Speech introducing the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017

December 7, 2017

Today I'm introducing legislation to counter the threat of foreign states exerting improper influence over our system of government and our political landscape.

When I initiated a report into this in August last year, through my department, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation had made significant investigative breakthroughs and delivered a series of very grave warnings.

But our agencies lacked the legislative tools they needed to act. And it's fair to say that our system as a whole had not grasped the nature and the magnitude of the threat.

The findings of the report are necessarily classified.

But I can say the reasons for initiating this work were justified and the outcomes have galvanised us to take action.

Our Principles

The policy outcomes—including the legislation I am introducing—will all be shaped by the following principles.

First, we are focused on the activities of foreign states and their agents in Australia and notthe loyalties of Australians who happen to be from a foreign country. There is no place for racism or xenophobia in our country. Our diaspora communities are part of the solution, not the problem. To think otherwise would be not only wrong and divisive but also folly—in a nation where most of us come from migrant families and one in four of us was born overseas.

Second, interference is unacceptable from any country whether you might think of it as friend, foe or ally. Nations and their representatives will be judged by their behaviour in Australia, not who they are.

Third, we will not tolerate foreign influence activities that are in any way covert, coercive or corrupt. That is the line that separates legitimate influence from unacceptable interference.

We are not concerned with 'soft power', as the term is properly understood, as an attractive force. If another nation has cultural or economic gravitational pull then it suggests they are doing something right and we would all benefit from being involved.

We will always assert our national interests, and we expect other countries to do the same.

But we do insist that all players engage openly and within the rules.

Finally, and most importantly, our rejection of covert, coercive or corrupting behaviour leads naturally to a counter-foreign-interference strategy that is built upon the four pillars of sunlight, enforcement, deterrence and capability.

What does this mean?

This means that if you are acting to further the interests of a foreign state in ways that are clandestine or deceptive then we will shine light upon your actions and, where necessary, we will shut you down.

It means that if you use inducements or threats to manipulate a political process or public debate then we will unleash the full force of powerful new laws and defend our values and democratic institutions.

And it means that foreign actors who would do us harm are now on notice: we will not tolerate covert, coercive or corrupting behaviour in our country.

Protecting our Democracy

Media reports have suggested that the Chinese Communist Party has been working to covertly interfere with our media, our universities and even the decisions of elected representatives right here in this building.

We take these reports very seriously.

Our relationship with China is far too important to put at risk by failing to clearly set the terms of healthy and sustainable engagement. Modern China was founded by the statement that Chinese people have stood up. And today, and every day, the Australian people stand up and assert their sovereignty in our nation, with our parliament and with our laws.

Anyone who has glanced at the international media over the course of this year will see that questions of foreign interference are not all about China—far, far from it. Globally, Russia has been wreaking havoc across the democratic world.

There are credible reports that Russia was actively undermining the integrity of the Brexit referendum, this year's presidential elections in France and last year's presidential election in the United States.

And other nations are reportedly conducting interference operations outside their borders, including Iran and North Korea.

In some cases, authoritarian states have been literally manufacturing public opinion in order to hijack political discourse and tilt the decision-making landscape to their advantage.

These are their aims but it is up to us to determine whether they are successful.

And now these methodologies have been turbocharged by cyber.

The very technology that was designed to bring us together, the internet, is being used as an instrument of division.

Russian agents seeking to sow discord in the United States reached 126 million users on Facebook, published more than 131,000 messages on Twitter and uploaded over 1,000 videos to YouTube, according to the belated admissions from those platforms.

We are witnessing the mass production, the democratisation if you like, of disinformation.

George Orwell portrayed a post-truth dystopia, where, 'The past was erased, the erasure was forgotten, the lie became the truth.'

His dark prophecy is not our present reality but nor is it entirely fantasy.

Listen to the recently retired US Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, in his testimony to the US Congress in May:

If there has ever been a clarion call for vigilance and action against a threat to the very foundation of our democratic political system, this episode is it.

This is not just a call for action in the US. It is a clarion call to open societies everywhere.

We must ensure Australian democracy is resilient to all threats, from any country, now and in the future.

Australian Resilience

We in Australia have good reason to be optimistic.

We have a strong economy, labour market and welfare system.

We have strong borders which support the most successful multicultural society in the world.

Our institutions are robust, including the rule of law and vibrant independent media.

