AFP on alert for domestic protests, disinformation and foreign interference as election looms

The Australian federal police commissioner has sounded a warning about disinformation ahead of the federal election campaign, telling a parliamentary inquiry police will use the “full force” of the law when conduct reaches a criminal threshold.

Reece Kershaw used an opening statement to a Senate estimates committee on Monday night to tell senators he was concerned about the impact of disinformation “on the integrity of our institutions and the election itself”.

The commissioner said police were alert to heightened security risks, including domestic protests, as well as the risks of foreign interference and disinformation that incited violence. He said the objective was “protecting our community, high-office holders, our democratic institutions and democratic values”.

Kershaw’s intervention followed a public vow last week by the director general of Australia’s domestic spy agency to counter any attempts by other countries to interfere in the upcoming federal election. The Asio boss, Mike Burgess, also revealed in his annual threat assessment a “recent” meddling plot had been disrupted.

The police commissioner said during the past two months, Australian Capital Territory policing and the AFP had been maintaining public order in Canberra “in challenging circumstances”.

Protests against vaccination mandates have been escalating in the national capital. Burgess warned last week more “angry and alienated Australians” could turn to violence after being exposed to “an echo chamber” of extremist messaging, misinformation and conspiracy theories during the coronavirus pandemic.

When it came to foreign interference, Kershaw told senators the AFP was working closely with Asio. He said police were “aware of increased espionage and foreign interference threats”.

The police commissioner noted the AFP had worked with Asio last year “to bring an individual before the courts on the first foreign interference charges laid since the new offence was introduced in 2018”.

In November 2020, police charged Duong Di Sanh, also known as Sunny Duong, with preparing to commit foreign interference.

Duong has previously vowed to fight the charge , saying he had “nothing to hide” and rejecting allegations he had worked on behalf of the Chinese Communist party.

The AFP commissioner noted on Monday that foreign interference was an invisible crime for most Australians “but it has the potential to affect every Australian because it erodes democracy and our institutions”.

Kershaw said Australia’s counter foreign interference taskforce had achieved a number of successful disruptions, “most significantly in relation to democratic institutions” during the past 18 months.

In relation to disinformation, Kershaw noted police had charged a person with computer, carriage service and electoral offences, for their alleged role in an offensive spam email campaign and sending over 23m messages during the 2019 Wentworth and 2020 Eden-Monaro byelections. The individual will be sentenced later this year.

When asked to explain how the AFP responded to threats to the personal safety of parliamentarians and their staff, Kershaw said it “sadly will probably be a growth part of our business”.

“We’re very concerned,” Kershaw told the committee.

“We have seen that during the Covid times a lot of people are online now, there is a lot of hate unfortunately and racial slur and discrimination and attacks personally on people, and often you don’t even know where it’s coming from.

“We have been working with all the MPs in this building to better provide a service to yourselves about what numbers to ring, who to contact, what we can offer, and we do a threat risk assessment to work out whether or not you do need protection.”

But Kershaw said threats made online “can be challenging for us to resolve” because some people used VPN services to hide their identities.

The updates from the spy agency and the police chief come as the Morrison government is using the remaining parliamentary sitting weeks to set up an election contest where national security will be a significant theme.

The defence minister, Peter Dutton, generated a furore last week when he motioned to the Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, in parliament last week and declared: “We now see evidence that the Chinese Communist party, the Chinese government, has … made a decision about who they’re going to back in the next federal election, and that is open and that is obvious, and they have picked this bloke as that candidate.”

The Nine newspapers last Friday reported “multiple security sources” had said a Chinese intelligence service was behind a recently disrupted foreign interference plot that had “attempted to bankroll [New South Wales] Labor candidates in the upcoming federal election”.

Albanese said Asio had not raised any concerns with him about Labor’s federal election candidates. He characterised Dutton’s conduct as “desperate”, given the major parties had the same position on Beijing’s trade sanctions, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea, human rights concerns, foreign interference and cybersecurity.

On Monday, the Speaker of the lower house, Andrew Wallace, cautioned Dutton against repeating last week’s claim, ruling that it had been out of order. But the Speaker did not insist Dutton withdraw his remarks.