Adam Brandt, a minor Greens party lawmaker who described the legislation as criminalizing dissent, was the only lawmaker other than Wilkie to vote against the bills in the House.

London-based Amnesty International said in a statement the legislation would make holding the Australian government to account on human rights obligations a crime.

Australian media have reported that the bills were the result of a classified government report commissioned by 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 won’t comment on the media reports.

China protested Turnbull’s announcement of the foreign interference ban.

The Chinese foreign ministry said in December that Turnbull’s remarks were prejudiced against China and had poisoned the atmosphere of China-Australia relations.

A related bill announced in December to ban foreign political donations, of which China is the largest source, is still being drafted. Labor has voluntarily refused to accept foreign donations.

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