A senior politician has flagged a “very high” likelihood of Chinese spies operating inside Australia’s Parliament House after a UK parliamentary staffer was arrested under suspicion of espionage.
Opposition home affairs spokesman James Paterson said the vast majority of staff working in parliament were not security vetted or cleared in any way and called for increased security measures to curb the risk of foreign interference.
“If you work for a government backbencher, (for) anyone in opposition, including shadow ministers, then you are not required and you’re not able to be security vetted,” Senator Paterson said on Monday.
“I think it’s time that that changed, at the very least for MPs who work on sensitive committees like the intelligence and security committee or the new statutory defence committee, which is going to oversee AUKUS.”
The warning follows revelations that a researcher in Britain’s Parliament House was arrested in March over claims he was feeding government secrets back to Beijing.
The man, said to be in his 20s, reportedly worked for a number of MPs and had access to classified details around international policy, including on China. He remains on bail until October, according to media reports.
In February, the head of the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation warned of a “discernible and concerning uptick” in foreign spies hunting for sensitive government information.
Senator Paterson said baseline vetting for staff in Canberra needed to be introduced to at least establish “basic facts” about who worked in the building.
“No one should make the false assumption that it is only people who are of Chinese heritage or ethnicity who are potential spies. In this instance, it is someone of Anglo ethnicity and background who was a UK citizen,” he told reporters.
“So really it can be anyone at any time, and MPs should not be left to fend for themselves when they are hiring staff.”
Warnings of Chinese-government-backed spies in Canberra emerge after Anthony Albanese said he would fly to Beijing later this year to hold talks with President Xi Jinping.
The Prime Minister has confirmed he will use the trip, which has been hailed as an opportunity to stabilise relations between Australia and China, to discuss trade and raise concerns about reported humans rights abuses within the country.
The visit will be first made by an Australian prime minister to China since 2016.
Mr Albanese’s announcement came after holding “respectful” and “constructive” talks with Chinese Premier Li Qiang last week after attending the East Asia Summit in Jakarta.
Originally published as Senior politician warns of ‘very high’ risk of Chinese spies in parliament