Press conference, Parliament House

SUBJECT/S: Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill.



SUBJECT/S: Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill.
MARK DREYFUS, SHADOW ATTORNEY-GENERAL: Thank you. Today’s bipartisan report shows some significant wins for civil society. It’s the product of work by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security which has now been working for well over six months to get what was a deeply flawed bill as first presented by the government on 7 December into some kind of acceptable form.
I should stress that Labor has always supported some form of register to deal with foreign government interference or foreign government influence on our political system but the bill which was produced by the government on 7 December was very very flawed and, of course, reached so broadly that it would have captured thousands of innocent Australian individuals and organisations - people ranging from environmental groups through to Indigenous rangers through to charities such as the Salvation Army. What has occurred, finally, is that the government recognised on 7 June, some six months to the day after the bill was first introduced by the Prime Minister on 7 December, the government has recognised that there was overreach in this bill and produced a set of amendments. Regrettably the Government didn’t allow a great deal of time for public comment, and even less time for the committee to engage in deliberations on it - but the committee has said too - quite a lot of public comment was received, even in that short time. What that has produced is a further set of changes to this bill and there’s a report now that’s been presented to the Parliament at 12 o’clock today.
I’m hoping that the government will now act on these bipartisan recommendations. The government’s intention is that the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill will be brought back into the Parliament tomorrow for debate and it should be accompanied by amendments which recognise the approximately 49 recommendations that the committee has made for changes to, as I’ve said, a bill that, in its original form, was a gross overreach. What you see here is the potential for power of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security working constructively to produce bills that are effective bills.
That of course should be something the government does from the outset. It didn’t happen here. If the government agrees to all the recommendations of the Intelligence Committee, that will now happen and this Parliament will be able to pass before it rises for the winter break, what in Labor’s view is an effective foreign transparency scheme. Any questions?
JOURNALIST: Did Labor do a deal too cheaply with the government on the Espionage Bill by not getting a complete exemption for journalists and their sources?
DREYFUS: Labor has worked extremely hard, not only on the bill that’s been reported on today but on the other bill that you’ve just mentioned, the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill which is a bill of a quite different type. It creates some 38 criminal offences by amendments to the Crimes Act and the Criminal Code. And in it you’ll see, from the report of the Intelligence Committee, that Labor worked for a whole range of safeguards, for a tightening of many offence provisions, for the inclusion of additional defences.
Regrettably, in the debate which has followed the release of the Intelligence Committee’s Report a number of, what I think are inaccurate suggestions about the way in which this bill would work. It’s been suggested, for example, that protest against the Iraq War, were it to occur after this bill becomes law, would be, somehow a criminal act. That’s simply not correct.
It’s been suggested that peaceful protest would somehow be criminalised by the amended sabotage provisions in this bill and that’s not correct either. As to the position of journalists, the focus of your question, there’s a range of public interest and prior publications offences that will apply as well as a narrowing of some of the offences, a separating out of offences to be committed by Commonwealth public servants as distinct from offences committed by others that we think, adequately protect the position of the media and journalists.
JOURNALIST:  Why should the onus be on media organisations to show that their reporting is in the public interest and be exposed to prosecution just for embarrassing the government?
DREYFUS: Well they are not going to be exposed for prosecution just for embarrassing the government and one of the recommendations of the Intelligence Committee went directly to this. I understand the debate that you raise about how to frame the criminal law which is whether or not matters should be left to be raised in defence, or whether there should be exceptions in the framing of the offence itself. Taken as a whole there is still a discretion to be applied by the Director of Public Prosecutions in considering whether to bring charges. That consideration will always include whether a defence is likely to be made out and as well, of course, the committee has recommended in that Espionage Bill that there be an additional filter or check and balance of the consent of the Attorney-General being required.
JOURNALIST: On the Committee report today, can you take us through the rationale of the Committee for recommending greater obligations for former ministers and other people who have worked previously in ministerial offices and that cohort of people?
DREYFUS: It’s the case clearly that people who have worked at the highest level of Australian Government are people who are in a position to potentially influence a subsequent government. That’s why we do see or have seen in the past former ministers, former senior staff, employed by, obviously often corporations, but sometimes by foreign governments to lobby on their behalf. 
What’s vital, and that’s what lies behind the recommendations of the committee, that there be an increase in obligation there - that they were already in the bill but not enough as far as the committee is concerned - we think it is vital that whatever direction is being given by a foreign government to someone who is a former cabinet minister, or a former minister or a former senior staff member in this building that that direction, that control if there be any, be made transparent. The whole purpose of this register scheme is to get at what are covert influences on our politics by making them overt, by making them transparent.
JOURNALIST:  Mr Dreyfus the report you’ve made today, the committee has made today, is I think, will result in the third redrafting or the third draft of this bill.  What do you say about the process that means we have had to go through three iterations to get to an acceptable version of the bill?  Was it done too hastily?
DREYFUS: I don’t want to disturb the bipartisanship we have reached on the final outcome here with the recommendations that the committee has made. But the process has been inadequate. I have already made some comments on the tabling of the report in the Parliament. And absolutely the process has been inadequate. Labor’s view is that wherever possible government’s should, particularly for complex pieces of legislation and ones that include criminal sanctions that there should be exposure drafts that harness, if you like, the knowledge of the Australian community. 
