Australia Approves Sweeping National Security Laws Banning Foreign Interference in Politics

Australia’s attorney general, Christian Porter, told Parliament that the new laws represented the most significant counterintelligence overhaul since the 1970s.
© Lukas Coch/EPA, via Shutterstock

Australia approved sweeping national security legislation on Thursday that bans foreign interference in politics, stiffens the punishment for leaking classified information and makes it a crime to damage Australia’s economic relations with another country.

Attorney General Christian Porter told Parliament that the new laws represented the most significant counterintelligence overhaul since the 1970s.

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

“To counter this threat,” he continued, “Australia must have a robust, modern legislative framework to ensure our law enforcement and national security agencies are sufficiently empowered to investigate and disrupt malicious foreign interference.”

The new laws are similar to but more far-reaching than those passed in Britain and the United States after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. They prioritize an approach favored by security officials and give great discretion to the Australian attorney general, with limited checks and balances.

Though government officials have said they are not aimed at any country, the laws have passed at a moment when Australia is especially anxious about Chinese power. They could further complicate Australia’s relationship with Beijing, which has treated the laws as an insult — especially since China is Australia’s largest trading partner.

The extensive legislation adds 38 new crimes to the record, including stealing trade secrets on behalf of a foreign government, and broaden the definitions of existing crimes like espionage.

The new laws do not ban foreign political donations (a separate law is being drafted for that), but they do require that foreign lobbyists register on a public list, similar to the way it works in the United States.

They also make it illegal to engage in any covert activity on behalf of a foreign government that aims to influence the process of Australian politics — including activities typically protected in a democracy, like organizing a rally.

Punishments for foreign interference crimes range from 10 to 20 years in prison.

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SOURCE: NY Times, Damien Cave and Jacqueline Williams