Australia wants foreign interference laws in place in June

CANBERRA, Australia — Australia's attorney general on Friday urged Parliament to pass anti-foreign interference laws this month ahead of five by-elections scheduled for late July.

Australia blames the legislation, which would ban covert foreign interference in politics and expand espionage offences, for the current diplomatic strains in its relationship with China.

Australian media reported last week that two bills were the result of a classified government report commissioned by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in 2016 that found that the Chinese Communist Party had tried to influence Australian policy, compromise political parties and gain access to all levels of government for a decade. The government won't comment on those media reports.

Attorney General Christian Porter cited secret service evidence that the current threat of foreign interference in Australian politics and commerce was constantly evolving and becoming more acute.

He noted that the legislation would for the first time outlaw a foreign government intentionally or recklessly interfering with a democratic or government process, including an election.

"It just makes common sense to have that passed into law as soon as possible and before the next large democratic events in this nation," Porter told reporters.

In Beijing, foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying denied any Chinese interference and used standard Chinese diplomatic phrasing to accuse Australia of political bias.

"Unlike certain countries, we never engage in penetration or interfere in others' internal affairs," Hua told reporters at a regularly scheduled news conference.

"We hope relevant countries can cast away the Cold War and zero-sum thought, and stay committed to developing friendly communication and cooperation on the basis of equality and mutual respect," she said.

Australia will hold five by-elections on July 28, and likely a general election in early 2019.

A parliamentary committee that has scrutinized the two bills since December recommended late Thursday that one be passed with 60 amendments. Porter expected that to happen when Parliament next sits from June 18 to 28.

The government has redrafted the second bill to reduce the number of people and organizations that would have to register as having obligations to a "foreign principal" — a foreign government, public enterprise, political organization, business or individual. The registry aims to create more transparency in political lobbying.

Porter said the scope would be narrowed to answer concerns of charities, universities and churches that fear they might have to register due to foreign funding.

But the proposed changes to the bills have not swayed all critics.

Amnesty International spokeswoman Claire O'Rourke said all charities should be completely exempted from the bills so they can perform advocacy work without fear of prosecution.

"The bill as it stands will create great problems for organizations that are advocating for human rights and other issues within Australia or internationally," O'Rourke said.

Morry Bailes, president of the Australian Law Council, a lawyers' advocacy group, said he feared the laws would affect freedom of speech.

"The grand theme to these bills is that it's going to include a definition of national security that picks up economic and political issues. These are matters that would ordinarily be the source of discussion of political and democratic discussion across Australia," Bailes told Australian Broadcasting Corp.

"What we are concerned about is that by criminalizing some conduct, we are going to discourage people having legitimate political and democratic discussions," he added.

Turnbull's conservative government holds a single-seat majority in Parliament.

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