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Monday, 4 December 2017
Page: 9477

National Security

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (14:04): My question is to the Attorney in his role of being in charge of security matters. I ask the Attorney if he's aware of the concerns that most Australians—like I—have about foreign interference in Australia's security, as was regrettably evidenced last week in this chamber. I'm asking if the Attorney could update the Senate on what the government intends doing to address the threat of foreign interference within Australia?

Senator BRANDIS ( Queensland Attorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate ) ( 14:06 ): Yes, Senator Macdonald. As I've said before, and I'll say it again: the issue of foreign interference in our politics is an extremely serious problem. So I can tell the Senate that, later this week, the government will introduce a milestone legislative package to reform Australia's espionage and foreign interference legislation. As I have told the chamber during previous question times, in May of this year the Prime Minister commissioned me to conduct a comprehensive review of our espionage, foreign interference and related laws. That work—a very substantial body of work—was undertaken, led by my department, and included contributions from ASIO, the Australian Federal Police, the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions and other portfolios as well. That review is now complete and the bills have been drafted and are ready for introduction this week.

This is not the first legislative or policy initiative that the Turnbull government has enacted in relation to foreign interference threats. Earlier this year, we passed the telecommunications sector security reforms and established the Critical Infrastructure Centre, both aimed at protecting Australia's communications and national infrastructure from threats of espionage and sabotage. However, the legislation that will be introduced this week will be the most significant reform ever to the laws relating to espionage and foreign interference. It will be world-leading among our like-minded international partners and, indeed, has been developed in collaboration and discussion with our like-minded international partners, including counterpart agencies in the United States and the United Kingdom. It will completely reshape the way foreign interference and related activities are investigated and disrupted in this country.

The PRESIDENT: Senator Macdonald, a supplementary question.

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (14:06): I thank the Attorney for that and thank you also—I think I can speak on behalf of most Australians in saying thank you—for addressing this very important issue. I ask the Attorney if he might be able to further elaborate on the scope of the espionage and foreign interference reforms that he mentioned in his answer.

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:07): Yes, I can, Senator Macdonald. Of course, what this legislation seeks to do is to plug some important gaps in both the Criminal Code and the legislation governing our security agencies. It's being carefully developed, as I said a moment ago, in collaboration with those agencies, for the purposes of investigating, disrupting and prosecuting acts of espionage and covert interference in the Australian political process. It will strengthen and modernise a range of offences, and introduce new offences. As well, it will establish a new transparency scheme, providing for the first time visibility of the nature and extent of influence over Australia's government and political processes by foreign interests. It will introduce new offences targeting foreign interference and economic espionage, including offences that criminalise covert and deceptive activities that support the intelligence activities of foreign actors.

The PRESIDENT: A final supplementary question, Senator Macdonald.

Senator IAN MACDONALD (Queensland) (14:08): This is almost a rhetorical question, but could I ask the Attorney to explain why these reforms are so very important to Australia?

Senator BRANDIS (QueenslandAttorney-General, Vice-President of the Executive Council and Leader of the Government in the Senate) (14:08): Well, they're important because of the rise in foreign interference, Senator Macdonald. We saw that in the chamber last week in the debate on the activities of our colleague, Senator Sam Dastyari, who, I'm surprised to say, in the statement he made to the chamber on Thursday afternoon, woefully failed to address the facts or substance of the most important allegations made against him by Fairfax Media—that he had given countersurveillance advice to Mr Huang Xiangmo and conducted a covert conversation with him in October 2016. Until Senator Dastyari provides a complete explanation of that central allegation against him, that he actively sought to assist an individual—widely reported in the media as being of security interest—to evade possible security by Australian security agencies, he is plainly unfit to hold his place in the Senate, and the Leader of the Opposition, Mr Shorten, should show a spine and show him the door.