Just a quick post to share this image I noticed in the latest ASIO annual report, presenting their view of what constitutes “foreign interference” and what distinguishes it from mere influence:
Countering foreign interference has explicitly been part of ASIO’s mandate at least since the 1986 update to the 1979 ASIO Act, which defined it in the following way:
acts of foreign interference means activities relating to Australia that are carried on by or on behalf of, are directed or subsidised by or are undertaken in active collaboration with, a foreign power, being activities that:
(a) are clandestine or deceptive and:
(i) are carried on for intelligence purposes;
(ii) are carried on for the purpose of affecting political or governmental processes; or
(iii) are otherwise detrimental to the interests of Australia; or
(b) involve a threat to any person.
It was also effectively part of ASIO’s role before the 1986 legislation. ASIO’s 1979 legislation referred to “active measures of foreign intervention” and “[subversive] activities of foreign origin”. ASIO’s 1949 charter and 1956 legislation did not use the term “foreign interference” but it did use the broad notion of “subversion” which among other things encompasses what is now called foreign interference (particularly because it made a distinction between foreign and domestic forms of “subversion”). It has become a bigger political concern in Australia in the past couple of years, due to the impact of Russian electoral interference overseas, the commissioning in late 2016 of a joint ASIO and ONA report on Chinese covert activities in Australia, and controversies like the Dastyari affair.
Foreign interference is a real threat, but not a new one (here’s an interesting article on old Soviet methods), and not something Western countries are innocent of. I’m wary of how the concept could easily be misused (it’s not hard to imagine political figures casually throwing the term around to discredit opponents) and some aspects of the new legislation. At some point I’d like to write something about the broader politics of national security and how Australia’s political debates about foreign interference share some of the same shortcomings as Australia’s counter-terrorism debates.