Australia must guard against attempts by foreign governments to “deliberately disrupt” its political system and elections, the new deputy chair of parliament’s powerful intelligence committee says.
New South Wales Labor senator Jenny McAllister accused the government of failing to make clear which agency was responsible for managing the risk of foreign interference during elections, meaning critical decisions might be made “on the run”.
McAllister sounded the alarm in her first substantive interview since being appointed to replace Anthony Byrne as the deputy chair of the intelligence and security committee.
Byrne resigned from the bipartisan committee – which receives sensitive intelligence briefings and reviews a raft of national security laws – after giving evidence to Victoria’s corruption watchdog about branch stacking allegations.
In a podcast published on Thursday, McAllister said Australia must “be very aware of the potential for malign actors to deliberately disrupt our political system”.
“We also need to be aware that the opportunity to do so is enhanced if we allow our political system and all of the infrastructure around it to degrade,” she told the Australian National University’s National Security Podcast.
“It is not clear to me which government agency is actually responsible for managing the possibility of foreign interference in an election period. I think that failing to designate a lead agency leads to the risk that people may make decisions on the run, and that is not a recipe for good decision making.”
McAllister believes national security agencies are aware of the risks and said it required “leadership from the top to really bring this to a close and to identify which agency is going to take the lead and to define the scope of their responsibilities”.
The issue of disinformation being used as a tool of state-backed foreign interference – including in the lead-up to elections – was also raised during Senate estimates hearings this week.
The Asio chief, Mike Burgess, said his intelligence agency had “seen nation states lining up issues in an attempt to provide disinformation on certain topics”.
“Do we expect that before an election? Maybe,” Burgess said. “We’ll continue to watch that, with other agencies, and put out the appropriate advice at the time.”
Burgess said his response would depend on the nature of the problem, but he would have a conversation with the electoral commissioner and the prime minister and the opposition leader if such activity was detected during a campaign.
“Our democracy is fairly robust … but of course we wouldn’t let it rest, the community would not let it rest if we saw a nation state engaged in acts of misinformation or disinformation,” Burgess said. “That would be drawn to the government’s attention and during caretaker [mode] be drawn to both parties’ attention.”
McAllister has a longstanding interest in the issue, as chair of a Senate select committee into foreign interference through social media.
In the interview, McAllister defined national security widely as including “our capacity to maintain an inclusive set of democratic institutions that the broad public can have confidence in”.
Across the western world, McAllister said, many key institutions had experienced a decline in public trust. But she viewed measures to increase trust in democratic institutions – including establishing a national integrity commission – and tackling inequality as “enormously” important.
McAllister also argued increased powers and funding for security agencies should be accompanied by greater scrutiny.