Senate debates

Tuesday, 26 June 2018


Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security; Report

5:37 pm

Photo of David BushbyDavid Bushby (Tasmania, Liberal Party) Share this | | Hansard source

I present the report of the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, Advisory report—Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017, and I move:

That the Senate take note of the report.

I am pleased to present the committee's report on its review of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017. The Prime Minister introduced the bill on 7 December 2017 and referred it to the committee for inquiry and report.

Foreign influence is, in many instances, quite legitimate and lawful. However, when done through an intermediary, the source of the influence is disguised and, in such circumstances, decision-makers and the public alike may be unaware of the influences being brought to bear on Australian government decision-making. The bill seeks to address that problem by establishing the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme. The scheme will involve a public register. That register is intended to provide visibility of the level and extent of covert or obscured foreign influence in the course of political and government decision-making in Australia. Under the bill, a person will be liable to register if they undertake certain activities that seek to influence Australian political or government decisions on behalf of individuals and entities that are closely linked to a foreign government.

During the committee's review of the bill, a large number of stakeholders supported its objective to provide transparency of the level and extent of covert foreign influence. However, as the committee's report notes, stakeholders did express concern over the implementation of that objective in the text of the bill. A central concern was the breadth of key definitions that establish a person's liability to register under the scheme. To address many of those concerns, the Attorney-General wrote to the committee proposing a number of significant amendments. The committee welcomed those proposed amendments as a substantial contribution to narrowing the bill.

The committee's report addresses both the bill as introduced and the Attorney-General's proposed amendments. Like many in this place, members of the committee have been concerned about the possibility of foreign parties influencing elections and government decisions in other liberal democracies. The committee roundly supports the establishment of the scheme as part of a suite of responses to address that challenge. In its report the committee has made 52 recommendations. Broadly, these recommendations address the following matters: (1) further refinement of the scheme's scope and the actors and activities that will be captured; (2) the activities that should be exempt from the scheme; (3) registrants' obligation for reporting and registering; (4) recalibrating the offences that will underpin the enforcement of the scheme; and (5) establishing appropriate oversight, review and implementation measures to ensure the scheme's effective operation.

On the recommendations that address the scope of the scheme, the committee has recommended further tightening of the definition of 'foreign entities' that will enliven a person's liability to register. These recommendations will provide greater clarity as to the scheme's purpose and to members of the Australian public when assessing their liability to register. The committee has also recommended that former cabinet ministers, ministers, members of parliament and former senior public servants should carry additional obligations and for a longer period of time. This is appropriate as these former office holders continue to occupy positions of influence, despite leaving office, in the Australian polity.

The committee has also recommended that these obligations extend to senior staff working for ministers. To ensure that the scheme is capturing only the activities of identified concern, the committee has recommended that a range of appropriately targeted exemptions be established in the bill. These include an exemption for charities, arts organisations and certain professions, such as tax agents, engaged in their ordinary representations to government.

The committee has also recommended a suite of measures to ensure that the obligations on registrants are appropriately framed. This includes amending the bill to provide clarity about ongoing disclosure requirements and reducing the time period for which records must be kept. Noting the broad powers of the secretary, the committee recommends some refinement to the processes and matters to be considered by the secretary before exercising those powers. This includes the power to issue provisional transparency notices to provide the subject of those notices adequate procedural fairness. The committee further recommends that the government give some consideration to the development of an independent administrator after an initial period of operation.

The committee has also considered the oversight and reporting architecture that will underpin the effective operation of the scheme. To that end, the committee recommends that various reviews and reports be provided to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security.

Lastly, the committee has recommended that a new scheme be developed for members of parliament to register their representations on behalf of foreign governments and related entities. The committee is of the view that it would be inappropriate for members of parliament to register and report to a departmental secretary. However, it is essential that visibility and transparency is also brought to bear on decision-makers in parliament. Accordingly, a parallel transparency scheme of influence for the parliament should be developed and apply to sitting members of this place and to members of the House.

The committee has recommended that the bill be passed following implementation of the recommendations in the report. I commend the report to the Senate.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

Thank you, Senator Bushby. I'll go to Senator Lines—just a moment: Senator McKim, a point of order?

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I understood that there was a question before the chair moved by Senator Bushby, and I'm wondering whether Senator Lines is actually contributing to that question or whether we're moving on, and if we are moving on whether the question actually needs to be put, because I had intended to make a contribution to the question before the chair, if possible.

Photo of Cory BernardiCory Bernardi (SA, Australian Conservatives) Share this | | Hansard source

Senator McKim, you're quite right in many respects, and I could have asked Senator Bushby whether he wanted to continue his remarks. If you want to make a contribution to that, now would be the appropriate time to do it.

5:44 pm

Photo of Nick McKimNick McKim (Tasmania, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

My apologies for interrupting Senator Lines's contribution. I'll make a more lengthy contribution on both the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill 2017 and the National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill 2017 when we get to my motion shortly. That motion seeks to refer both those pieces of legislation to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee for inquiry. But I do want to just respond quickly to the comments made by Senator Bushby.

This legislation is being steamrolled through the parliament and the Senate in an unholy rush. As exhibit A to support that statement, I want to place on record that the Senate is being asked to examine, consider and vote on 270 amendments to these two bills having only seen those two amendments for the first time this afternoon—270 amendments on bills that have the potential to create the risk of fundamentally changing the way our democracy works and fundamentally impacting on the work of groups that make up civil society in this country. Civil society groups, non-government organisations, fight hard to defend our environment, to defend human rights and to hold government to account. They are absolutely essential in a thriving and vibrant democracy. For the Senate to be asked to consider 270 amendments having just seen them for the first time this afternoon is unconscionable and unreasonable, particularly when these bills deal with such serious issues.

Of course we need to guard against foreign interference in our democracy. We have seen the result of foreign interference in the United States election which elected Donald Trump as President. We have seen foreign interference in the Brexit vote in the UK. Of course we need to guard against similar things happening in Australia, but the risk and the danger here is that, in trying to achieve that aim in such a rushed and ad hoc way, we will see significant consequences—to civil society, to non-government organisations and to things like peaceful protests, which could be criminalised by the provisions in this legislation.

I want that firmly on the record and I will make a more lengthy and detailed contribution about the risks that these bills pose to fundamental rights and freedoms in our country when I move to have them referred to the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Committee shortly.

Question agreed to.