SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia will review its espionage laws, the government’s chief legal officer said on Wednesday, as the country seeks to strengthen spy agencies strained by juggling counter-terror work and worries about China’s rising influence.
For years Australia has been handing extra cash and extra powers to its police and spy agencies to bolster their counter-terrorism abilities.
Then in December, responding to “disturbing reports about Chinese influence,” the government turned its attention on interference in politics and announced a crackdown on political donations and the outlawing of foreign interference.
“We live in an unprecedented age of foreign interference, influence, espionage and domestic terrorism,” Australia’s Attorney-General Christian Porter told radio station 5AA in the city of Adelaide on Wednesday.
“We think it’s very appropriate to step back and look at the whole system from top to tail,” adding that the government was not aiming its intelligence laws at “any one international country”.
However the review, which will run 18 months and is the deepest in four decades, is to be headed by former Australian spymaster Dennis Richardson, who last year warned China in particular was conducting extensive espionage against Australia.
“With China we’re in a situation which we were never in previously, where we now have levels of concern - because they have levels of capacity and ambition - that weren’t the case,” said Professor Greg Barton, a security expert at Deakin University in Melbourne.
Outdated laws that have not kept pace with the advent of the internet and cybersecurity challenges, as well as arcane information sharing rules between Australian intelligence agencies, would be likely candidates for reform, he said.
A staunch U.S. ally, Australia’s intelligence agencies have expanded while the nation has been on heightened alert from 2014 for attacks by home-grown militants returning from fighting in the Middle East. According to authorities that has helped to foil around a dozen plots since.
At the same time, intelligence officers have found themselves increasingly focused on thwarting Chinese influence as public concern has deepened, while ties between the trading partners have soured.
The country’s current spy chief has warned that universities need to be “very conscious” of foreign interference - an apparent reference to China’s perceived involvement on campuses.
This month, the rift between the countries, opened in the wake of Australia’s foreign influence crackdown, widened.
China’s top diplomat rebuked Australia for applying “colored glasses” to the relationship, as Australia’s largest winemaker, Treasury Wine Estates Ltd suddenly encountered problems clearing its products through Chinese customs.
Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Michael Perry