Will new laws stop foreign interference in Australia?

Ross Greenwood speaks to the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s, Peter Jennings, about why its a positive sign a bipartisan report examining proposed foreign interference laws has made 60 recommendations for changes.

Introduction: Will new laws stop foreign interference in Australia?

Ross Greenwood: Let’s start the program by telling you about these new bipartisan interference laws, foreign interference laws. There’s been a Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. Late this afternoon, there has been the suggestion that there has been a bipartisan advisory report on the bill to strengthen Australia’s espionage and foreign interference laws. Now, much of this has come out over this period of time by not only Andrew Hastie, he’s been on that particular committee, it’s also been in regards to key players in this. The Attorney-General Christian Porter has been involved.

As a result, let’s go now to Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Peter, many thanks for your time. Do you believe the fact that this is a bipartisan agreement between Labor and the government, not only it obviously helps it go through, does it do you believe help to calm some of the nerves that China, in particular, has got in regards to Australia and some of these laws?

Interview with: Peter Jennings, Executive Director, Australian Strategic Policy Institute

Peter Jennings:  Well, I think it’s a great thing that it is bipartisan, and that tells you that all of the major sides of politics consider this to be a really serious issue. I think it would have been much harder for the government to make headway with this if it found itself out of tone. That’s positive. China is never going to thank us for strengthening our espionage laws particularly when they are a country which probably more than any other is engaged in heavy espionage activity in Australia.

Frankly, I think we just have to make the case that this is something which is really critical from the point of national security, without wanting to, at the political level, be egregiously rude to China, which I’m sure our Prime Ministers will try to avoid. We nevertheless have an obligation to look after our national security. Now, I think that’s actually a pretty respectable position to put to China. If they’re sensible about it, it really oughtn’t to lead to any of the economic retaliation that you mentioned in the lead up to the story.

Ross Greenwood:  Okay, so that being said, there are by-elections that are coming in the very near future in Australia. The outcome of those by-elections could very well have an impact on the way legislation is passed through our parliament. Is it a situation where you believe that we need to have these laws in place before those by-elections take place?

Peter Jennings: Absolutely, I think this should now go through the Parliament with a great rapidity. With government has been saying that this is urgent, really since the bills were introduced way back in November last year. Enough time has gone by. I think the work of this parliamentary committee has been very good to type in the language in the bill.

I think it should also lend a bit more assurance to journalists because their particular issues and concerns about how to operate as a free press, I think have been addressed very effectively by the committee. No more mucking around. Now’s the time for Parliament to get this legislation passed. I think they really should do that before we move to those five by-elections in July.

Ross Greenwood:  Okay, so an ordinary person sitting here and looking at this and perhaps not understanding the intricacy of it, could we now assume that there has been efforts by foreign agents regardless of where they have come from, from foreign agents to interfere in Australia’s electoral processes in the past? Certainly, Christian Porter has indicated that today. It appears the Prime Minister has said that. What do you think, Peter?

Peter Jennings: I certainly think there have been attempts in the past to buy political influence with Australian political parties. I think that’s frankly being done through political donations. That’s another area which has yet to be addressed. The government and the opposition have both said that they’re committed to reforming donation laws to make sure that foreign countries can’t make donations. It is simply a matter of fact that that has happened in the past.

I think that the other element to this is the cyber manipulation that we saw in the American election and in some of the European elections, driven primarily by Russia. I think that’s a newer thing, but we shouldn’t be so naive as to imagine that it wouldn’t be applied to Australian elections. I think we’ve got to be very careful as we go forward. That the integrity of our political system and the integrity of our voting system is such that we do our absolute to make sure that that doesn’t happen, be it in these by-elections that are coming up, or indeed in the federal election that will happen some months after that.

Ross Greenwood:  Peter, just as well, I’ve got you one quick one as well, and that is that today the Prime Minister has indicated he would like the founder of Facebook to come to Australia and testify in front of our Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee. This is what Malcolm Turnbull said today.

Malcolm Turnbull: Well, of course, we’d love to see the boss. Naturally, he is the founder, but the important thing everyone is paying a lot of attention to the issue of privacy and of course, the question of whether people really know what is being done with their personal data.

Ross Greenwood:  This is in regards to Facebook confirming it has a data sharing partnership with Chinese firms, including the mobile phone company Huawei which is obviously has a big presence in Australia back in 2012, but was not allowed to tender for Australia’s National Broadband Network at the time because of security concerns. In this point, I mean it’s highly unlikely, I would imagine, that Mark Zuckerberg, he’s going to come to Australia to testify. Again, this really highlights many of the reasons for these new laws, but also the sensitivity we have to the way in which information can be leaked out of this country.

Peter Jennings: Well, I think the PM could make it easy for Zuckerberg, if he said, look, we’ll just take a Skype interview instead, rather than to actually get him to come to Australia. I doubt that he’ll do it. He refused to turn up to the British House of Commons. He really had no choice as an American citizen but to appear before a congressional committee and I don’t think he enjoyed that experience very much. My view, Ross, is that I think we’re only at the beginning of what is going to become a really complicated and difficult public debate about how to manage privacy with online platforms.

My instinct on this is that we’re going to find many more data breaches of the type that might have happened with the Facebook connection to Huawei. It’s been simply too tasty a target for intelligence agencies who are themselves looking at how to manipulate big data to gather useful information. I just feel that you and I will probably be having more detailed conversations on this as the year goes by.

Ross Greenwood:  No doubt about that. Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. Always great with his time here on Money News. Many thanks, Peter.

Peter Jennings: Thanks, Ross.


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