Turnbull to make foreign interference and donations a crime

Political activity such as Labor senator Sam Dastyari's infamous pro-China speech after receiving money from a Beijing-linked businessman would become a crime under new laws to curb foreign interference, the Turnbull government has indicated.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull unveiled the much-anticipated laws, which will create a new offence of covertly or maliciously influencing a political process or government decision in a way that harms Australia's national interest.

The laws will also ban foreign political donations to activists such as GetUp! as well as political parties themselves.

And they will create a public registry for individuals or organisations that aim to influence the Australian political process on behalf of foreign interests, similar to the existing registry for political lobbyists. It will become a crime for any person or group that lobbies for foreign interests to not sign up.

And the laws will broaden the definition of foreign espionage to capture more types of activity.

Mr Turnbull announced the changes alongside Attorney-General George Brandis and Finance Minister Mathias Cormann, declaring that "foreign powers are making unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts to influence the political process, both here and abroad".

Most crucially, the laws will make a crime of what Senator Brandis called "the offence of unlawful foreign interference".

This would cover behaviour that is not currently defined as treason or espionage but which covertly aims to influence Australian politics or government decision-making on behalf of a foreign actor or government in a way that harms Australia's security or interests.

"If you act covertly on behalf of a foreign actor in a way that harms Australia's national security, to influence the political process, or a government decision, that conduct will be criminalised," Senator Brandis said.

He strongly suggested that Senator Dastyari's conduct in 2015, in which he received money from a business connected to Chinese-linked business Huang Xiangmo and then made public remarks supporting Beijing's position on the South China Sea contrary to both government and Labor policy, would fall under the new offence.

Senator Brandis said it could be interpreted to cover opposition party policy as well as governments.

"In my view, the conduct alleged against him does not reach the threshold of the existing laws of treason and espionage, but that is why we are introducing - because of the gap in those laws, a new offence of unlawful foreign interference," he said.

Former trade minister Andrew Robb would also have to register on the list of agents, Senator Brandis said, because of his $800,000-a-year consultancy with Chinese firm the Landbridge Group, which controls Darwin Port.

"Somebody in Mr Robb's position would be required to register under the transparency scheme," Senator Brandis said. "A person who has been a cabinet minister within the previous three years must register if he acts on behalf of a foreign government, a foreign public enterprise, a foreign business or a foreign political organisation."

He said former MPs and senior federal government officials working for those foreign organisations would also have to register with the scheme if they used the skills they had gained from their parliamentary or government work in their new roles.

Senator Brandis also indicated groups such as the University of Technology Sydney's Australia-China Relations Institute, headed by former foreign minister Bob Carr, could have to register.

He stressed that foreign actors and lobbying were both fairly broadly defined in the new laws. Foreign actors included not just governments but also "a foreign public enterprise, a foreign political organisation, a foreign business or an individual". Lobbying was defined as communicating "in any way with a person or group or persons for the purpose of influencing a process, decision or outcome".

This story Turnbull to make foreign interference and donations a crime first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.