ABC RN Breakfast

SUBJECTS: Espionage and foreign interference bills







SUBJECTS: Espionage and foreign interference bills

HAMISH MCDONALD, HOST: Joining me now from our Melbourne studios is the Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus. Good morning to you.


MCDONALD: The government has this morning announced additional changes to the establishment of the foreign agents register. Do they go far enough to win Labor’s support?

DREYFUS: We got these amendments late last night, and just so that listeners are clear, this is the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme (FITS) bill, which is a register scheme, it’s not the same bill as the report of the committee tabled yesterday. It’s a quite different law which deals with espionage, secrecy and some new foreign interference criminal charges. So back to your question Hamish – the FITS bill, when it was introduced on 7 December last year, was much too broad. It did some ridiculous things like catch every person working for the Salvation Army in Australia, News Corp journalists, indigenous rangers, Catholic priests, universities, a whole range of people who came forward and told the Intelligence Committee in public hearings just how overly broad the bill was. The government has taken six months to get there but it seems to have woken up that this scheme was much too broad.

MCDONALD: But have you seen anything in the changes that they’re now presenting that satisfies you?

DREYFUS: As I said we got the amendments late last night, in general as I understand what the government is now proposing, they are wanting to restrict the registration requirement to people and organisations who are connected to a foreign government or a foreign government-related entity, someone working for a foreign government. And that would seem to us to be a very good, much better way to approach this. We’ll have to study the amendments to what is quite a complex bill in detail but certainly this is a step in the right direction by the government to very greatly narrow the effect of what was an overly broad scheme that caught many thousands of innocent Australians, innocent people and organisations.

MCDONALD: The benchmark that they’re talking about is 15 per cent ownership by foreign government. That’s a pretty tricky situation for authorities here to be getting into when in many circumstances that’s quite unclear. There may  not be formal ownership, or there may be very strong relationships for example.

DREYFUS: Sure, sometimes it’s going to be clear, other times it won’t. That’s why we want to study the detail of what is already a complex bill. The government late last night presented us with some further complex amendments. They do seem to be a very substantial narrowing of the scope of the bill. That’s a good thing because this sort of legislation needs to be targeted. Labor’s accepted for a long time, indeed the Leader of the Opposition Bill Shorten wrote to the Prime Minister in July last year suggesting that some kind of registration scheme based on the United States Foreign Agents Registration Act would be appropriate. So we agree that a registration scheme is a good thing.

MCDONALD: Sure, but there are instances though where organisations deliberately attempt to hide their connections to foreign governments. I mean that’s surely acknowledged. Do these changes do enough to ensure we would be able to identify those things?

DREYFUS: Well that’s the concern, and the particular concern is covert interference, covert influence on our political processes. And you’d have to say if the government is actually concerned about transparency, it should also be progressing the foreign donations bill, which has already been reported on by the electoral matters committee. The government has yet to respond to that report. That’s actually urgent. Labor stopped taking donations from foreign sources a year ago. The government is still raking in millions of dollars from foreign sources and seems to want to continue to do that, which is presumably why it is dragging its feet on the electoral donations law.

MCDONALD: You say that’s actually urgent. We’ve been told these bills need to be passed through Parliament this month, in fact before the Super Saturday of by-elections. Do you accept the urgency as outlined by Andrew Hastie on this programme a few minutes ago?

DREYFUS: Not on what has been publically disclosed by the government up to this time. The Attorney-General’s department, when asked by me in public hearings on January 31 this year ‘has the government, has the Attorney-General’s Department any information that suggests that there has been interference in Australian elections?’ said no, that they did not have any such information. The reason I asked is that the Prime Minister made much of, in his second reading speech introducing this registration scheme bill, made much of the interference that’s been reported by Russia in Brexit, in the US Presidential Elections and French Presidential Elections. Obviously it would be a concern if there was information available that the government had, that disclosed that there had been interference in Australian elections as at 31 January, in a public hearing, the Attorney-General’s Department representatives told me they didn’t have any such information. If the government’s now got information which suggests interference in Australian elections, they should definitely be bringing that forward and explaining to the Australian people what is known about that.

MCDONALD: To be clear, Andrew Hastie said he couldn’t tell us everything. He did say that Australia is clearly a target. But he then went on to say that he was not aware of a specific threat in terms of the Super Saturday by-elections. So is this as urgent as what the government says it is?

