National: ASIO Warns Parties About Chinese Donations

Australia’s intelligence agency ASIO has warned major political parties against taking donations from two billionaires with links to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

A Four CornersFairfax investigation found that ASIO has briefed Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott as well as opposition leader Bill Shorten about the threat of CCP influence.

ASIO director-general Duncan Lewis also briefed officials from the Coalition and Labor parties privately in 2015 about billionaire property developers Huang Xiangmo and Chau Chak Wing, who have made a total of around $6.7 million in political donations along with their associates. While Lewis did not tell the parties to reject the funds, he said that the CCP has influence over businessmen, and donations might come with strings attached.

However, the parties went on to accept the money anyway. Since then, the Coalition has taken $897,960, while Labor took $200,000.

Labor senator Sam Dastyari was also found to have repeatedly assisted Huang in his citizenship application, which is currently temporarily blocked while ASIO investigation is still ongoing.

In light of the report, Turnbull ordered a major inquiry into espionage and foreign interference laws.

“The threat of political interference by foreign intelligence services is a problem of the highest order and it is getting worse,” Attorney General George Brandis said in a statement.

“Earlier this year the Prime Minister initiated a comprehensive review of Australia’s espionage and foreign interference laws, which he asked me to lead. I will be taking legislative reforms to Cabinet with a view to introducing legislation before the end of the year.”

National: Turnbull Says Cabinet May Consider Changes to Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act 18C

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated that his cabinet is considering an inquiry into freedom of speech in relation to section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, a backflip from his August statement that the Government had “much more pressing priorities”.

Section 18C makes it unlawful to “offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate” people based on their race or ethnicity.

Turnbull said the Coalition conservatives’ calls for a parliamentary inquiry into the issue had “considerable merit”.

“There is a view that the bar that is set is too low, in other words, that proscribing conduct which insults and offends is too much a restriction on free speech,” Turnbull told ABC Radio on Monday.

Turnbull also called for the Human Rights Commission to “urgently review” the way it handles section 18C complaints after a Brisbane judge dismissed a case against three Queensland students.

The students were accused of social media vilification of an Indigenous officer on campus.

“What it shows is that the Human Rights Commission must urgently review the way in which it manages these cases,” he said.

“To have a case like that – which will have involved the expenditure of considerable Commonwealth money, taxpayers’ money, considerable money on behalf of the students, imposed enormous stress on them – and have it chucked out, struck out as having no reasonable prospects of success, what the court was saying, what the judge was saying to the Human Rights Commission is, ‘You’ve been wasting the court’s time. You’ve been wasting government money.'”

A number of Coalition politicians have voiced their support for an inquiry.

Liberal senator Cory Bernardi tweeted, “It’s about time, but the real question is why it has taken so long? The abuse of 18C has been evident for years.”

Liberal backbencher Andrew Hastie said while the Government would like to protect minorities, it also sought to defend “one of the most important elements of democracy, which is free speech”.

The opposition has criticised Turnbull’s backflip. “The Prime Minister is willing to trade race hate protections to protect himself from his backbench,” said Opposition Leader Bill Shorten.

National: Pleas To Block Same-Sex Marriage Plebiscite

The plebiscite on same-sex marriage in the parliament might be cancelled, as the Australian Labor party is expected to reject the enabling bill.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten is set to recommend rejecting the bill to Labor caucus and finalise the party’s position on October 10.

The Greens and Nick Xenophon team have promised to block the legislation. “We will be voting against the marriage equality plebiscite, no matter what form it takes, because of the harm that it can potentially do to same-sex attracted and gender diverse Australian,” Greens senator Janet Rice said in a Melbourne conference.

“The best way to achieve marriage equality, the quickest way, the way it should be done is to have a free vote in the parliament and we want to see that free vote to be brought upon as soon as possible.”

If the parliament passes the legislation, the plebiscite would take place on February 11, 2017, with a taxpayer funding of $15 million allocated to “yes” and “no” campaign committees.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull warned that Labor’s rejection of the plebiscite could result in delays in same-sex marriage legalisation. “If the Labor Party wants to frustrate that, well, all that will mean is that the resolution of the same-sex marriage issue will be postponed potentially for a very long time,” Turnbull told the Financial Review.

Same-sex marriage advocates have said that the legislation is not the best way to legalise same-sex marriage. “This public funding provisions would allow taxpayers funds to be used to attack other Australians with fear campaigns, and is totally unnecessary for achieve a reform that the parliament could deliver now,” Australian Marriage Equality Chair, Alex Greenwich said.

“Earlier [in August] the largest LGBTI community survey of its kind ever conducted found the LGBTI community is united against a plebiscite with opposition running at 85 per cent,” just.equal spokesperson Ivan Hinton-Teoh told Star Observer.

“A key concern of LGBTI Australians is that a plebiscite will be a platform for hate and that it will not actually lead directly to marriage equality.

“I call on Labor and crossbench senators to follow the Greens’ lead so that a plebiscite is blocked and we can have a free vote in Parliament instead.”

National: Labor Senator Stephen Conroy Retires

Labor’s Victoria senator Stephen Conroy has announced his resignation from politics, only months after being re-elected at the July 2 election.

“You should always go out on top…it must be time to say farewell,” Conroy states in his tabled speech. “It has been a great privilege to serve as a senator for Victoria, as leader and deputy leader of the Labor Party in the Senate and as a cabinet minister in two Labor governments.”

Conroy mentions his daughter, Isabella in the speech. “When you resent being in Canberra because you are missing your daughter’s soccer training it is time to retire from the Federal Parliament,” the statement reads. “It’s time for me to hang up my boots as Captain of the Parliamentary Soccer team and spend more time teaching Isabella soccer tricks.”

Conroy’s decision caught his party colleagues by surprise. “I’ve only just heard of these reports so I’ll be having more discussions during the day,” Labor’s federal deputy leader, Tanya Plibersek said on Friday. Labor MP for Corio, Richard Marles told ABC he was also surprised by the decision, but said, “Steve was always going to do this in his own way and on his own terms.”

Opposition leader Bill Shorten thanked Conroy for his “tireless contribution” to the party and the country. “In his twenty years as a senator, Stephen has relished every challenge put to him…” states Shorten. “He goes with my goodwill, my best wishes and my thanks for his service.”

Conroy has previously served as Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy and Minister Assisting the Prime Minister on Digital Productivity.