Foreign interference in Australia - ANU address

14 February 2023



I want to thank all of you and in particular the young people who are here. If you’re studying national security, I want to start by thanking you. It is an act of patriotism. Looking around this room I can see lots of people who I assume will be going into Home Affairs, to DFAT, to Defence. And I’m very hopeful that we will work together in the years to come.

Foreign interference in Australia

When the Albanese Government was elected last year, we assumed a new posture for Australia’s national security conversation in Australia, one that is assured, and not anxious.

We opened a new chapter in the challenge to keep Australia safe.

Our government strongly values integrity, openness and transparency. Now, in the national security sphere, some of these concepts are hard to put into practice. But in some of these areas also, knowledge dispels fear. Knowledge can make us stronger. And knowledge can help to keep us safe.

That’s why I wanted to speak to you all today. I want to open up a national conversation on an issue that ASIO has stated is one of the biggest domestic security challenges we face.

Now as you know, a lot of the security conversation we’ve had as a nation over the past twenty years has been dominated by the discussion about terrorism. And that is always going to remain a core focus of the Australian government, because threats to life are our priority.

But it is no secret that we face enormously significant challenges when we look beyond our borders – the most significant since the Second World War.

How we manage those challenges will define the Australia that my children will live in as adults.

Our ability to manage and shape those challenges will depend on how free and fair our democracy is and how encouraged and enthusiastic our public are about engaging with it. The stronger our democracy, the more choices we have about how we engage with the world.

Today I want to speak in vivid detail about one of the main threats that faces our democracy and that is foreign interference.

Espionage is something most people in this room would be familiar with: this is the use of spies and spying to obtain government secrets.

Foreign interference is something quite different – it is activities carried out or directed by a foreign state that are coercive, corrupting, deceptive or clandestine.

I consume a lot of intelligence today in my role as Minister for Home Affairs and of course, my understanding of this problem has grown enormously over the months that I’ve been in this role.

But for some people in our community, the threat is ever present. It is relentless and it is insidious. And it not only affects individuals, it fundamentally undermines our democratic processes.

And today I want to talk about one thing that we as a nation can do to work together to tackle this problem.

My view coming into this role, is that the discussion about foreign interference hasn’t sufficiently penetrated far enough beyond the parliamentary triangle. 

Yet our best defence to arm people who are possible targets of this information, is to assist them with all the context and information they need to recognise foreign interference and report it. I want to have a conversation about this which is open, informed and is non-partisan. This is very, very important, because partisanship in this conversation is a huge problem. If any minor hint to the Australian community, that we are trying to politicise this problem, that we are trying to use this problem to win votes within certain sections of the community, the trust falls out of the discussion and we lose that ability to speak with people openly and frankly about the problems at hand.

My goal is a public discussion about this problem which is open, apolitical and commensurate with the size of the challenge that we face. And that challenge is enormous.

So it’s time to bring foreign interference out of the shadows, and into the light.

Foreign governments try to influence politics and decision-making in other countries all the time, in perfectly legitimate ways. Australia does it – that’s why we have embassies, that’s why we have many friends in the diplomatic-core within this room right now. It’s why we work through international forums like the United Nations.

But what makes foreign interference problematic and illegal is covertness, and deception. That is, the attempts by foreign governments to secretly influence our cherished democracy, and coerce people living in Australia to behave in ways that undermine that democracy, for the benefit of a foreign power.

So when and how do we see this problem most commonly in Australia?

We see it in the covert influence foreign governments attempt to exert over diaspora communities. And to be clear, this is almost always unsuccessful because of the deep loyalty that almost all migrants and their communities show to this beautiful country of ours.

We see it when diaspora communities peacefully protest about the actions of their governments back in their home country. In some instances, in many instances, they will be photographed, harassed or followed as a result. We see it when members of those communities speak out publicly against violence or intimidation in their home country. We see it when people in those communities or their families back home are threatened, harassed or intimidated because of actions that they have undertaken here in our free, fair democracy. To be absolutely clear, this type of foreign interference is commonplace, it is happening around our country every day.

