SYDNEY: Australia’s government plans to “out” foreign interference operations that are targeting politicians, academics and community leaders, home affairs minister Clare O’Neil said today.
Foreign interference is a core threat to democracy in Australia and the country is facing “enormously significant geopolitical challenges”, she said in a speech to the Australian National University’s national security college.
Overseas governments have sought to win over elected domestic politicians, photographed protesters and covertly influence how topics are discussed at universities, she said.
In one example, Australian intelligence agencies had stopped the surveillance of Iranian-Australians by Iran, she said, but added “foreign interference does not just come from one country”.
When foreign interference laws were introduced to Australia’s parliament in 2018, then-prime minister Malcolm Turnbull cited allegations of Chinese government interference in Australian politics and universities, sparking an angry response from Beijing.
O’Neil did not refer to China in her speech.
Australia and China have recently sought to repair diplomatic ties and Beijing has begun to ease trade blocks on Australian coal and agricultural products.
She said foreign interference was not hypothetical, and was being seen as “foreign governments try to win over elected leaders and party activists push for changes in everything from planning laws to foreign and national security policy, or simply to build a picture of how decisions are made”.
Australia would not tolerate incidents where foreign governments were collecting sensitive personal information on dissidents, or the surveillance of peaceful protesters in Australia, and would do more to counter it, she added.
A university foreign interference taskforce was working with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) to deal with “real and increasingly sophisticated” threats, she said.
“It should be no secret or surprise the university sector is a target of foreign interference,” O’Neil said.
“Asio has stated that foreign intelligence services and their proxies ‘are all too willing to take advantage of the openness that is integral to our universities and research institutions to steal intellectual property and cutting-edge technologies’.”