Australia’s parliament launched hearings on Tuesday into new foreign interference laws which critics fear could stifle free expression and expose industry bodies, media, non-profits and even Catholics to prosecution.
The conservative government unveiled the wide-ranging laws on espionage and overseas donations in December amid concerns over foreign meddling in domestic institutions, notably by China.
Key features include a ban on overseas political donations and a new register of lobbyists and agents working for foreign interests.
But a range of institutions have been scathing of the measures, echoing financial industry groups who said in a submission to the hearing that the bill was “cast too widely and beyond the policy intention of the government
The Law Council of Australia said most foreign influence in local politics was benign, and the law’s broad scope could instead impinge on freedom of expression and public policy debate.
Media and Catholic organisations added that the exemptions in the draft bill did not adequately or correctly cover their activities, leaving their members open to falling foul of the law.
“The bill is drafted with extraordinary breadth,” the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference said in its submission to the hearing held on Tuesday in Canberra.
It said Catholics advocating or communicating about public policies could be caught up in the laws due to their relationship with the Vatican.
“Terms in the bill such as ‘foreign principal’, ‘lobby’, ‘communications activity’ or ‘donor activity’ are very broad, general and unqualified, which means there is great potential to catch innocent and unintended persons and behaviour, and are of doubtful utility and effectiveness,” the body added.
The hearing will continue on Wednesday.
Leading media firms including News Corp Australia, owned by its US parent, said broader exemptions were needed as press campaigns on public policies could be stymied just because an organisation is a “foreign principal”.
“This is the only way to ensure public interest reporting can continue and Australians are informed of what is going on in their country, and the business [advertising and content] of media organisations is maintained,” they said.
But the head of the parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, which is conducting the hearing, told national broadcaster ABC on Tuesday no further protections were needed.
“I think if you’re seeking to build Australia and not undermine it as an Australian citizen then you shouldn’t be concerned,” said MP Andrew Hastie, of Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s centre-right Liberal Party.
Domestic spy chief Duncan Lewis warned in October there was growing foreign interference in Australia which was “extensive, unrelenting and increasingly sophisticated”.
An inquiry ordered by Turnbull last year found intelligence agencies had major concerns China was interfering in local institutions and using the political donations system to gain access. Opposition Labor Party senator Sam Dastyari quit parliament in December over his China links.
Beijing has said the allegations are “paranoid” and the result of “anti-China hysteria”. SCMP