Some Australians see the country’s new powers to stop foreign interference as an overdue shift from complacency to vigilance, while others have warned of the dangers of a McCarthyite moral panic.

But all can agree that Australia’s approach to foreign meddling in its politics, universities and public debate has changed a great deal in recent years.

Last week, the Canadian House of Commons voted 179-146 for this country to adopt a plan similar to Australia’s to counter meddling by the People’s Republic of China.

Experts in Canada and Australia suggest that such a change would set Canada on a much more aggressive path in countering China’s inroads into this country’s institutions.

Conservative foreign affairs critic Michael Chong’s motion requires the government to “develop a robust plan, as Australia has done, to combat China’s growing foreign operations here in Canada and its increasing intimidation of Canadians living in Canada, and table it within 30 days of the adoption of this motion.”

Chong’s motion received the support of most opposition members of the House, along with Liberals Wayne Easter, Nathaniel Erskine-Smith, John McKay and Jennifer O’Connell.

Chong chose Australia as a model for Canada because of a package of laws passed in 2018 in the wake of a series of revelations that brought the issue of foreign interference and espionage to the fore.

Sam Dastyari was an up-and-coming Labor Party senator when the year 2018 began. By the end of it he had admitted to soliciting thousands of dollars from businesses affiliated with the Chinese Communist Party. Thousands of Australians signed petitions demanding he face charges of treason.

Australian media reports on Dastyari suggested he was a good investment for China. He not only supported Beijing’s claims to the South China Sea — in opposition to the official position of his Labor Party — he also worked to prevent a meeting between his party leader and a Hong Kong pro-democracy activist.

Dominique Dalla-Pozza teaches at the Centre for Military and Security Law at the Australian National University in Canberra (which itself allegedly has been a target of a massive Chinese intelligence operation). She said that for the past few years, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (the ASIO — Australia’s equivalent of Canada’s CSIS) has been sounding the alarm about unprecedented levels of foreign intrusion.

“ASIO said there were more foreign spies and their proxies operating in Australia than at the height of the Cold War,” Dalla-Pozza said.

In Canada, CSIS has been trying for years to draw Canadians’ attention to foreign interference in everything from universities to municipal governments. Then-director Dick Fadden went public with such a warning in 2010. But Canada has seen no real legislative or organizational response.

In Australia, by contrast, those warnings led the Turnbull government to introduce a new Espionage and Foreign Interference Act. 

Australia’s laws don’t single out China, the country’s largest trading partner. When he introduced the bill in Parliament, then-PM Malcolm Turnbull was careful to cite other precedents, such as Russian meddling in the U.S. and French elections of 2016 and 2017. 

But there’s no doubt in Australia about which foreign government is seen as the most active meddler. Over the last couple of months, Australia has raided the apartments of four Chinese journalists and revoked the visas of two Chinese academics.

Dalla-Pozza said the law defines foreign interference as “conduct that is engaged in in concert with a foreign principal or a person that is acting on behalf of a foreign principle” where “the person engaging in the conduct is reckless as to whether it will influence government processes, or in other ways influence a democratic political right or duty.

“Conduct has to be covert or involve deception, or involve a person making a threat to cause serious harm, or involve a person making a threat with menaces.”

The new law produced its first arrest of a suspect two weeks ago: Di Sanh Duong, a prominent member of pro-Beijing Chinese-Australian organizations.

The Turnbull government also brought in laws banning foreigners from donating to Australian politicians, placed new requirements on telecommunications companies to block foreign interference, and created a registry of critical infrastructure assets to provide more transparency on who really owns what in the country.

And “there are other mechanisms being developed in Australia that don’t depend on the law,” such as a new national coordinator, a public information campaign and a hotline, said Dalla-Pozza.

“The act prescribes in a more focused way what is foreign interference, what is espionage, what is treason,” said Patrick Walsh, who teaches at the Australian Graduate School for Policing and Security.

Walsh said one of the most significant aspects of the law is that it allows Australia to fight back outside the courts.

“The key is operational disruption of foreign interference, not just to collect information, but to disrupt it,” he said.

“In 2019 the PM established the Counter Foreign Interference Task Force, which is an interdepartmental task force to discover, track and disrupt foreign interference. And there was $8.7 million given to this task force.”

The resources Australia devotes to this effort are not only centralized under a national coordinator, but are also far greater in terms of trained investigators than those available to the Government of Canada.

Thirty days seems like a short time to design a full overhaul of Canada’s approach to foreign interference, but Chong said Canada has a duty to protect people within its borders from harassment and intimidation by agents of foreign powers. 

“It’s long past time for the government to deal with this. Australia has already dealt with this. Our other allies have already dealt with this,” he said. “I note that on October 28, the FBI charged eight individuals, three of whom were Chinese citizens, for interfering and threatening American citizens through operations that are taking place on American soil.”

The motion doesn’t spell out any consequences for the government if it allows the 30 days to lapse. But Chong said that would be a harmful precedent given the strong cross-party support the motion received in Parliament.

“I expect it to be carried out if the government follows democratic norms and respects the will of Parliament,” he told CBC News. “At a time when democracy is under pressure around the world, it’s more important than ever that governments respect democratic norms.”

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