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Australia passes foreign meddling laws amid China tensions
[SYDNEY] New laws to curb meddling by foreign governments in Australia have been passed by parliament ahead of a raft of by-elections, amid heightened fears of Chinese interference in domestic politics.
Canberra last year announced plans to introduce sweeping reforms to espionage and foreign interference laws, with China singled out as a focus of concern.
Australia's spy agency had raised worries that Beijing was interfering in local institutions and using the political donations system to gain access.
"Espionage and foreign interference pose significant risks to Australia's security and defence," the government said in a statement after the laws passed parliament late Thursday.
"Foreign adversaries are actively working against Australia's interests through a variety of means, including obtaining classified information or seeking to influence the outcome of Australia's democratic processes."
The changes include strengthening existing spying offences and new offences that target covert, deceptive or threatening actions by foreign actors trying to influence or harm domestic politics.
People or entities who undertake activities on behalf of foreign interests will also be required to declare their links in a move designed to make the political system more transparent.
The legislation underwent numerous amendments after criticism from a range of institutions, including charities, that the reforms were too broad and could impinge on freedom of expression and public policy debate.
Attorney-General Christian Porter had pushed for the bills to be passed before several by-elections in late July.
"We have now something we didn't plan for and that is in several weeks we will have five critical by-elections," he told The Australian newspaper earlier this month.
"Even in the time that it has taken to consider the Espionage and Foreign Interference Bill, the threat environment has changed and become more acute."
Four of the by-elections were triggered by sitting members stepping down after being caught up in a constitutional crisis concerning a once-obscure rule that bars dual citizens from federal office.
Relations between Canberra and Beijing have been frosty in recent months, with China lashing out against claims of meddling in local politics and labelling media stories about infiltration as hysteria and paranoia.