Australia’s top intelligence agents will form a new taskforce to target foreign interference.
A joint statement from Prime Minister, Scott Morrison; Home Affairs Minister, Peter Dutton; and Defence Minister, Linda Reynolds outlined some of the scope given to the Counter Foreign Interference Tasforce.
“The number one priority of our Government is to keep Australians safe which is why we’re investing $87.8 million for a new Counter Foreign Interference Taskforce,” the statement said.
“It highlights our focus on stepping up our efforts as the threats to Australia evolve.”
The taskforce will be led by a senior ASIO officer and combines members of the AFP, AUSTRAC, the Australian Signals Directorate, the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation, and the Office of National Intelligence.
“This is a boost to our ability to discover, track and disrupt foreign interference in Australia,” the statement said.
“The increase in intelligence collection, assessment and law enforcement capabilities will help turn more intelligence assessments into operational disruptions to better protect Australians from foreign interference.
“The new dedicated capability of the Taskforce will also increase the collaboration and streamline the decision-making between agencies, and strengthen Australia’s analysis of the sophisticated disinformation activities happening across the world, particularly against democratic processes and elections.”
Details about the new taskforce were scant when Morrison and Dutton fronted up to a press conference on Monday.
“Obviously, there are some elements of this that we can't go into precise detail about for obvious reasons,” Morrison said.
“We're not about to give a heads-up to those who would seek to interfere in Australia's arrangements.
“We have the ability to develop a response force here that can really set the standard globally in understanding how foreign interference takes place, understanding how to disrupt it most successfully and to counter it, and ultimately to be able to put yourself in a position where you can take matters to prosecution.”
It's because of China, isn’t it?
The announcement comes off the back of numerous reports suggesting Chinese state-led actions have attempted to influence Australian political life.
A report from Nine last week included an interview with alleged former Chinese spy, Wang Liqiang, who is seeking asylum in Australia after going public about his spy activities.
Among Liqiang’s supposed operations was an information campaign to influence the Taiwanese election using what he called a “cyber army” to sway the minds of voters.
“We changed their IP addresses to other countries so they would not be identified,” Liqiang said.
“Once their messages were out, online public opinion would follow.”
Chinese officials denied the allegations, calling Liqiang a convicted fraudster.
Recently, the government has strengthened its rhetoric around foreign interference.
Last month, a set of guidelines was handed out to Australian universities in a bid to make them less vulnerable to international influence.
That was developed following a massive data breach at the Australian National University and the discovery of Australian universities whose research is implicated in Chinese mass surveillance projects.
“My issue is with the Communist Party of China and their policies to the extent that they're inconsistent with our own values,” Dutton said.
“In a democracy like ours, we encourage freedom of speech, freedom of expression, thought, etc, and if that's being impinged, if people are operating outside of the law, then whether they're from China or from any other country, we have a right to call that out.”