Catholic bishops in Australia have highlighted concerns that the law the country’s government plans to introduce to limit foreign interference in political activity could result in Church members being registered as agents of a foreign power.
The government said the bill, which was introduced last month, is yet to be formally debated, and will help encourage transparency and protect Australia’s interests.
However Catholic officials have emphasised that the laws are too broad and may hamper churchgoers’ advocacy and charity work. Bishop Robert McGuckin, from Toowoomba in Queensland pointed out that Catholics are followers of Jesus Christ and “not agents of a foreign government.”
New Laws Bans Foreign Donations
The bill proposes wide-ranging restrictions that bans foreign political donations and forces all entities to disclose overseas links on a public register. Any failure in doing so would be considered a crime.
It has also widened the definition of espionage to include those who receive classified information without permission. Earlier it was limited to only those who share it.
Australia’s Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said at the time of the bill’s introduction that the government crackdown was not aiming at any one country but noted the increase in “disturbing reports” regarding Chinese influence. He said that foreign powers were making “unprecedented and increasingly sophisticated attempts” to influence the political process worldwide.
The proposal also plans on bringing in several other measures to prevent any such interference.
Catholic Churchgoers May Get Classified As Agents
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference while acknowledging that the bill doesn’t target Catholics specifically has criticised it for having “extraordinary breadth”.
It also pointed out the use of terms such as “foreign principal” and “communications activity” in the bill were open to wide interpretation.
Bishop McGuckin expressed concern that as a result of the legislation, Catholic churchgoers may be classified as agents of the Vatican. He told a parliamentary committee that every Catholic involved in advocacy “may need to register and report.”
Law Criticised By Others Agencies
Several other organizations including law groups, media companies, and other organisations have expressed worries of various freedoms being restricted under the bill.
The Australian Human Rights Law Centre stated that for charities and not-for-profit groups it would be “complex, cumbersome and costly” to comply with the transparency measures.
The agency’s director Hugh de Kretser said that most organizations may “simply opt out of electing not to speak up about their work” which he said will make Australia’s democracy “much poorer”.
The Law Council of Australia has stated the breadth of the bill may have “a chilling effect on public policy dialogue”.
Nothing To Worry About Says Government
The chair of the Intelligence and Security Committee, Andrew Hastie MP, has downplayed the concerns, stating that for those who seek to “build Australia and not undermine it as an Australian citizen”, there is nothing to be concerned about.
He has however not ruled out changes, stating that more safeguards could be added if needed.