Australia Approves Sweeping Security Laws Targeting Foreign Interference

SYDNEY, Australia — 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.

Some security experts argue the laws are overdue, and necessary for an age when Russian hackers can undermine American democracy without going near a voting booth, and when China’s mingling of economic and political interests is redefining geopolitics.

“It’s a big deal,” said Peter Jennings, executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. “It modernizes our intelligence laws at a time when the government’s saying that the spying threat is extremely high.”

But the laws have met with opposition since they were proposed six months ago.

The Chinese government has responded coolly, canceling visas for Australian business leaders and suggesting that the country’s politicians are motivated by xenophobia and racism.

Lu Kang, spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said in response to a question this week about the new Australian laws that China does not interfere in other countries’ affairs.

“We hope that all countries could cast off Cold War mind-set and strengthen exchanges and cooperation on the basis of mutual respect and equal treatment,” he said.

Some experts worry that Australia is neglecting or even undermining traditional diplomacy by focusing on covert activity that security officials tend to hint at but do not fully explain.

“No compelling evidence has been offered to show why these laws are really needed,” said Hugh White, a prominent defense strategist. “We have been asked to take that on trust, but there is a risk that we are jumping at shadows.”

Human rights groups, scholars and journalists have been arguing for months that too much is being given up out of fear. They said first drafts of the laws went too far in restricting democratic rights — making it a crime, for example, to receive something marked “classified” even if its disclosure served the public interest.

Some even said the laws threatened to make Australia more like the authoritarian regimes that it aims to resist.

Amendments to the laws sought to address some of those concerns.

The secrecy offenses have been narrowed. Journalists accused of violating the restrictions on sharing government information can also now claim a “public interest” defense, arguing that the information they disclose has value for democracy.

Beyond journalists and secrecy, though, the laws have few exceptions.

Churches, charities and human rights groups with international interests or funding may still need to be listed on the public register for foreign lobbyists, one of the core tenets of the laws, which aim to make foreign influence on Australian politics more transparent.

David Brophy, a senior lecturer in modern Chinese history at the University of Sydney, said he was worried about the threat to transnational activism.

“Much of the discussion around the laws has centered on the need to defend our democracy against Chinese influence,” he said. “But ironically, someone collaborating with democracy activists in China to organize rallies in Australia could find themselves facing prosecution for illegal foreign interference.”

Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch, said the laws also still included severe punishments for sharing classified information, including several years in prison, which “will have a chilling effect on disclosures.”

“The problem remains that the definition of national security is overly broad,” she said, “and includes the political, military and economic interests with other countries.”

The next challenge for Australia will be enforcement. The new laws contain a “notice regime” that allows the attorney general to unilaterally name individuals as foreign agents without due process.

That means Mr. Porter is likely to face pressure to add several wealthy Chinese-born businessmen whose political donations started the Australian debate about Chinese influence last year.

Many of them, including Chau Chak Wing, an Australian citizen and well-known political donor, have denied links to the Communist Party of China.

Will the attorney general add them anyway?

“The first prosecutions under the new anti-interference laws are now keenly anticipated,” said Clive Hamilton, the author of a recent book about Chinese interference, “Silent Invasion.” “I expect we will all be surprised at what the authorities reveal.”

Speaking from Germany, one of several countries he has visited to discuss Chinese interference, Mr. Hamilton added: “Australia is now leading the world in measures to respond to foreign interference in democratic processes, and our response is being watched closely by other nations.”

But Stephen FitzGerald, Australia’s first ambassador to China, said that the Australian government — by going further than other countries — may not yet realize the complexity of what it has taken on.

“I think it is going to be tricky,” he said. Policing foreign influence is always complicated, he said, but “we don’t have a bill of rights in Australia. Governments have consistently rejected the idea, saying we have enough checks and balances in the system.”

Australians may soon see, he said, whether those governments were right.

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