“Espionage and foreign interference are affecting parts of the community that they did not touch during the Cold War,” Burgess said. “And the intent is to engineer fundamental shifts in Australia’s position in the world.”
This latest warning comes as no surprise. We have had to digest reports of cyber attacks on our universities and parliamentary offices, alleged attempts to get Chinese spies elected to parliament and the intimidation of outspoken Chinese students. Just two weeks ago, Australian MPs cancelled a trip to Britain amid a diplomatic spat over the British decision to allow Chinese telco Huawei into its 5G network. Australia has deep reservations that such access would compromise the intelligence we share with Britain.
The federal government has already tried to stymie foreign interference, passing new laws in 2018 and setting up a taskforce in December. Now it is considering changes to ASIO’s special terrorism powers to cover foreign interference. The current powers, passed in 2003, allow ASIO to obtain a warrant to question, or detain and question, people they believe have information about terrorism activity. They can be detained for up to seven days. But the government is now considering plans to excise week-long detention powers and permit forcible questioning of foreign spies for up to 24 hours, as well as terrorism threats.
Understandably, the current laws have attracted criticism for their potential to intrude upon civil liberties. Giving ASIO the power to get a warrant quickly and question a foreign agent before they can leave the country makes sense. But in its 2017 review of ASIO’s special terrorism powers, the joint parliamentary committee on intelligence and security recommended significant changes, particularly to the power to detain. The government’s plan to adopt the committee’s recommendation to repeal the detention power, at the same time as it expands the questioning power to cover spies, should be commended.