DREYFUS: Well all I will say is that if the government’s got information, it should be sharing it with the Australian people and it’s important to distinguish between espionage, and the kind of conduct that the new foreign interference criminal offences are going to deal with. It’s important to distinguish between that type of conduct, which of course we should be targeting and disrupting if possible, and other suggestions that there might have been some interference in elections. They’re different things. The kind of conduct that Mr Hastie was talking about in his interview with you a short time ago, for example, that Australia might provide some kind of target for other countries to seek to get at information, intelligence information that’s been shared with Australia by our allies – that’s a very, very different kind of conduct. That’s a very different thing than interference in elections. I think, very seriously, if there is any information that the government has that suggests there has been interference in elections, then it ought to come forward with it.

MCDONALD: Andrew Hastie talked a fair bit about the public interest test, that’s in place to protect journalists doing their jobs. He says the laws though, will stop “radical transparency” referring to Wikileaks. Are you clear on what radical transparency is? Most of us read what Wikileaks dumped through the mainstream media. How do we define this stuff?

DREYFUS: Well the term radical transparency is a new one to me Hamish. I’d invite everybody that is interested in this to look at the original bill, the Espionage and Foreign Interference bill, and the 60 recommendations that the committee made in its report tabled yesterday. These are pretty complex provisions, there are protections – there are going to be protections, if the government accepts all of the recommendations. There are going to be protections for the media, in particular there is going to be a public interest defence, and we think that’s very important. It will protect publication in the public interest by all forms of the media.

MCDONALD: But ultimately it will be up to the discretion of the Attorney-General of the day whether to pursue a prosecution against a journalist. How can the public be confident that wouldn’t be shaped, that decision wouldn’t be shaped by the interests of the government of the day?

DREYFUS: I see that as an additional safeguard, and it’s something that’s been present in Australian criminal law. It’s been present in relation to the sabotage offences for many decades, it’s something that’s been present in relation to espionage offences for many decades. The committee’s recommendation is that it should be part of secrecy laws as well. And you need to remember Hamish that the decision made by the Attorney-General will be public. Because once a prosecution proceeds, that will reveal as part of the process that the Attorney-General has decided that that prosecution should proceed. That exposes the Attorney-General and the government to scrutiny. It makes the government accountable. Because we are here talking about something that is at the intersection between national security and our political processes of free debate in Australia, which has to be protected – I do see that the inclusion of an Attorney-General’s consent requirement has an additional protection.

MCDONALD: The Law Council and NGOs say they still have concerns about the Espionage and Foreign Interference bill. Amnesty for example says it’s worried that people not in the media could be prosecuted for doing things like human rights work. There was an attempt at an assurance made by Andrew Hastie in our interview with him. Are you confident that innocent people doing this kind of work won’t be caught up in these laws?

DREYFUS: I’d like Amnesty International and other civil society groups who have participated very constructively in the committee process leading to the report tabled yesterday about the Foreign Interference bill – I’d like them to study carefully the 60 recommendations that the committee has made for change to the bill. And if they still have particular concerns, I’d like to hear them. But I don’t think the bill, if it is amended in the form that the committee has recommended, will criminalise legitimate political comment, legitimate political activity. It won’t be criminalising peaceful protest. It won’t be criminalising the ordinary work of journalists. And that has very much been Labor’s intention in working constructively on this bill which is designed of course, as are all national security bills, to keep Australians safe and to protect our country. So you have to strike a balance Hamish, I think the bill if it is amended in the form recommended by the committee will strike an appropriate balance between national security and keeping our freedoms intact.

MCDONALD: You are asking us, the community though, to place more trust in the intelligence community, the security agencies, and the political class. Aren’t you?

DREYFUS: That’s always the position Hamish, and I take very seriously the need to maintain confidence in the Australian community by the Australian community in our intelligence agencies and security apparatus. And that’s why when we legislate, we put in safeguards, we put in checks and balances, we put in accountability mechanisms. That’s why we provided, or we’ve recommended that there should be a review of all of the new provisions that we are seeing in this Espionage and Foreign Interference bill within three years, by the Independent National Security Legislation Monitor. Itself, the monitor is a safeguard that Labor put in place in 2010. It’s about safeguards, it’s about accountability and it is about maintaining, very importantly, maintaining the confidence of the Australian people in our intelligence agencies.

MCDONALD: Mark Dreyfus thank you very much.

DREYFUS: Thank you very much Hamish.