National Security

Transcript | Press conference in Melbourne | 06 July 2024

July 6, 2024

Saturday 06 July 2024
Press conference in Melbourne
Subject: Foreign interference, Senator Payman

JAMES PATERSON: Good afternoon everyone. I'll just make some brief comments on the government's foreign interference announcements and Senator Fatima Payman, and then very happy to take questions on that or any other topics.

Well, it's welcome that the federal government is taking the threat of foreign interference and espionage in our country seriously. It is a very serious problem, and it has been for some time, and some aspects of the government's announcement are very welcome. For example, the new community hub for affected and targeted communities of foreign interference is a sensible and welcome step, as is the introduction of a technology foreign interference task force. Although I do note that that's something that the Opposition has been calling on the federal government to do for some time now, particularly after I identified thousands of drones, cameras, and other devices from high risk vendors from China all across the federal public service. Other aspects of the announcement, though, really are just a continuation of the status quo. The Foreign Interference Task Force was a permanent feature introduced by the previous government and always would have been extended. And really, that is not a new initiative at all. It's also not new to say that we would cancel the visas of someone engaged in foreign interference. In fact, the former government did so on many occasions, including one very high profile case involving Huang Xiangmo.

But the biggest problem with the government's announcement is the gaping hole at the heart of the announcement, and that is that it's completely silent on the question of cyber enabled foreign interference, including through social media. The reason why this is a gaping hole is it is the number one source of foreign interference in our country, it is the dominant source, the dominant vector of foreign interference because it is cheap, it is deniable, and it can be done remotely. And if you don't have a plan to deal with foreign interference through social media and cyber enabled foreign interference, then you're not serious about tackling it. The most disappointing thing about this is that they had a plan ready to go. The Foreign Interference Senate Select Inquiry handed down it's report in August last year. It was a bipartisan committee. It made 17 recommendations. And quietly

yesterday afternoon, the government dropped a pathetic response, which failed to adopt any of the recommendations in a meaningful way. And until the government gets serious about platforms like TikTok and others who are a threat to our democracy, then this problem is only going to continue to get worse.

Secondly, on Senator Payman, and I think it is very instructive that only a few days after she has announced that she's leaving the Labor caucus, we've learned through the media about her expenses. We've learnt through the media about her donations. We've learnt through the media about her husband. And most recently, we've learnt through the media about her citizenship. This is an extraordinary and striking thing. The Labor Party is obviously very happy to keep someone's secrets while they're in the caucus, but the moment you leave the Labor Party caucus, they descend on you. And frankly, that is Mafia style behaviour. When it comes to Senator Fatima Payman’s citizenship, there are only two possibilities. One, the Labor Party is admitting that they are shockingly incompetent and have accidentally put a foreign citizen into the Parliament. Or two that they were willing to lie for two years about the fact that they knew she may not be eligible to sit in the Parliament, and they just chose to only reveal this after she left the Labor Party. Neither of those things reflect well at all on the Labor Party or the Prime Minister, and they should stand up and front up and be honest today and say which of those things it is. Ae they incompetent, or did they knowingly put a foreign citizen into the Parliament?

JOURALIST: Senator, obviously the government is saying they are going to beef up the visa system, look at expelling sort of foreign students, any other nationals that might be here, or give themselves greater access to doing so. Should there be more focused on rather than sending potential foreign agents home to actually prosecute them?

PATERSON: Yeah, so I think one of the failings, on a bipartisan basis over many years in tackling the challenge of foreign interference is the failure to land more criminal charges. It was 2018 that the espionage and foreign interference reforms were enacted. And since that time, the ASIO Director General has been clear this is our principal security concern. It is higher than it has ever been in our history, even at the height of the Cold War. And yet only one person has been convicted and only one other person has been charged. I've been saying for a long time now, I want to see the Australian Federal Police lay more charges for foreign interference. It is not adequate that Australians are victims of coercion and intimidation from the long arm of foreign states, and that the government is not doing enough to prosecute people responsible for it. That will have the most powerful deterrent effect.

JOURALIST: Senator, Lucy Grey from Channel Ten. Your home state of Victoria is home to quite a big Cambodian community, are you hearing, we know that that's one of the biggest targets of foreign spies. Are you hearing from those around you about instances of people being targeted?

PATERSON: Well, firstly, to be clear, easily the largest perpetrator of foreign interference and espionage in our country is China, by a country mile. But yes, there are other diaspora communities that are also targeted and have been targeted for some time, including the Cambodian community. And I've heard many distressing stories from them in recent years about the way in which they feel they have been targeted by the Cambodian regime in Australia. And it doesn't matter where it comes from, it doesn't matter which government is responsible. Foreign interference and espionage in our country is utterly unacceptable, and the people responsible for it must be prosecuted and must face real consequences so

that Australians, whatever their background, can feel completely safe in their own country, can engage in our democracy, completely freely, without any fear of coercion.

JOURALIST: Mr. Paterson, it's Claudia from nine years here there's been a 250% increase in successful disruptions to these foreign spy cases, but only one arrest. And we also don't know how much incidents have increased by in general, what does that go to show and is enough being done?

PATERSON: Look, ASIO and their law enforcement partners, including the Australian Federal Police, do do an excellent job disrupting foreign interference plots. The former government gave ASIO an extra billion dollars to tackle this threat. And they have really stepped up. And they focus on it as their number one priority. But unfortunately, if it is continuing despite the disruptions, I think that shows we have a problem here, which is that when people aren't charged, when people aren't convicted, when they're not thrown into jail, they don't fear the consequences. Just being asked to hop on a plane and head back home is not a powerful enough deterrent to prevent this activity from occurring in our country, and we need to see more charges coming forward so that people really feel the consequences of engaging in this foreign interference and espionage.

JOURALIST: Senator, Ben from Seven again. You already mentioned social media, but you said that the government basically failed to adopt in any meaningful way, those recommendations. Can you highlight some other methods or things the governments should have adopted if they had taken the report and its findings seriously?

PATERSON: The most important recommendation of the report was the first one which said that we should legislate a regime of transparency measures, which forces social media platforms to be transparent about their engagement with foreign governments. That includes the censorship that foreign governments ask them to do on their platforms, which we know is prolific on platforms like TikTok and WeChat. That includes being transparent about their moderation policies, about foreign state media active on their platforms, about their algorithms and about other decisions that they make. But there are other critical recommendations as well. For example, the committee recommended that if the United States was successful in legislating a divestment order for ByteDance over TikTok, then Australia should follow suit. And yet, the government has done nothing to address this. TikTok is the number one source of news and information about the world for young Australians, and it is not adequate that the Chinese Communist Party has control of that application.

JOURALIST: Naveen here from SBS, obviously, we namechecked China and Cambodia among the countries that have been found to have committed foreign interference. But we also know that a few years ago, Indian spies were expelled. Are you convinced that our allies are also on the same page as us when it comes to these matters? Should the government do more?

PATERSON: Foreign interference and espionage is something that many countries and many governments around the world engage in. It includes obviously authoritarian states, like some of the ones you mentioned, but sometimes it also includes countries with which we share a perspective and share some values, including democratic values. And regardless of the source destination of it, it is unacceptable. Diaspora communities and other Australians are entitled to feel safe and to feel free in our country. They should never be intimidated by foreign governments, and any foreign government that is doing so should cease doing so. I think we'll be much more successful in stopping them doing so when there are meaningful consequences for their agents acting on their behalf in our country.

Thank you.


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