Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022

House of Representatives 16/02/2022

Mr KHALIL (Wills) (12:16): These are important amendments to several bills—the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022, the Electoral Legislation Amendment (Authorisations) Bill 2022 and Electoral Legislation Amendment (COVID Enfranchisement) Bill 2022—and I support them. I’ve dedicated most of my career to the foreign policy and national security of Australia to keep Australians safe and secure, to ensure stability and security in our region. That should be the job of our government, because beyond partisanship is a collective commitment to Australia’s national interest, and this must include protecting our democracy from negative and harmful foreign influencers.

We all know how important our democracy is. Australians know and deeply feel the importance of our democracy and the history of our democracy. We’re proud of it. We’re proud that this country is a place where we really had one of the first genuinely liberal democracies in the modern world—and it’s a longstanding democracy. Our democratic institutions and practices are known and hailed for robustness, for adaptability, for functionality and for resilience.

Many of the amendments in these bills, such as the access for COVID affected voters or the amendments around electoral matters and materials, might seem minor in the grander scheme of things, but they all add up and they ensure that Australia, which has led the world in many respects when it comes to a public conversation about protecting our democratic institutions from subversion and interference, is also doing the work that this parliament needs to do, the bits and pieces, to keep building and ensuring the robustness of our democracy. It’s these little matters, these little one percenters if you like, which add up to give us that total picture. They allow us not only to strengthen our institution but also to protect them, to make them more resilient from those outside negative influences when they seek to harm our democracy, our principles, our institutions and when they attack our values at their core. So I support the amendments for these bills for that reason.

The Electoral Legislation Amendment (Foreign Influences and Offences) Bill 2022 closes a loophole to ensure that foreign entities cannot incur electoral expenditure for the purposes of federal elections and referenda. In 2018, this parliament banned foreign governments, citizens and entities from making donations to candidates in federal elections. This was an important measure to protect our democracy from foreign interference. I remind the House that it was actually the Labor Party who led this reform. I remind the House, particularly those on the other side who love to hear the sound of their own voices as the great protectors of democracy, it was those on the other side—the Liberal and National parties—who wanted to keep taking foreign donations for as long as possible. That’s a fact, and, no matter how much blustering and huffing and puffing they do, they can never change that fact.

The amendments, however, did not take into account the circumstance where a foreign entity could incur electoral expenditure and communicate electoral matter. This meant that a foreign government or corporation could campaign for a candidate or on an issue in a federal election. So I’m pleased that this bill, these amendments, will finally close that loophole, and it will prevent a foreign entity from incurring electoral expenditure greater than $1,000 or for fundraising for that purpose. There’ll be penalties and anti-avoidance provisions which will apply, similar to the existing provisions in relation to the ban on foreign donations.

In addition to banning foreign entities from incurring electoral expenditure, these amendments in this particular bill also ban them from authorising electoral material. These provisions ensure that only people or entities with a link to Australia can participate in our elections, even if their name is ‘A. Nutt’.

Over the years there have been many attempts by foreign actors to undermine our democracy, and all sides of parliament, all political parties, have been targeted. On this side we are committed to ensuring that the parliament and our democracy is protected from foreign interference. That has shone through in our track record in this place, as I mentioned earlier, with the lead that we took on the reform that was necessary and we’re now finally seeing.

We’ve got a prime minister who only ever acts if it is in his electoral interests—everything is seen through the prism of political survival. But I can say this categorically: Labor is committed to legislating in this place in the national interest. We demonstrated that back a couple of years ago. We’re demonstrating it again today. That’s why we support these bills, to ensure the continued integrity of our democratic institutions.

In addition to the foreign influences provisions, there are obviously other amendments that increase the penalty for publishing material that is misleading in relation to the casting of a vote. By increasing the penalty for the existing offence of misleading or deceiving someone in relation to the casting of a vote from six months to three years, it will give the AFP increased power to investigate these offences as well. That is because account takeover warrants and data disruption warrants can only be sought by the AFP for crimes with a penalty of at least three years imprisonment, so strengthening the penalty for this electoral offence will help prevent the sort of undermining of the electoral system that we’ve seen all too often across other Liberal democracies and we’ve seen in the United States and some parts of Europe. Increasing the penalty for the existing offence of publishing misleading material in relation to the casting of a vote will greatly assist the AFP in investigating any breaches of this provision in the upcoming election.

All of us in this place are cognisant of our responsibility to stand up for our democracy, for the democratic institutions and the democratic values and the principles that make us who we really are. I understand, and I’ve noted the importance of these amendments in these bills even though they might seem functional or minor in some respects. They are not. I think everyone in this place should agree that these little building blocks are the things that give resilience to our democratic institutions and protect them from interference.

There are some failings in our democracies. We know the famous quote I think Winston Churchill once said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.’ We know it’s not perfect. But, when we see the failings, we should not be sweeping them under the carpet. We should not be hiding from them. We should immediately seek to make reforms that will strengthen our democracy. They’ve got to be stamped out. And now, more so than ever, in the period that we live in with such geostrategic uncertainty, with such volatility globally, so many authoritarian state based actors are seeking to disrupt and influence negatively many democracies around the world, including nascent or new democracies. We’ve seen this happen at its worst where the military dictatorships take over that democracy. A nascent democracy like Myanmar is a perfect example.

What we are seeing with respect to Ukraine and the pressure being placed on it by the authoritarian regime in Russia has us at a moment in history where there is a contest between democracies, liberal democracies—we sometimes take for granted those things that we value. We value the rule of law. We value freedom of expression, freedom of thought, freedom of conscience. We value equality before the law. We value independence of the judiciary and the parliament and the executive. We value all of those fundamental principles of democracy. We are now in a global contest against state actors—particularly state actors, but some non-state actors—who would seek to disrupt, to deny, to diminish us and to diminish those values, and to destroy what we have built up over many, many centuries.

It is a real battle; it is a real war. It’s not just fought on battle grounds with weapons or hardware or military weapons; it’s fought on the internet, it’s fought in cyberspace—in the cyber world, in space—and it’s fought in the hearts and minds of billions of people. I know that sounds a bit grandiose, given we’re talking about some rather minor amendments, but these are important because this is where it starts—plugging some of the failings in our own institutions, in our own systems. This is what we do, and what we should do. We must be cognisant of how important it is because all of it is interconnected and all of it will have consequences for the future of our democracy and other democracies around the world. If we can’t get our own house in order, then it becomes so much more difficult to be able to fight to stand up for other fledgling democracies around the world who are struggling as we speak.

On that basis, obviously, and the fact that these amendments are very important, I support the amendments in these bills. Thank you.