SYDNEY - Australia is set to pass landmark laws to curb foreign interference in its domestic affairs, introducing a controversial scheme amid growing concerns about alleged meddling by China.
The wide-ranging scheme includes a ban on foreigners making political donations, stronger espionage laws and tougher penalties, and a requirement that agents or lobbyists who represent foreign nations or entities must register their interests.
The measures were passed by the Lower House of Parliament on Tuesday (June 26) and are expected to be passed by the Upper House, possibly this week.
"Covert interference and espionage by nation states are an unfortunate but longstanding global reality and have the potential to cause immense harm to our national sovereignty, to the safety of our people, to our economic prosperity and to the very integrity of our democracy," Federal Attorney-General Christian Porter told Parliament.
But the Foreign Influence and Transparency Scheme has proven to be highly contentious.
First proposed in December, it has since been heavily amended to address concerns that it was too broad and could unfairly affect groups such as journalists, charities and religious organisations.
For example, the media warned it may be prosecuted for publishing news stories on national security issues. Charities and other groups said they could be deemed foreign agents because they regularly work with foreign entities.
The scheme also angered Beijing after Canberra signalled that the laws were designed to target Chinese meddling.
An inquiry was later conducted by the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security. The inquiry's chair Andrew Hastie, a Liberal MP, said the laws were crucial to prevent meddling and spying by "authoritarian" states.
The domestic spy agency - the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation - "advised the Committee that there has been a significant increase of covert influence activities within Australia", Mr Hastie said on Monday.
The scheme responds to this threat by "positioning Australia to counter attempts by authoritarian foreign states to exert improper influence over our political landscape", he added.
The scheme was introduced by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull following a scandal late last year over the relationship between former Labor MP and powerbroker Sam Dastyari and Chinese property developer Huang Xiangmo, who has links to the Chinese Communist Party and has been a big donor to the Labor party.
Mr Dastyari eventually resigned after it emerged that he adopted a pro-China stance on tensions in the South China Sea.
The scheme has led to growing tensions between Australia and China, its largest trading partner.
While Mr Turnbull has repeatedly insisted that the foreign interference laws are not aimed at China, he has also admitted he is concerned about its alleged meddling.
"(It is) very important that the Australian government ensures that only Australians are influencing our political processes and where foreigners seek to influence, they do so openly and transparently," Mr Turnbull told 3AW radio in April.
China has denied interfering in Australian affairs and heavily criticised Canberra for accusing it of meddling.
In moves seen as retaliatory, visits to China by Australian Cabinet ministers have apparently been delayed and shipments of some Australian products were reportedly delayed by Chinese customs officials.
In unusually forthright comments last week, China's Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye accused Australia of viewing China with a "Cold War mentality".
"The two countries need to have more interaction and inclusiveness with less bias and bigotry," he said in a speech to the Australia China Business Council.
The government wants to pass the laws this week to ensure foreign countries do not meddle in the by-elections on July 28.
The opposition Labor party has supported the amended scheme.
"In its original form, the Bill… was very much using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, when what in truth was required was a more scalpel-like approach," Labor MP Mark Dreyfus told Parliament on Tuesday.