Opinion - We must be vigilant to protect our democracy from foreign interference

Our democracy is under threat from beyond our shores.

On Wednesday, ASIO Director-General of Security Mike Burgess warned us of the very real threat to our democracy by foreign actors at his annual threat assessment address.

Mr Burgess highlighted the upcoming federal election as a highly vulnerable target to foreign interference, revealing that ASIO had recently thwarted an attempt by a foreign government to fund candidates in an Australian election.  

Now, more than ever, we must have the appropriate laws in place to stop foreign infiltration into our electoral system – the heart of our Australian democracy.

Free, fair and trusted elections are critical to the integrity of Australia's democracy. Threats to our elections are threats to our national security. 

That’s why this week as the responsible Minister I, introduced reforms to combat foreign influence and strengthen the integrity of Australia’s electoral system into Parliament. I’m pleased the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022 passed through the Senate yesterday.

The new laws will stop foreign governments, organisations and individuals from running election campaigns in Australia, and I expect it to pass the House of Representatives next week before the conclusion of this Parliamentary sitting fortnight.

The laws will directly target foreign governments, organisations and individuals who want to undermine our Australian democratic process – either by influence through advertising, or by spreading deception and doubt in Australia’s electoral processes.

These reforms build on the Morrison Government’s consistent track record on stopping foreign donations in elections and boosting our response to foreign interference. 

The security risks facing our nation are ever-evolving. It’s therefore of utmost importance that our laws are fit-for-purpose and up-to-date to protect our electoral system from foreign influence.

Australia is one of the leading democracies in the world.

Our democratic success is based on the principles of freedom, respect, fairness and equality of opportunity. But not every nation shares these ideals.

And it’s no secret that some countries will do whatever it takes to change these Australian values. As Mr Burgess said, ASIO has dealt with multiple attempts – from multiple countries – to steal Australia’s secrets and undermine its sovereignty. 

We have led the world in the development of our Australian democratic system, and we’re committed to maintaining it.

Before the last Federal election, we introduced laws in 2018 to ban foreign donors from seeking to buy influence in Australian elections.

In 2021, we further tightened the ban on foreign donations for political candidates, MPs and Senators, and extended the ban to entities associated with political parties and independents.

These laws are working. They’re reducing foreign influence on the Australian political system by restricting the ability of foreign money to finance Australian election campaigns and influence voters.

Plus, the Morrison Government has invested $145 million since 2018 to bolster our response to foreign interference in Australian elections. 

In 2018, we established a network of federal agencies - the Electoral Integrity Assurance Taskforce - which includes the Australian Electoral Commission and national security agencies, to support the integrity of Australian electoral activities. 

We also introduced a suite of espionage and foreign interference legislation, appointed a National Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator to lead a whole-of-government response, and established a Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce to disrupt and deter foreign interference activity. Since 2019, the Taskforce – led by ASIO – has already investigated more than 30 cases. 

As I mentioned earlier, in his address, Mr Burgess unveiled a recent intelligence operation that ASIO conducted. It further cemented the very real threats we are dealing with.

Mr Burgess detailed a plot by a foreign government in the lead up to a recent Australian election. The foreign government paid an Australian-based individual – a ‘puppeteer’ – to influence Australian political candidates, their staff and journalists, to sway Australian people in their favour at the election. 

Thankfully, ASIO thwarted the plot before harm was done. 

“This agent of interference has roots in Australia but did the bidding of offshore masters, knowingly and covertly seeking to advance the interests of the foreign power and, in the process, undermine Australia's sovereignty,” Mr Burgess said. 

There are growing numbers of individuals and groups now motivated by political, social and economic beliefs – these are all part of a healthy Australian democracy when performed in an open and transparent manner. They have the ability to contribute positively to public debate and are welcome in Australia. 

What is not welcome is another government or foreign entity trying to influence Australian discussions and beliefs.

Foreign interference involves coercive, clandestine, deceptive or corrupting activities which are contrary to Australia’s sovereignty, values and national interests. 

Our laws have never been stronger or tougher to ensure our political system is free from foreign interference and covert influence. But we must be vigilant, continue to bolster them and protect our democracy and freedom.

Only Australians vote in Australian elections. 

Only Australian money should be used in Australian elections.

Only Australians should shape and influence Australian elections.

No.
2
Date
Initials
BM