At the end of last year PM Turnbull introduced a package of new laws aimed at targeting espionage and foreign interference in Australia’s political system. This bill is being debated presently.
New Criminal Offences
The bills introduce a range of new espionage and foreign interference offences for:
- Possessing, receiving or communicating sensitive information;
- Failing to disclose ties with foreign interests on a Government register;
- Stealing trade secrets and passing them onto foreign agencies; and
- Damaging Commonwealth infrastructure whilst colluding with a foreign power.
Concerns about the Espionage and Foreign Interference Laws
A very significant concern is that these proposed offences are too broad and will unduly affect too many individuals and organisations. A large number of charities, researchers, universities and journalists have raised serious concerns about the breath of the laws. Individuals or organisations who receive information or donations from foreign parties for legitimate purposes run the risk of facing criminal prosecution despite having no intention to harm Australia’s interests.
A particularly concerned group are media companies. Journalists recently made a joint submission to parliament arguing that the proposed offences put journalists at significant risk of facing jail time for simply receiving and possessing information that are of public interest. Freedom of the press is impugned with these potential new laws.
The Government has proposed the introduction of a public register that requires people to register any political, campaigning or lobbying activities that are undertaken “on behalf of foreign principals”. A failure to register these activities could result in harsh criminal penalties. Researchers and academics are concerned that this would cover funding, sponsorship or collaboration with foreign entities. This will affect Australian academics’ ability to perform their basic research functions and interfere with their academic freedom and the freedom and independence of organisations to make collaboration agreements.