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 in debate 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 breadth of the laws. Individuals or organisations who receive information or donations from foreign parties for legitimate purposes run the risk of facing criminal prosecution. This is 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. This risk includes facing jail time for simply receiving and possessing information that is of public interest. These potential new laws impugn Freedom of the press.
The Government has proposed introducing of a public register that requires people to register any political, campaigning or lobbying activities undertaken “on behalf of foreign principals”. A failure to register these activities could result in harsh criminal penalties.
Researchers and academics have concerns that this would cover funding, sponsorship or collaboration with foreign entities. This will affect Australian academics’ ability to perform their basic research functions. It will interfere with their academic freedom, and the freedom and independence of organisations to make collaboration agreements.