Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton opens door to more powers to counter foreign interference


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China has previously been blamed by Australian security agencies for large-scale hacking on private companies and the nation’s parliament, while the Australian Security and Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) is investigating claims a Chinese espionage ring tried to install an agent for Beijing in a seat in Federal Parliament.

Mr Dutton said on Tuesday morning if security agencies believed they needed further clarity around their powers “then we will look at that”.

“We have supported 19 tranches [of national security legislation] through the Parliament; Labor has attempted to water down almost all of them,” he said.

“If the agencies need more laws then we will provide that support because this is a very serious threat and I think Mike Burgess dealt with this very effectively when he said we were at unprecedented levels in terms of the foreign interference in our country.

“We need to acknowledge that threat, we need to deal with it, we need to provide support to the agencies, and we’re doing that because we want to keep Australians safe.”

Along with foreign interference, Mr Burgess raised concerns about the growing threat of right-wing extremism and revealed ASIO was investigating twice as many terrorism leads as at the same time last year.

United Kingdom has added two right-wing extremist organisations to its list of prescribed terrorist groups.

Asked why Australia had no current right-wing groups on its list of terrorist organisations, Mr Dutton said the government was “very open” to a new listing but it relied on advice from ASIO, other agencies and the Department of Home Affairs.

“ASIO has been working on right-wing extremism literally for decades in our country,” Mr Dutton said. “I don’t really care where people are on the spectrum. I don’t care what country it is we’re talking about, whether it’s China or Russia or Iran – if people pose a threat to our country, they will be dealt with according to the level of that threat.

ASIO boss Mike Burgess warned foreign interference was at unprecedented levels. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

“And ASIO is blind as to somebody’s ideology. If they pose a threat to human life in our
country, then they can expect a knock on their door from ASIO or from the Australian
Federal Police or from our other agencies.

“And if we have people who are interfering with our diaspora communities here in Australia or they’re interfering with the democratic process, or they’re stealing intellectual property, they can expect to face the full force of the law, regardless of whether they’re a state actor or a sophisticated non-state actor and that’s the way you would expect us to act.”

The Home Affairs Minister also said it was important security agencies had the powers to access encrypted messages and the “dark web” to hunt down syndicates of child abusers online.

The government is considering additional powers to deal with “end-to-end encryption” and extending the remit of the Australian Signals Directorate to help track online paedophiles, terrorists and other serious criminals.

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“Now you’ve got syndicates who are trading in these images, in the online sexual abuse of children, paying and torturing children online, and we can’t do anything about it,” Mr Dutton said.

“And the tragic part at the moment is the companies who are providing these platforms, like Apple and Facebook, and yet they’ve got platforms where these lunatics can exchange these ideas or these images and we need to deal with it.

“If they’re operating on the dark web and they know they can’t be got to by our agencies, even with a warrant from a court, then that is an unacceptable situation.”

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