Australia’s spy chief says the threat posed by foreign interference remains at an “unprecedented level.”
The comments came ahead of an episode of ABC’s Four Corners highlighting the extent of Chinese-backed political activity in Australia.
Duncan Lewis, the director general of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, expressed the sentiment when asked about such interference at a budget estimates hearing in Canberra.
“I have made very plain to this committee on previous occasions that the threat from foreign interference and foreign espionage in Australia was running at, what I described then and I describe again, as an unprecedented level,” he said on April 8.
Lewis said he does not respond to media shows or reports and does not single out countries that may pose foreign interference risks.
“We have a challenge here with foreign interference in Australia,” he told senators.
“It comes, as I have said on a number of occasions, from a wide range of sources. I have not been country-specific and I will not be country-specific.”
But Four Corners has laid bare examples of the Chinese government and its connections attempting to influence Australian political activities.
They include Chinese government officials questioning two Australian citizens about their connections to former China advisor to Malcolm Turnbull, John Garnaut, who worked with ASIO in 2016 on a confidential investigation into Beijing’s influence campaign in Australia.
One of the people questioned was now-detained writer Yang Hengjun, who Garnaut says was intercepted by Chinese officials in Sydney in 2018.
He was later detained in January by Chinese officials on suspicion of endangering China’s national security after flying from the United States to Guangzhou. His family has not been able to see him since.
The Four Corners report says the Chinese consulate also pressed Sydney’s Georges River Council not to allow an independent Chinese newspaper, the Vision Times, to support a Chinese New Year event.
And it has pointed to figures allegedly linked to the Chinese government who have been prominent political donors and fundraisers, such as Melbourne millionaire Tommy Jiang and billionaire property developed Huang Xiangmo.
In January 2015, the ABC says Huang’s family was allowed to have a private citizenship ceremony inside former Labor Senator Sam Dastyari’s office after then-Immigration Minister Peter Dutton’s approved a request from Dastyari.
Huang also had lunch with Dutton in 2016 after a meeting set up by former Howard government minister, turned lobbyist, Santo Santoro.
Dutton has confirmed the lunch but denied providing any assistance to Huang, who Dutton’s department last year banned from re-entering Australia on ASIO advice he posed a threat of foreign interference.
Legislation banning foreign donations cleared federal parliament in November.