Australian Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton has pledged a funding increase for the Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO), the country’s domestic spying agency, after it released a report claiming it was struggling to meet demands posed by new foreign interference laws, espionage and terrorism.
"It's getting unprecedented funding and we'll continue to support. We have more demands on our intelligence services and law enforcement agencies than ever before," Dutton said.
ASIO had an annual budget for 2018 of A$533.4 million (US$361.9 million) and employed almost 2,000 people. However, Canberra in June that year outlawed covert foreign interference and made industrial espionage for a foreign power a crime.
The bills covering foreign interference, espionage and influence transparency were criticised domestically for criminalising dissent, and caused a diplomatic rift with China, Australia’s biggest trading partner - although officials insist it’s not targeted at any particular country.
As a result, since December individuals and businesses attempting to influence the government and Australian politics on behalf of foreign governments have had to publicly register their backers and interest. In the process, the agency’s workload has been dramatically increased - and its report makes clear “the most capable foreign intelligence services will adapt their behavior over time to circumvent the new legislation” in any event.
The agency also stated the allegedly elevated threat of espionage and foreign interference, combined with greater awareness of said threat among citizens, had increased demand for ASIO’s help and was “stretching current resources” to breaking point.
“We will necessarily prioritize our finite resources — across our counter-terrorism, counter-espionage and foreign interference, border integrity and protective security advice programs — toward addressing activities of the greatest potential harm to Australians and Australian interests,” the report said.
Opposition spokesperson on the Home Affairs Department portfolio Kristina Keneally said the government should be alarmed by ASIO’s resourcing concerns.
“It’s an incredibly important agency in our national security framework and for them to be reporting in this time when the challenges they face are quite complex, that they are stretched for resources, well that’s an alarm bell,” she said.