We see it too, on social media, where foreign governments covertly try to sow division around political issues that are felt deeply within the Australian community. They are trying to deliberately deteriorate our social fabric and cause conflict and painful rifts between neighbours who have lived peacefully together for many years.

We see it too, in our universities, like the Vice Chancellor here said, where foreign governments attempt to covertly influence how topics are discussed and covered in our fiercely independent university lecture theatres.

And of course, we see in politics, where foreign governments try to win over elected leaders or party activists, to push for changes in everything from planning laws to foreign and national security policy, or even just to simply build a picture of how decisions are made.

Foreign interference is not hypothetical. It is not merely something that lies in our future. It is happening today, and we need to do more to tackle it, today.

As Minister for Home Affairs there is something direct and practical I can do to help equip Australians to fight this problem: and that is to talk as openly as I can about what foreign interference looks like in Australia.  And as a government, we will call out the egregious acts of individual countries when it is in the national interest to do so.


Today I want to share a bit more detail about foreign interference from one country in particular and that is Iran. I want to stress that foreign interference doesn’t just come from one country – if I can look back and provide a small critique of discussion that I’ve heard in previous years, was that sense that this is just about one country, when it’s not. We see it by many countries around the world and Iran is one of them.

Since September last year, Iran’s theocratic regime has been jolted by nation-wide protests in response to the tragic death in police custody of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, Kurdish name ‘Jina’.

Tehran’s brutal response to those protests, has seen more than 400 people killed, including at least 50 children. It has failed to quell the uprising, but it has triggered further protests against this regime around the world, and of course we’ve seen that here in Australia.
Now, I know that it is perfectly legal in Australia to criticise a foreign regime and tens of thousands of Australians have done something brave and come out and done that here in our country.

What we absolutely will not tolerate, under any circumstances, are attempts by foreign regimes to disrupt peaceful protests, or try to push violence or suppress specific views being expressed.

Nor will we tolerate hostile acts in the form of surveillance, harassment or intimidation against individuals or family members here in Australia.

The Australian Government and our security agencies watch these matters carefully and will act to protect Australians and their democratic rights.

Late last year, ASIO disrupted the activities of individuals who had conducted surveillance in the home of an Iranian-Australian, as well as conducted extensive research of this individual and their family. I just want to step back and say again – we have someone living here, in our country, who has been followed, watched and photographed. Their home was invaded by people at the direction of a foreign power. This is happening in Australia and it’s something that ASIO was onto like a shot. So I want people to understand, to those states that operate in the shadows, we have a very simple message – we are watching you.

Where our national interest is served by calling out your operations, we will absolutely do it.

And to those in Australia making their voice heard, we are acting to try and protect you.

Broader examples

Now, the example that I have just mentioned there is not the only story of ASIO detecting foreign interference in Australia.

There are examples of foreign governments tasking human sources to collect sensitive personal information of individuals seen as dissidents by the foreign government due to their activism here in Australia.

There are examples of individuals attending peaceful protests here in Australia who again, monitored, their photograph is taken, they are followed home, and foreign governments take that information back home and sometimes that information is used to harass family members who live in that foreign country.

There are examples of individuals arranging counter-protests to instigate arguments with activists at peaceful protests with the intent of provoking violence – all this being done at the behest and at the request of a foreign government.

There are examples of harassment of academics and staff who work at various media outlets and think tanks.

As I said earlier. These kinds of activity will not be tolerated. Foreign interference will be detected. And it will be disrupted.

But I think as a nation, we can still do a lot more. Because one of the main problems that I want to get across to you today is that this problem doesn’t just sit with our security agencies.

Where to next

That is why I have been so encouraging of the Director General Burgess’ attempts to bring ASIO out of the shadow in educating our community as to how to protect themselves from foreign interference.

And that’s something that DG Burgess has taken very seriously well before I came into this role. We’re working together to do a lot more of this engagement.

That’s one reason why I have asked the Counter Foreign Interference Coordinator within the Home Affairs Department to develop an attribution framework for the Australian Government.

