Prime minister Scott Morrison says Australia is “not naive” to the threat of foreign interference amid explosive claims that the Chinese communist party wanted to infiltrate Australia’s parliament.
Describing the alleged plot as “deeply disturbing and troubling”, Morrison said the government was determined to protect Australians from foreign interference and had bolstered laws to strengthen the powers of intelligence agencies.
“Australia is not naive to the threats that it faces more broadly … and that’s why we strengthened the laws, why we increased the resources, that’s why we established the Department of Home Affairs, to bring together all of this in a single portfolio, to ensure Australia was in the best possible position to deal with any threats that come our way,” Morrison said.
“I can assure Australians that under our government, the resources have never been stronger, the laws have never been tougher, and the government has never been more determined to keep Australians free and safe from foreign interference.”
However, he said he would not draw conclusions on an alleged Chinese plot to infiltrate Australia’s parliament that aired on 60 Minutes on Sunday, pointing to an Asio investigation that is under way.
“I find the allegations deeply disturbing and troubling, and I refer you to the [Asio] director-general’s statement, which said that these matters were already under investigation, and those investigations are continuing,” Morrison said.
“I would caution anyone leaping to any conclusions about these matters, and that’s why we have these agencies.”
He rejected criticism that the government’s foreign interference regime had not been tough enough, pointing to the cancellation of controversial political donor Huang Xiangmo’s permanent residency.
But he said the government was open to further changes if needed based on the advice of intelligence agencies and the government’s “record and form”.
The Channel Nine report alleged that Chinese operatives offered $1m to Liberal party member Nick Zhao to run for federal parliament in the Melbourne suburban seat of Chisholm, now held by Hong Kong-born Liberal MP Gladys Liu.
Zhao was found dead in a Melbourne hotel room after he reportedly approached Asio to discuss the plot.
Following the report on Sunday, the Asio director general, Mike Burgess, said the domestic spy agency “was previously aware of matters that were reported today, and has been actively investigating them.”
“Hostile foreign intelligence activity continues to pose a real threat to our nation and its security. Asio will continue to confront and counter foreign interference and espionage in Australia.”
The Australian government is already under pressure over a separate case of alleged foreign interference, with self-proclaimed Chinese spy and defector Wang Liqiang seeking protection.
Morrison said that Wang’s case would be assessed on its merits.
“That is the same case for this person, or anyone else who may make such a claim,” Morrison said.
When asked if the government could guarantee Wang’s safety while his claim was assessed, Morrison said he was protected by the rule of law in Australia.
“And as a result, then you can expect the same protections to apply to anyone who is living in our country, whether on a visa or any other arrangement.”
Wang’s plea for protection has been backed by the Liberal MPs Andrew Hastie and James Paterson, who have been outspoken critics of Chinese authoritarianism.
The Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, said the “prima facie case” was that Wang has a genuine claim for protection in Australia.
“That should be considered in a way that takes into account the merits of the case,” Albanese said on Sunday.
By Sarah Martin