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GOVERNMENT PLAYING POLITICS ON CHINA THREAT, BUT DROPPING THE BALL ON NATIONAL SECURITY

11 February 2022

Independent Senator Rex Patrick today called for new measures that will strengthen Australia’s national security and protect against foreign interference at the highest levels of government. 

“In Parliament yesterday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Defence Minister Peter Dutton were all too eager to play politics with national security, engaging in disgraceful personal attacks on the Leader of the Opposition, Anthony Albanese,” Senator Patrick said. 

“As an independent Senator and a former Australian Navy submariner who has made national security issues a top priority in my parliamentary service, I could not view this as anything other than a cynical, self-serving political stunt.”

“For the Prime Minister to have any credibility here, he needs to commit to measures that will fix grave flaws in our national security system, especially at the top of our national government.”

“These measures including reforming and strengthening our counter-espionage and foreign interference laws, making the foreign influence transparency scheme actually work, ensure that all Cabinet Ministers and other MPs with access to classified information are subject to security checks, and to establish a federal anti-corruption commission with real teeth, because foreign spies thrive amidst corruption.”   

“Throughout my time as a Senator, I have repeatedly warned about the dangers posed by China’s rising military power and geopolitical ambitions. I’ve repeatedly highlighted the threat of covert foreign interference in Australia’s democratic system and the fact that both the Coalition and Labor have failed to adequately respond to those risks.” 

“Australia’s counter-foreign interference and espionage laws, enacted by the Coalition Government, remain weak and riddled with inconsistencies.”

“At a time when the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has repeatedly warned that foreign espionage and interference operations have reached levels far exceeding those at the height of the Cold War, and ASIO’s public reports have referred to numerous spy cases, there have been no prosecutions for espionage and only one for alleged foreign interference.”

“Our spy catchers have plenty of resources and extensive surveillance powers, but their success in putting spies and traitors in prison is remarkably poor, in part because of a legal framework with more holes than Swiss cheese.” 

“The Government’s foreign influence transparency scheme has conspicuously failed to provide openness about the activities of foreign government-controlled organisations and individuals.” 

“Not one Chinese Communist Party controlled front organisation operating in Australia has been required to register. Chinese Government and CCP influence operations in Australia, especially in the Chinese language media and diaspora organisations, continue to run largely unchecked.” 

“Chinese Government harassment and coercion against Chinese political dissidents, pro-democracy activities, and minority communities in Australia, especially the Australian Uyghur community, continue without serious action or even public complaint from the Government.” 

“The Chinese Embassy in Canberra and consulates in state capitals continue to serve as bases for espionage and political interference, with no reduction in the numbers of staff they are allowed to retain. Notwithstanding the large reductions in Chinese student, tourist and business activity in Australia, China still has many more diplomatic and consular officers in Australia than our closest ally, the United States.” 

“The Chinese Consulate in Adelaide provides a base of operations in the front-yard of Australia’s most sensitive defence industry and science projects.”

“The Government’s politically skewed approach to these issues is perhaps most obvious when it comes to security at the highest levels of Government and our political system. Here it’s one rule for them and another for everyone else.”

“Remarkably it’s a fact that all parliamentarians, Federal and State, are excluded from having to register with the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme.”  

Section 25A of the Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Act 2018 provides that a person who works on behalf of a foreign principal is exempt from registering under the Act if they are a member of the Australian Parliament, or a member of a State or Territory parliament.

“A Federal MP can be a foreign agent but doesn’t have to register that fact publicly. There’s one rule for all Australians, and a huge exemption for the very people most likely to be the targets of foreign political interference operations.”

“This is a serious national security flaw, but it’s something the Government refused to engage on when I proposed that the Parliament establish its own foreign influence transparency register.”

“Similarly, it’s a striking fact that Federal Ministers are exempted from any national security clearance checks, even those serving on the National Security Committee of Cabinet. Nor are there any security checks for MPs and Senators serving on the Parliament’s Joint Committee on Intelligence Services.” 

“This is contrary to the security practices adopted in other “5-eyes” countries including the United Kingdom, Canada and the United States.” 

“Yet when I introduced a private senator’s bill to establish a security checking process that would provide confidential advice to the Prime Minister on ministerial appointments, without compromising the democratic standing of elected representatives, the Government again refused to engage, claiming that the existing “no security checks please” regime was perfectly fine.” 

“Tens of thousands of public servants and government contractors undergo security checks each year – but not one Cabinet Minister.  One has to wonder why they don’t want scrutiny.”

“After three years the Government has completely failed to deliver on its commitment to establish a federal anti-corruption commission.” 

“Any counter-espionage or security expert will tell you that the security risks are greatly exacerbated in an environment characterised by poor governance and political corruption.”

“Corruption easily opens that door wide to foreign interference and infiltration. The failure to establish a Federal ICAC is in fact a national security issue of the first order.”

“If the Prime Minister wants to talk about national security in the election campaign, he should start there.”

“The truth is he’s our weakest national security link.”