Attorney-General Christian Porter has launched a strident defence of the press after another senior Chinese diplomat accused the Australian media of fabricating stories about Beijing’s influence in Australia.
Chinese consul-general in Perth Lei Kezhong slammed the Australian press in an opinion piece published in the West Australian newspaper, saying it had “repeatedly fabricated stories about so-called Chinese influence and infiltration in Australia”.
He also echoed criticisms made last year by China’s Foreign Ministry, saying “some Australian politicians had made irresponsible remarks which are not conducive to mutual trust”.
But Mr Porter used an interview with radio station 6PR to dismiss the consul-general’s complaints and praise the Australian media’s reporting on foreign interference.
“Those statements that are made by a free and open press in Australia might be loved or not loved by governments of any particular country overseas, but the reality is that type of free inquiry, free speech and freedom of political communication is just an inherent and immutable part of our system,” Mr Porter said.
“Media reporting on these issues is not anything to be unexpected — it’s totally to be expected. It’s a healthy critical part of our democratic system.”
The Chinese Government has maintained widespread media reports on Beijing’s activities in Australia have been maliciously concocted by local journalists, but Mr Porter seemed to cast doubt on that claim.
“It’s a simple thing to say the media is fabricating a story, but which particular story is said to be fabricated?” he said.
“Our media is stringent, investigative — they chase every rabbit down every hole.”
Consensus reached on foreign interference laws
The debate flared up as a parliamentary committee struck a bipartisan agreement on the Government’s contentious foreign interference legislation, effectively guaranteeing new laws on espionage will pass Parliament before the end of the year.
The bill would introduce harsher penalties for both sabotage and espionage.
It would also make it illegal for foreign agents to steal trade secrets, or to interfere in Australia’s political system through covert or threatening conduct.
But the Government and Labor have now agreed to water down elements of the proposed laws, which have been fiercely criticised by civil society groups, universities and media organisations.
The maximum jail time for some of those convicted under the proposed new laws will be reduced from 10 to seven years — and the Attorney-General will have to sign off on any prosecutions.
The Government has already promised journalists who publish information in the public interest will not be prosecuted, and now it has been agreed all editorial support staff will be covered by that defence as well.
The Coalition has also agreed to put new safeguards in place which would make it more difficult to prosecute journalists who get classified information.
Reporters who publish classified material already in the public domain will not be prosecuted.
The language in the bill will also be tightened in several sections in an effort to make sure prosecutions are more difficult to pursue.
Aid and advocacy groups had argued the wording was so broad their staff could be prosecuted under the new laws simply for doing their jobs.
Finally, all other secrecy offences in Commonwealth laws will be reviewed.
Covert behaviour will be ‘disrupted’: Dreyfus
Parliamentary committee chair Liberal MP Andrew Hastie said both major parties acted because foreign interference presented an escalating threat to Australia’s political system.
“It’s important to note the general legal framework for addressing the problem of espionage has been accepted. The principles behind this bill have been accepted,” Mr Hastie said.
Mr Hastie predicted the proposed new laws would sail quickly through Parliament.
“This bill will be introduced on the first day of the next sitting week,” he said.
“Because it’s supported on a bipartisan basis, I expect this to pass through the House and the Senate very quickly.
“We need this legislation enacted before the next five by-elections, and certainly before the next election, to protect Australia’s political processes.”
Shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus said the amended legislation struck the right balance between civil liberties and national security.
“These amendments make this bill more effective and ensure that it achieves its intention — to target and disrupt covert attempts to undermine our democratic system,” Mr Dreyfus said.
“At the same time, the amendments provide important protections for journalists, non-government organisations and charities.”
By Stephen Dziedzic