Catholics could be forced to register as foreign agents in Australia if a new bill meant to crack down on espionage and political interference by other countries becomes law, the country’s bishops argued on Tuesday.
“The Catholic Church in Australia is made up of millions of Australian citizens who practice their faith, and they are not beholden to a foreign power,” said Bishop Robert McGuckin of Toowoomba.
He was speaking to the Australian parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee about the proposed legislation, which would require those who act on behalf of foreign powers to register with the government or face criminal charges.
“The exemption for religion proposed in clause 27 is drafted based on the incorrect belief that the Catholic Church in Australia acts on behalf of a foreign government, i.e. Vatican City State,” the Australian Catholic Bishops’ Conference said in a submission to the committee.
“Given the Catholic Church in Australia does not act on behalf of a foreign government, the clause would confer no exemption on members of the Catholic Church in Australia,” the bishops continued.
The bishops’ conference statement said the bill was drafted with “extraordinary breadth,” adding that terms “such as ‘foreign principal,’ ‘lobby,’ ‘communications activity,’ or ‘donor activity’ are very broad, general and unqualified, which means there is great potential to catch innocent and unintended persons and behavior, and are of doubtful utility and effectiveness.”
McGuckin said it seems that every Catholic involved in advocacy may need to register and report.
“Given Catholics make up more than 20 percent of the population of Australia. We think that’s a lot of registrations,” the bishop said.
Andrew Hastie, a member of parliament, told Australia’s ABC Radio that “if you’re seeking to build Australia and not undermine it as an Australian citizen then you shouldn’t be concerned.”
The legislation was proposed after a government inquiry suggested China was interfering in local institutions and making political donations to influence Australian government policy.
The country’s Catholic bishops are not the only ones concerned with the bill. Media and human rights groups told the committee the proposed legislation could have a chilling effect on free speech.
Paul Murphy, the head of the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, told the committee the bill “discourages journalists and media organizations reporting stories in the public interest because it’s uncertain at what point they’re committing an offence.”
The Law Council, Australian Lawyers for Human Rights, and Universities Australia have also objected to the wording of the bill.
“The Catholic Church is not the only organization with international links that is in danger of being captured — unintentionally or not — by this legislation,” McGuckin told The Australian, a local newspaper.
“The church is a strong supporter of transparency when there is advocacy on behalf of a foreign government, but this legislation risks silencing our voice on behalf of the young and the old, the poor and the marginalized,” the bishop said.