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Wednesday, 20 February 2019
Page: 14044


Mr PORTER (PearceAttorney-General) (10:15): I move:

That this bill be now read a second time.

This bill will amend the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 (the FITS Act).

The FITS Act commenced on 10 December 2018. The act established a registration scheme for persons undertaking certain activities on behalf of a foreign governments, foreign political organisations, and foreign government related entities or individuals.

The scheme is the first of its kind in Australia and a key transparency measure which will help protect the integrity of Australia's democratic institutions, systems and processes from covert foreign influence. This will be of particular importance in the upcoming federal election period.

The amendments proposed in this bill are intended to improve the operation of the scheme by clarifying the scope of a number of key provisions and aligning various requirements for those liable to register under the scheme. Ultimately, these measures will ensure that the scheme provides the level of transparency about foreign influence in Australian democratic processes which was intended.

Ame ndments to sections 13 and 14— communications activity

The bill amends the definition of 'communications activity' in section 13 to the production of information or material on behalf of a foreign principal for the purpose of that information or material being communicated or distributed to the public. Currently, a person who produces information or material for a foreign principal does not have to register under the scheme if that material is given to another party to disseminate. Similarly, the producer does not currently have to ensure that the information or material includes a disclosure about the foreign principal.

For example, it means that an advertisement produced on behalf of a foreign government for the purpose of influencing the voters at the upcoming election, but which is distributed by another party, would not be subject to the same registration and disclosure obligations as other registrable communications activity.

These amendments will ensure that producers of relevant information or material will be liable to register and required to ensure the information or material includes a disclosure about the role that the foreign principal played in its production. Amendments to section 14 will ensure that a person's belief about the intention of the foreign principal for whom they are undertaking an activity will be taken into account when determining the purpose of the activity.

Amendme nts to sections 35, 37 and 38— reporting obligations

The bill will amend sections 35, 37 and 38 of the FITS Act. These amendments address gaps in the act's reporting obligations and will align the reporting and registration time frames under the FITS Act. Currently, the reporting obligations under the FITS Act only apply to a person who is already registered under the scheme, and do not apply to a person who is liable to register, but has not yet actually done so. The amendments will ensure that a person must report all registrable activity undertaken from the time they become liable to register, rather than just the activities they undertake after registering.

The amendments will also consolidate the reporting obligations relating to disbursement activities into section 35 so that all disbursement activities which are undertaken accumulate, regardless of whether they are undertaken during a voting period. These amendments will close a gap in the operation of the scheme and will ensure that all registrable activity is reported.

The bill will also amend section 38 of the FITS Act to ensure that any communications activity undertaken on behalf of a foreign principal contains the appropriate disclosures about the foreign principal, regardless of whether the person undertaking the activity is already registered. This will mean that any communications activity is required to include the relevant disclosures so that the role of the foreign principal in the production, communication or dissemination of the information or material, is transparent to the recipients of the material.

Amendments to section 57— offence of reckless omission

Finally, the bill will make technical amendments to the offences set out in subsections 57(3) and (4) to improve the workability of the offences. The amendments will provide that omitting to register or renew registration under the scheme is a circumstance of the offence, rather than referring to a 'reckless omission' which is not a defined term in the Criminal Code. These amendments do not alter the conduct which is criminalised by the offences, but rather ensure that they operate consistently with other Commonwealth criminal laws.

Conclusion

These are important amendments which clarify the operation of the scheme. With the exception of section 14, which was a recommendation by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, the provisions contained in the amendment bill are consistent with the original bill as introduced to the Senate in June 2018. The amendment to section 14 provides greater clarity and gives effect to the parliamentary joint committee's recommendation. The amendments in this bill do not change the intent of the scheme.

The Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme is a significant step forward in providing transparency over foreign influence in Australian democratic and political processes. The provisions in this bill will give better effect to the important transparency intention of the FITS Act. On that basis, I commend the bill to the House.

Debate adjourned.