Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a joint press conference with France's President Emmanuel Macron in Sydney on May 2.
Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull at a joint press conference with France's President Emmanuel Macron in Sydney on May 2.
CNN —  

Australia has ordered a sweeping review of its intelligence laws amid growing concerns over interference by foreign agents in the country.

Described by the government as the most significant review in 40 years, it will take 18 months and will be led by a former head of the country’s intelligence agency, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO).

“The Prime Minister considered that now is the time to have a top to tail review of all of the national intelligence community agencies,” Attorney General Christian Porter told CNN-affiliate Sky News Australia Wednesday.

Although it wasn’t expressly mentioned in the announcement, the review comes at a time when concerns are rising in Australia over the influence of the Chinese government in the country’s affairs.

ASIO Director General Duncan Lewis said in the past week the level of foreign interference activity against Australia was “unprecedented.”

“This is not a theoretical proposition; the reality is that acts of espionage and foreign interference are occurring against Australian interests both in Australia and overseas,” he told a senate committee on May 24.

Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at the Australian National University, told CNN the big three security risks facing Australia, which the new review would partly address, are terrorism, cyberwarfare and foreign influence.

He said Australia was still in the “early stage” of its debate over foreign influence. “This is about having contemporary laws … we will need to protect Australia’s sovereignty in a more competitive and uncertain future,” he said.

’The Australian people stand up’

Attorney General Porter said the review would focus on streamlining intelligence sharing among Australian authorities as well as ensuring all agencies were properly protected in legislation.

The new review follows a series of tough, new anti-foreign influence laws currently being debated by the Australian government, including a ban on all political donations from overseas.

When announcing the new laws, Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said “the Australian people (have stood) up” in Mandarin, a reference to Mao Zedong’s speech at the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949.

Turnbull has since said the proposed laws are not targeted at any one country, but the Chinese government has reacted coldly to the legislation.

A series of angry editorials and opinion pieces in Chinese state media labeled the laws “disgraceful” and “absurd,” while Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in February that remarks about Chinese influence in Australia were “irresponsible.”

There were even suggestions in local media Australian ministers were having trouble getting visas to visit China. But Medcalf said Beijing could be kicking up a fuss to avoid similar legislation elsewhere.

“It is in China’s interest to stir up the impression that it’s not acceptable for countries to introduce such laws … there is a soft power game going on,” he said.

’Substantial problems with interference’

In the past two months two former US officials have voiced concerns about the level of Chinese influence both in Australia and its neighbor New Zealand.

During a hearing of the US China Economic and Security Review Commission, former US government analyst Peter Mattis said the United States should reconsider its intelligence sharing arrangement with New Zealand due to issues over foreign interference.

“Australia and New Zealand both face substantial problems with interference by the Chinese Communist Party. In both cases, the CCP has gotten very close to or inside the political core, if you will, of both countries,” Mattis told the commission.

The arrangement, known as Five Eyes, is an intelligence sharing deal between the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Likewise, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a speech in Auckland in early May there was a “global battle” taking place.

“Experts are sounding the alarm about Chinese efforts to gain political power and influence policy decisions … It’s just getting started,” she told the audience.