Australia softens proposed foreign interference law

Bill revised to secure parliamentary support as diplomatic rift with China threatens trade

SYDNEY • Australia yesterday softened proposed foreign interference laws to secure parliamentary support for legislation that threatens to further strain ties with major trading partner China.

Less than a year ago, trade with China was riding high - at a record A$170 billion (S$172 billion) last year - but is now threatened by a diplomatic rift over Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's comments about Beijing meddling in Canberra's domestic affairs.

Late last year, Mr Turnbull cited "disturbing reports of Chinese meddling" as justification for the new tougher legislation, though the Bill stalled amid political opposition to several elements.

Keen to push through the Bill, Australia's centre-right government said the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme would now not require executives and lobbyists connected to private multinational companies to register as foreign agents.

"We've narrowed the focus of the Bill with this drafting to companies, particularly, who show and exhibit a degree of control on the part of foreign governments or foreign political organisations," Australian Attorney-General Christian Porter told reporters in Western Australia state.

The opposition Labor Party has said it will support the revised Bill.

Mr Andrew Hastie, chairman of Parliament's joint intelligence and security committee, said foreign interference laws must be tightened as authoritarian regimes look to steal US secrets through Canberra's membership in the Five Eyes intelligence alliance. Britain, Canada, New Zealand and the United States are part of the group, besides Australia.

Canberra's bid to mend ties with China has been hampered by Beijing's reluctance to meet Australian lawmakers.

The foreign interference Bill is likely to be introduced in Parliament soon and adopted by the end of next month.

"China strongly objected to being singled out by this legislation," said Dr James Laurenceson, an expert on the two nations' economic ties at the University of Technology in Sydney.

In Beijing, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said that regardless of whether the proposed legislation was specifically targeting any country, China relied on a basis of "mutual respect and non-interference" in building ties.

"We never, unlike some other countries, try to carry out so-called infiltration or interference in the domestic politics of other countries," Ms Hua Chunying told a daily news briefing.

Canberra's bid to mend ties with China has been hampered by Beijing's reluctance to meet Australian lawmakers. Trade Minister Steven Ciobo was largely shunned on a trip last month, despite being the first elected Australian official to visit China in more than seven months.

Australian and Chinese leaders have met annually since 2014, though the diplomatic row has analysts fearing Mr Turnbull's scheduled visit to Beijing this year may not happen.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 09, 2018, with the headline 'Australia softens proposed foreign interference law'. Print Edition | Subscribe