Senator REYNOLDS (Western Australia) (19:10): I too rise to speak in support of these bills, the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018 and the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2018. There is no greater responsibility for any national government in Australia or for the parliament than the safety and security of our people. Today threats come in many forms, and not just over our physical borders. Espionage is an ancient profession, one that also comes in many forms. These two bills implement a key pillar of the Australian government’s reforms of our intelligence and security landscape. These, along with other reforms set to be introduced in this place in relation to foreign donations and our electoral system, are the most significant changes to our national security environment in decades.
This is not a debate or a time to make political points. It is an opportunity for senators in this place to make a meaningful contribution to the national security of our nation—again, to deal with old and new forms of espionage and foreign interference that threaten our nation. But it is also an opportunity for all of us, as legislators, to show real leadership and to demonstrate to Australians that we can come together on important issues such as this, which is exactly what we have done. The safety and security of Australian people are important. The resilience of our infrastructure and communications systems is important. The stability of our democracy is important. And these three principles are grounded in both of these bills.
I’d personally like to thank the opposition for supporting these bills and also for working with us in the committee on the foreign donations legislation. Again, the debates on these bills and also on the foreign donations bill demonstrate to me very clearly that we can and we do come together on important issues for this nation. For me it’s just a shame that sometimes the rest of Australia doesn’t get to see what we see here every day—that we do work together in the national interest on so many issues that very rarely ever get exposure outside this building. This parliament is always at its best when we’re discussing challenging issues in a robust way, within committees, finding consensus and delivering a report with recommendations that governments can implement and that oppositions can support.
These bills themselves are in response to an increasing threat of foreign interference and espionage in our nation. Peter Vickery, the Director-General of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, told the parliament earlier this year:
The Cold War obviously was a busy time for a number of parts of the world but that was a different era, that was a different time. It didn’t exhibit the same sort of globalisation characteristics that we currently have and the way in which foreign espionage and espionage activities can be conducted remotely—
worlds away, nations away from our own country—
In the current climate, we’re facing a raft of different countries that are seeking to conduct espionage and foreign interference—
right here in Australia—
It’s much more blurred in a sense, there’s much more state actors out there than there was during that time.
I believe that if unchecked these threats can erode our sovereignty and diminish public confidence in the integrity of our political system and also in our government institutions.
The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2018 will introduce new foreign interference offences targeting covert, deceptive or threatening actions on behalf of foreign actors to influence Australia’s democratic processes or to harm Australia itself. Again, these are not theoretical issues. These are real and present threats that are happening right here in Australia today. The bill also seeks to reform Commonwealth secrecy offences, ensuring that they appropriately criminalise unauthorised disclosure of harmful information while also protecting freedoms of speech. They also introduce comprehensive new sabotage offences that effectively protect critical infrastructure in the modern environment. This is not only a risk of espionage, in terms of finding out the information and how to actually access and bring down our critical infrastructure, but also a significant national security and defence threat.
Modernisation and reform offences against the government are also included in this bill. To better protect Australia’s defence and also democracy, it includes ‘treason’. The bill also introduces a new ‘theft of trade secret’ offence to protect Australia from economic espionage by foreign government principles. Again, as chair of two defence committees in this parliament, I know just how real this threat is.
The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017 will establish a scheme to provide visibility to the public, but also to decision-makers in government, about foreign influence over Australian government and political processes. This is something that the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters looked at. Again, it is very clear that it does exist and the threat in Australia is growing.
The scheme will require registration for activities undertaken on behalf of foreign principals to influence Australia’s government and also its political processes—again, foreigners seeking to influence and interfere in matters that should ever only be matters for Australians to determine. This means that activities undertaken on behalf of foreign principals will be publicly available to all Australians.
Of course, and quite rightly, these bills have been the subject of much consideration and debate in the Australian community. The Commonwealth government has heard and listened to these concerns. The committee report delivered by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security has taken account of these concerns, and has come up with a very sensible suite of recommendations.
In response to the committee’s report, this is what the government have agreed to do. They’ve agreed to narrow the scope of secrecy and espionage offences to strengthen the defence for journalists and provide additional defences that apply to whistleblowers and other legitimate conduct in our activity by Australians. It will clarify key terms including ‘prejudice to Australian national security’ and ‘foreign political organisation’. It will also require a review of the operation and effectiveness of the new offences created by the bill after three years of the offences commencing operation.
The amendments are based on recommendations made by the PJCIS, and are also in response to community concerns. As chair of the Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, as I’ve said, I know the threats to our nation are real in many, many ways: through the targeting of our infrastructure, our corporate sector, our government institutions and also the pillars and institutions that support democracy here in Australia. No senators in this place should ever, ever underestimate these threats.
In all seriousness, I echo the sentiments of the Attorney-General when he spoke on these bills in the other place. He said:
That threat is from new forms of espionage practised in the modern age. These bills are detailed and legally complex, but the central principle of their necessity can be described simply by saying that we cannot protect Australia against modern espionage in the age of Skyfall with counterintelligence laws drafted for the era of Goldfinger.
On that very sage note, I commend these bills to the Senate and I encourage all in this place to support this important legislation. Again, I thank and commend those opposite for their bipartisan approach to national security.