The nation’s top spy agency has warned that foreign governments are “persistently” trying to bribe Australian politicians with money, gifts and networking opportunities.
And MPs’ staff and friends are also at risk.
The warning comes just days after the first person to be charged under Australia’s foreign interference laws – one-time Liberal Party candidate Di Sanh Duong – was found to have appeared at a press conference alongside a senior Coalition minister just months ago.
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation brought the matter to the attention of federal politicians in a letter that warned of foreigners and local citizens looking to steal national secrets.
“Multiple countries are undertaking these activities here in Australia, and they are not conducted solely by citizens of other nations,” ASIO director-general Mike Burgess wrote.
The letter, obtained by The New Daily, was sent last week but received on Monday by many politicians returning to Canberra for the first time in a fortnight.
Mr Burgess said that foreign agents are looking to “create a sense of obligation” with MPs by offering them donations, travel or business opportunities, then calling in favours.
As the sense of indebtedness grows, so does the potential harm,” Mr Burgess wrote.
“ASIO has identified foreign governments and their Australian proxies persistently seeking to develop relationships with politicians at all levels of government, in all states and territories.”
He said politicians’ staff have also been targeted and their friends and families could be caught up in the influence operations, as well.
“As a parliamentarian, your ability to influence debate and policy, and your access to information and decision making, make you an attractive target to foreign intelligence services,” Mr Burgess wrote.
“You might be asked to change your position on a sensitive matter or to provide a political secret.”
The worrying letter comes after Mr Burgess told the Senate last month that such activity was at an all-time high.
“There are more foreign spies and proxies operating against Australian interests than there were at the height of the Cold War,” Mr Burgess told a Senate estimates committee hearing.
“Almost every sector of Australian society is a potential target of foreign interference.”
He warned foreign actors were looking to infiltrate Australian institutions, from local councils to the heights of the federal government, claiming ASIO was monitoring and working to disrupt such threats.
Last month, the spy agency said it had foiled an operation targeting government staffers.
Mr Burgess said the incident had involved “a team of foreign intelligence officers” trying to “recruit multiple Australian security clearance holders”.
In the federal Senate, the government responded to the case of 65-year-old Melbourne man Di Sanh Duong, charged by the Australian Federal Police under foreign interference laws.
The man was last week charged with “preparing for a foreign interference offence”, which the AFP said carried a possible 10-year maximum jail sentence.
The AFP said it had carried out a year-long investigation “into the man’s relationship with a foreign intelligence agency”.
The Nine newspapers reported that Mr Duong was a Liberal Party member who had run for a seat in Victorian state Parliament in 1996, but has since resigned from the party.
In June, Mr Duong appeared alongside acting immigration and citizenship minister Alan Tudge at an event at Royal Melbourne Hospital.
Mr Duong presented the hospital with a $37,000 cheque from the Oceania Federation of Chinese Associations, an organisation with which he had worked.
Mr Tudge called the foundation a “terrific community organisation” and said he would give Mr Duong a hug “but I’m not allowed to in these pandemic days”.
During Senate question time, Labor’s Kristina Keneally asked government Senate leader Simon Birmingham why Mr Tudge wasn’t advised against appearing alongside Mr Duong, given the AFP’s timeline suggests Mr Duong had been under investigation for roughly eight months before the press conference.
Senator Birmingham said it was “a sensitive matter” and he was “surprised [Senator Keneally] would raise it in the chamber in this way”.
However, he said he would return to the Senate with any information that was “appropriate” to report, considering the matter was still under investigation.
Senator Keneally then asked what action had been taken by Prime Minister Scott Morrison “to ensure no member of his government has been compromised as a result of the foreign interference charges”.
Senator Birmingham replied that national security agencies briefings had been “provided to the government as national security briefings that should be handled carefully and by and large in confidence”.
Liberal MP Dave Sharma, speaking generally about the foreign interference laws, said it was “important this law is implemented and enforced, and whichever political party it leads to, it’s important we do it for the integrity of our system”.