In its 2017-18 annual report, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) outlines why Australia is a target of espionage and foreign interference.

“Australia’s position as a major commodity supplier, scientific and technological innovator, and potential joint venture partner makes it a target of foreign states seeking to gain an advantage”.

Foreign powers have been identified as conducting covert operations aiming to shape the opinions of the Australian public, media and government to advance their country’s political objectives.

In accordance with the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation Act 1979, the ASIO targets ‘acts of foreign interference’ that threaten Australia’s national security and interests.

This includes instances of espionage, whereby foreign adversaries target the networks of the Australian Government, industry and individuals to gain access to information and advance intelligence objectives.

What is the difference between foreign influence and interference?

The report illustrates that there is an important line between foreign influence and interference. While foreign influence operations may also represent a threat to Australia’s interests, foreign interference is more difficult to detect due to its covert and deceptive nature, and therefore has the potential to be even more destructive.

A number of examples are provided to illustrate this difference:

  Foreign Influence Foreign Interference
Example 1 An individual asks community groups to support a political party and mobilise community members to vote accordingly The individual has concealed links or is being directed by a foreign government
Example 2 A foreign entity lobbies an Australian decision-maker to take a particular position or reach a preferred outcome The foreign entity secretly encourages the decision-maker to make a specific decision with inducement
Example 3 A foreign government employee encourages an individual to return to their home country The foreign government employee threatens the individual to comply with their directive
Example 4 A foreign national invites (and possibly funds) an Australian political figure to a foreign country for a trade conference The foreign national has been directed by a foreign intelligence service to arrange this travel to facilitate intelligence activity against the Australian political figure
Example 5 A dual Australian–foreign citizen provides a donation to a political party The dual citizen is being directed by, and providing the donation on behalf of, a foreign government

Common hallmarks of foreign interference include conduct that:

  • Is covert or deceptive
  • Involves a person making a threat to cause serious harm
  • Involves making a menacing demand

What is the potential damage to Australia?

While some espionage and foreign interference threats may appear relatively harmless on the surface, there can be significant future consequences that may not manifest until many years after the activity has occurred.

The ASIO states that hostile intelligence activity “can undermine Australia’s national security and sovereignty; damage Australia’s reputation and relationships; degrade Australia’s diplomatic and trade relations; inflict substantial economic damage; degrade or compromise nationally vital assets, defence capabilities and critical infrastructure; and threaten the safety of Australian nationals or others who serve Australian interests”.

What legislation addresses espionage and foreign interference?

The National Security Legislation Amendment (Espionage and Foreign Interference) Bill and Foreign Influence Transparency Scheme Bill introduce a number of espionage and foreign influence offences, as well as sanctions for any parties seeking to act contrary to Australia’s national interests.

Conclusion

Espionage and foreign interference pose significant long term threats to Australia. The ASIO, leveraging legislation which provides new offences and restrictions on foreign and Australian entities seeking to act against Australia’s interests, aims to create a significant public deterrent and make it more difficult for foreign enemies to compromise Australia’s sovereignty, security and prosperity.