Wednesday, 17 February 2021
Questions without Notice
I thank the member for his question and his great interest in this area. Since coming to government in 2013, we have passed more than 20 tranches of national security legislation. Of those, none have been more important and more complicated than the laws passed to deal with foreign adversaries and any foreign entity that would act in a way that was adverse to Australian interests to benefit their own interests. It's quite clear—and we see it very often—that we continue to face unprecedented levels of foreign activity in Australia, and, indeed, that has been described at various times as exceeding the level of activity that Australia experienced even at the height of the Cold War. The director-general of ASIO rightly observed in his annual report last year:
While terrorism is a threat to life, espionage and foreign interference represent threats to our way of life.
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Foreign governments are seeking information about Australia's capabilities, research and technology, and domestic and foreign policy.
That is why, under this government, we completely rewrote the antiquated espionage and secrecy offence laws in Australia. We introduced Australia's first ever offences for foreign interference, we established the first Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme and, last year, we passed amendments to the ASIO Act which extended their critical compulsory questioning framework to apply to espionage and foreign interference. These reforms have been absolutely critical; they've been very necessary.
My task today is to inform the House that they are working. As members are aware, on 5 November last year, an individual from Melbourne was formally charged with the offence of preparing for a foreign interference offence, contrary to section 92.4 of the Criminal Code. That is the first time someone has been charged in Australia with a foreign interference offence. These, of course, are the same laws that the director-general of ASIO has previously noted have 'caused discomfort and possibly pain for foreign intelligence services' and have 'made it more difficult for them to operate' in Australia.
With respect to our Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme, we've continued to see a very steady number of registrations. As at 10 February 2021, there were 199 activities registered on behalf of 33 jurisdictions. Of course, there is no problem with being registered; that's what we expect. Registrations represent entities as diverse as those from the United States, China and Japan. What we do not expect and will not tolerate is failing to register those types of activities that should be registered.
I can also inform the House that the enforcement powers that exist under the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme register are now on the steady increase in terms of their use. Those information-gathering powers that can be activated by the secretary of my department have experienced a fivefold increase in their use from the last time I updated the House, and these are positive developments.