There is a great deal of expertise outside this Parliament and it’s very useful to get that expertise brought to bear on an exposure draft, on a draft of complex legislation. The government didn’t do that. It drafted this in secret and produced it on 7 December and then sought to have a very very short time over the summer, I might add, I think we all know what Australians mostly do over the summer. The government’s idea was that the Intelligence Committee would report on all these bills in early February. That hasn’t happened partly because the government tried to rush things in the first place. And I think and I hope that the Government takes a lesson from this, that this Parliament and the Australian community are capable of working constructively to get our national security laws right. But they can’t do it if they have to rush, in a way that the government sought to have this rushed. 
And regrettably we had a long hiatus in the middle but then there was another rush in the end when the government finally realised, and I have to say I congratulate the Attorney-General for getting to it eventually that the bill as first introduced was hopelessly flawed. We finally got a big set of amendments on 7 June but even they were not adequate. If the whole process had been done differently with an exposure draft and much longer given for comment, I think we would have got to a better outcome quicker than has occurred here. 
JOURNALIST:  The Deputy Chair of the Committee, who is a Labor MP, Anthony Byrne, has not expressed the same level of concern that you have about this process, instead focussing much more on bipartisanship.  Are your concerns shared equally by your Labor colleagues?
DREYFUS: Absolutely and I direct you to the comments that the Deputy Chair of the Committee has just made in the Parliament at about midday today where he echoed and endorsed the concerns that I have expressed about process and the way in which the government had sought to rush through this legislation.
JOURNALIST:  He briefly mentioned them. You’ve gone at some length to mention them, to outline the details.
DREYFUS:  I have answered a question from someone here at this press conference and what I am saying is that there is absolutely agreement. I’d suggest actually including the government members on the committee about the rushed nature of this process.
JOURNALIST: Mr Dreyfus, the committee has had a huge volume of legislation that it’s had to deal with in the last six months or even longer, relating to intelligence agencies and now this last raft of legislation. Is the committee under inordinate pressure? Is it under more pressure than usual, and if so is there a risk that mistakes will slip through?
DREYFUS: This is an unusual committee and you’re right to comment that there’s been a tremendous amount of work given to this committee. Much more I think than just about any other parliamentary committee this year. I do think that in the longer term we need to think, perhaps about resourcing of this committee, which is unlike most of the committees in this Parliament which are set up under the standing orders. This is a statutory committee, which has a whole range of statutory functions, review functions conferred on it. You’re right to point to the fact that the committee has had a tremendous amount of work, both its regular reviewing work and one-off work on quite difficult and complex bills this year.
I’m hoping that the pace of legislation might slow a little bit in the second half of this year, but there is a long-term issue that the government should think about, about how this Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is resourced.
JOURNALIST: The Chinese government had a fair bit to say and was pretty unhappy about how these bill had been looked at last year, and more talks this year. Do you think now that we’re about to pass them they might chill out a bit?
DREYFUS: I think that it is very important that everyone in this Parliament, everyone in this community, in talking about the need to deal with foreign interference and foreign influence in our community and in our politics. They’re two different things there: foreign interference and foreign influence. Speaks carefully and adopts an appropriate tone in the way that they talk about it. I think that anyone looking at this bill in the form in which we think it will now be introduced with amendments to the Parliament again tomorrow, will see that it’s very much focussed, not on some generalised concern about foreign influence in general, but very much directed at foreign government influence on our political system and bringing in a system, a transparency scheme, a register scheme, which will ensure that foreign government influence on our politics is made public. Because that’s the concern.
It’s not a concern when foreign influence, even representations by foreign governments are made. The concern is when that is attempted to be done in a covert way, a secret way. This scheme is directed at making it public and making it overt.
JOURNALIST: Mr Dreyfus, on another matter, your Labor frontbench colleague Anthony Albanese gave a speech on Friday night that attracted some controversy. I wonder what you think of that speech and was it a helpful or unhelpful speech to give at this particular time?
DREYFUS: I thought it was a good speech and like quite a number of speeches and comments to identical effect made by the Leader of the Opposition over the past couple of years. The only thing that surprised me about the speech was the way in which it was reported on, because as I say it was very similar in sentiment, particularly the sentiments about working with business, that the Leader of the Opposition himself has made right up to today but going back now some years.
JOURNALIST: So in terms of alleged tension between Mr Albanese and Mr Shorten, nothing to see here?
DREYFUS: Well, none. And that’s why I say, I was surprised by the reporting of that speech, which was nothing out of the ordinary. It was a good speech. I don’t mean to disparage it. It was a good speech, but very similar in sentiment, particularly about talking with and to business, to sentiments the Leader of the Opposition has expressed himself.
JOURNALIST: Just finally on the report, will the proposed safeguards satisfy the concerns of charities?
DREYFUS: I hope so. Charities rightly, and arts and cultural organisations, the ACTU and the trade union movement, all expressed concerns about the original form of this bill and when the government published its proposed amendments on 8 June, I’m sure the government hoped it had dealt with the concerns expressed by charities and other civil society groups, and I hoped that too, but as I read them and as charities read them, it became apparent that those proposed changes still hadn’t gone far enough to make sure that charities, arts and cultural organisations and trade unions, were not punished or hampered in going about their ordinary activities. And that’s why the committee has recommended a full exemption for charities, an exemption for arts and cultural organisations and an exemption for trade unions, and the government members on the committee have accepted that in a bipartisan recommendation.
We’re now waiting to see the form of the amendments that the government brings in to meet that recommendation.