We don’t want to just need to disrupt these operations, but we want to deter future ones by imposing costs on their sponsors by outing them, where it is possible to do so. I would like us to see Australia to do this more and more, because we have to stop this from happening in the shadows. We have to bring it into the light.

What we need in Australia is a community of people who are alert to what foreign interference looks like, so we can be on guard and help to detect and resist future interference when it happens.

My main experience of dealing with this problem since I became the Minister for Home Affairs, is that most people who would be targets of foreign interference – whether we think about politicians, or academics, or community leaders – they desperately want to understand and counter this threat so they can protect themselves.

There is an enormous thirst for knowledge amongst this community of people who might be targets of this, because they want to do what they can to protect themselves.

Now, for a lot of people in this room, you would have spent most of your lives working in national security.

If you were approached by a foreign government or you became the target of foreign interference, you would probably have your heart skip a beat or two. It’s a very stressful experience.

Now imagine what it feels like being a community leader, running a community group, where you suddenly come under the pressure of a foreign government. It’s really scary and we need to reach out and support people who are targets of this kind of foreign interference.

One of the most vital and important pillars of the new government’s engagement on these issues, is really thinking about how we can reach out to those people and try to help them understand this problem.

There was some good work happening already in this regard when we came into office. In each state and territory, there is a dedicated Home Affairs counter foreign interference engagement officer who works hand in hand with a network of people who we believe might be targeted in engagements of foreign interference.

But I am asking ASIO and Home Affairs to do more. And one of the ways we will do that this year, is these two agencies are working together to develop for the first time, a very significant program for community outreach which will identify individuals within the Australian community who might be targets of foreign interference and design and execute on a program that will reach out to those people to help them understand what foreign interference looks like and to make sure that they understand what they can do to respond and how the Australian Government will be able to protect them.

This is the kind of open engagement that I want to maintain as Minister for Home Affairs. We need to build trust with communities and people who might be targets of foreign interference. Because I think anyone who is watching the geopolitical context will understand that this problem is going to grow, not diminish.

One of the best examples of the power of this type of collaborative approach to foreign interference is the work that’s being done with our universities here in Australia.

Since my time in this role, I have been really struck by the commitment and enthusiasm of Australian Universities – who I think were initially a bit suspicious about this problem – for tackling it. Our universities understand at a deep level, the essential role they play in our democracy – educating now almost half of all school leavers. Our universities are providing Australians with knowledge and critical thinking skills that are going to be core national assets for us, running a strong democracy, and the challenges we face.

The work that the Australian Government has done with universities is of global interest.  Whenever I sit down with Ministers of Home Affairs or my equivalents from other countries around the world, this is one of the subjects that they are most interested in. And that’s why I’m so pleased to be having this discussion here at the Australian National University.

Despite the enormity of the challenges, you are probably aware of how the university foreign interference taskforce is the kind of centrepiece of the work that we do with universities. And the value of this work was acknowledged in the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s inquiry into National Security Risks Affecting the Australian Higher Education and Research Sector, which the Government will table its response to very shortly.

The University of Sydney said that due to Australian Government intelligence advice, they were aware the security threats Australia faces were ‘real and increasingly sophisticated’. During the Senate inquiry, universities repeatedly pointed out their commitment to countering foreign interference, and the dramatic increase in their level of their awareness since regular engagement with government agencies like ASIO.

In the first discussion I had with universities about foreign interference, the first thing they said to me was that they did not want foreign interference on their campuses. I am committed to that. And secondly, we need more information. We need to know what to look for. We were able to deal with that very quickly by getting ASIO to come and brief the university Vice Chancellors about this matter.

The point I want to make today, is it’s not just the universities. This is a wide and broad problem that our country faces. And we are only going to solve it, if we have a trusting, open and accountable conversation with the Australian public about what this problem is, where it’s going, and how the Australian Government can help them to solve it.

I think that’s all for today. But I’m very much looking forward to talking to you all shortly and taking some questions. Thanks everyone.