Foreign students barred from Australian MP internships over spying fears

Jonathan Pearlman
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently passed tough measures to prevent foreign interference - REUTERS

Australia has barred foreign university students from interning in MPs’ offices following concerns about alleged Chinese espionage and interference in domestic affairs.

The internships are arranged by the Australian National University, which gives course credits to participating students. 

But foreign citizens have been barred from taking up the internships following complaints by some MPs about “behind-the-scenes access enjoyed by Chinese students”, according to a report in The Australian Financial Review.

Individual MPs will still be able to offer informal internships and work experience to foreign students.

Australia is one of the world’s most popular destinations for international students.

In April, there were more than 500,000 foreign students at Australian educational institutions, about 30 per cent of whom were from China.

But there have been growing concerns in Australia about alleged meddling by China in domestic politics and at university campuses. 

Malcolm Turnbull, Australia’s prime minister, recently passed tough measures to combat foreign interference, including  a ban on foreign political donations and a requirement that lobbyists from abroad register their interests. 

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This followed Mr Turnbull’s expression of concerns about alleged Chinese interference after the resignation last year of an opposition MP who adopted a pro-China stance on tensions in the South China Sea after accepting donations from a wealthy Chinese businessman.

Australia has also been concerned about efforts by China to expand ties across the South Pacific. 

Mr Turnbull this week signed an agreement with the leaders of the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea to build an undersea cable between the three nations, a move designed to block Chinese firm Huawei from developing the project.

Australia and New Zealand are also reportedly planning to sign a new security pact with South Pacific island nations later this year.

This prompted a denunciation on Monday by China’s state-owned newspaper Global Times, which warned Australian and New Zealand to “avoid misleading the region on China's role”.

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The decision to restrict the parliamentary internships reportedly followed complaints by some MPs to the Speaker of Australia’s House of Representatives, Mr Tony Smith, and the President of the Senate, Mr Scott Ryan, about the possibility that Chinese students may exploit their access to MPs and ministers' affairs.

Malcolm Davis, a defence analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, supported the move, saying foreign nationals should not be allowed behind-the-scenes access.

"Why should we allow foreign nationals to have access to sensitive material, potentially classified material in Parliament House?" he told The Australian Financial Review.

The university said it accepted international students into its internship programs but host institutions could advise of criteria, such as whether they accept non-Australians.

According to a report last week in the Australian media, the university’s computer system was last year infiltrated by Chinese hackers.