Australian bishops have warned that proposed new legislation could require priests, and potentially any Catholic involved in advocacy, to register as a ‘foreign agent’ of the Vatican.
Bishop Robert McGuckin of Toowoomba told a parliamentary committee: “Catholics are followers of Jesus Christ, we are not agents of a foreign government.”
Although the law contains an exemption for religious groups, the draft bill also states that the Catholic Church is affiliated with the Vatican, leaving both priests and individual Catholics exposed to the claim they are foreign agents.
The proposed bill would require those who act for foreign powers to reveal their status on a new register, or face criminal charges.
“I want to be clear in rejecting the characterisation of the Catholic Church found in the explanatory memorandum,” Bishop McGuckin said.
“It seems that every Catholic involved in advocacy may need to register and report”, he said, adding “We don’t believe that is the intention of the bill.”
The bishop’s comments were heard at the beginning of a two-day public hearing regarding the legislation.
The Australian Catholic Bishops Conference had already written to the committee, stating that the bill was “drafted on the incorrect belief” that the Australian Church acted on behalf of the Vatican.
Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, head of Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee, said that according to security services, the country was “experiencing unprecedented levels of espionage and foreign interference”.
In light of new laws against espionage introduced last year, Mr Castle said he was “not convinced there is a need” for more, but that the new legislation was “seeking to protect Australia and its interests”.
Attorney-General Christian Porter declined to comment on specific responses to the bill at this point. He said: “They are important, but they are made in the context of the critical process of modernising the law to make Australia a safer place and I will be considering all the submissions with great care.”
Australia’s biggest news organisations, including ABC and News Corp, have declared in a joint submission that they will not support the bill unless specific exemptions are made for journalists.
When the bill was announced in December, Attorney-General George Brandis said: “If you act covertly on behalf of a foreign actor, in a way that harms Australia’s national security, to influence the political process, or a Government decision, that conduct will be criminalised.”