Contributed by Adam Carlton
While the Turnbull government turned its attention towards foreign political donations, mostly as a means of starving community not for profit organisations, new proposed laws also apply measures that will also target whistleblowers and journalists.
Charges of espionage and treason will be expanded to cover accusations against those having a foreign nationality and accused of having undue influence over Australian business or politics. This is also linked to the government’s concept of national security, the definition of which is constantly expanding.
Traditionally, espionage covered situations where a person passes on information about the country’s security or defence, for the conscious purpose of causing damage to the country and providing advantage to another country or foreign organisation. But now it is redefined to cover any act where a person possesses information or receives it. This information does not have to be classified, which means that it can be anything at all.
Further laws cover preparation for espionage and the theft of trade secrets.
These laws carry 15 years imprisonment.
Australia’s current federal offence of treason applies to rare and serious cases. This is changed to any act which in the government’s eyes, recklessly endangers Australia’s security or defence.
These changes also pose risks to whistleblowers, journalists and media organisations, through serious penalties, in relation to leaked information, even before a decision is made to publish it or not. The definition of whether such information might benefit a foreign country or not is so loose that it is virtually meaningless.
These changes are wrong. Real acts against Australia are already covered by existing laws, including the Crimes Act. Bringing in new laws only makes sense if they are designed to cover those situations that are not thought of a criminal. It also adds to the growing arsenal of power in the hands of government, to silence voices that might be critical.
It is certain that such powers will be used selectively. For example, it is hard to imagine Rupert Murdoch being arrested and charged. He is a foreign national, accesses information through his company structure, has undue influence over Australian business and politics, and arguably, may sometimes behave in a way that provides a benefit to a foreign government. Murdoch has certainly acted to benefit a foreign organisation.
Foreign based corporations with foreign nationals on their boards, using their position to pressure for company tax reduction and carrying out the practice of money laundering, by sending funds to tax free havens are unlikely to be targeted by the new laws.
Nor will they be prosecuted for hiring well paid lobbyists to influence government policies. Big foreign based businesses are not likely to be prosecuted for contributing funds to political parties and using other means to get favourable treatment. This includes mining companies. Guatam Adani comes to mind.
But individuals and organisations the government does not like, stand to be treated very differently. This could include activist groups like GetUp, Unions belonging to international union organisations and having a relationship with their counterparts in other countries, individuals and political parties and organisations that are critical of government policy.
The new laws are framed in a way that allows the government to discriminate and pounce on its targets with very little by the way of evidence.
Is it any wonder that civil libertarians are seriously concerned? A worry is that there has yet not been a broader outcry. The reason is that Turnbull and company are trying to sneak this in through the back door. The news must get out there and there is a need for political leaders to stand up against it.