Our system of compulsory voting ensures that mainstream political parties must compete for the middle not the poles.

We are as well placed as any democratic nation to face the global threat of foreign interference—but it would be reckless to assume we are immune.

I quote from ASIO's most recent annual report:

The harm caused by hostile intelligence activity can undermine Australia’s national security and sovereignty. It can damage Australia’s international reputation and degrade our diplomatic and trade relations … inflict economic damage, degrade or compromise nationally vital assets and critical infrastructure, and threaten the safety of Australians.

So when the Director-General of ASIO, Duncan Lewis, says the threat from espionage and foreign interference is 'unprecedented' then we know that we must act.

The Director-General is telling us that the threat we face today is greater than when Soviet agents penetrated the federal government during World War II and the early years of the Cold War.

The Legislation

The legislation I am introducing today is designed to reinforce the strengths of our open democratic system while shoring up its vulnerabilities.

I mentioned earlier that our Counter Foreign Interference Strategy has four pillars: sunlight, enforcement, deterrence and capability.

Of these, sunlight is at the very centre.

To ensure activities are exposed to sunlight, following an extensive review by the Attorney-General, we are introducing a new Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.

The principle is quite straightforward.

If a person or entity engages with the Australian political landscape on behalf of a foreign state or principal then they must register accordingly.

This will give the Australian public and decision-makers proper visibility when foreign states or individuals may be seeking to influence Australia's political processes and public debates.

The link could be a financial relationship or some other form of arrangement.

Registration requirements are carefully structured so that the closer you get to the heart of Australian politics, the more likely it is that you must register.

Being registered under the scheme should not be seen as any kind of taint. And certainly not as a crime.

To the contrary it is applying the basic principles of disclosure to allow the public and policymakers to assess any underlying agenda.

But if you fail to disclose your ties to a foreign principal then you could be liable for a criminal offence.

This is not about shutting down legitimate debate, but rather enabling it.

Interference, espionage and sabotage

Sunlight is the most reliable disinfectant but it will not be sufficient on its own.

We are also introducing, for the first time, offences for acts of foreign interference. Addressing a clear gap, we will criminalise covert, deceptive and threatening actions by persons acting on behalf of, or in collaboration with, a foreign principal aiming to influence Australia's political processes or prejudice our national security.

Acts of foreign interference are often intertwined with espionage.

But our espionage laws are so unwieldy they have not supported a single conviction in decades, even as the threat reaches unprecedented levels.

So we will also introduce a range of carefully structured espionage offences as well as new provisions for secrecy, sabotage and treason.

Any one of these three pieces of legislation—the foreign donations legislation, which Senator Cormann will introduce into the Senate, transparency, and interference-related criminal offences, would mark an enormous improvement in our ability to counter foreign interference.

Together, they add up to the most important overhaul of our counterintelligence legislative framework since the 1970s.

They should be seen as interlocking components. All are important and none will fully succeed without the others.

Finally, we need a central hub to not only enforce the law but do so in a way that maximises deterrence.

This is where our new Home Affairs portfolio will come in.

There is no national security threat outside war time that demands an integrated all-of-government capability like this one.

By enacting this legislation, and building the capability to properly use it, we are sending an unmistakable signal:

We will not allow foreign states to use our freedoms to erode freedom; our open democracy to subvert democracy; our laws to undermine the rule of law.


The purpose of our counter-foreign interference strategy is not to close our borders to people, capital and ideas but the very opposite.

We are dealing surgically with the risks so that we can sustain the enormous benefits that flow from our openness to the world.

I give personal thanks to my Attorney-General, Senator George Brandis, who has applied his Queen's Counsel's mind methodically and creatively to tailor our legislative framework.

Our vibrant civil society will soon be reinforced by a groundbreaking transparency regime and our enforcement agencies will soon have the legislative tools they need.

These new laws will help the Leader of the Opposition manage any issues inside his party, I should note.

I must also thank Duncan Lewis and his investigators at ASIO.

The breakthroughs you have achieved are as important as any your organisation has made in 60 years.

Our job is far from finished. To the contrary we have arrived at the beginning of a long program of strengthening our democratic resilience.

I am filled with optimism about our nation's future—the most successful multicultural society in the world—not just being resilient to challenges, but thriving on the opportunities they present.

We are open. We are optimistic. But we are not naive. This legislation will ensure we continue to be secure and free.

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