SYDNEY (Reuters) – Chinese spies sought to fund candidates for Australia’s centre-left Labor opposition party in an upcoming federal election but the plot was foiled by the national security agency, Australian media reported on Friday.
The plot was arranged by an unnamed businessman with strong Chinese connections who sought to fund candidates in the state of New South Wales in exchange for influence in public office, the reports said.
But it was detected and stopped by the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), the reports added, without giving details of the alleged plot such as timing or how it was thwarted. A Chinese intelligence service was behind the plot, said The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, citing unnamed security sources.
The Australian Broadcasting Corp and broadsheet The Australian also ran reports about the alleged plot.
China said it had never interfered in Australia’s internal affairs. The media reports were “not worth refuting”, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told reporters in Beijing.
The reports come as national security looms as a major campaign issue in Australian elections due by May. The ruling conservative coalition is trailing in most polls and recently accused Labor of being the preferred party of China.
Labor leader Anthony Albanese said he was confident none of his candidates was compromised because he had spoken to ASIO Director-General Mike Burgess “and he has reaffirmed that he has not raised concerns about any of my candidates”.
“I understand the government’s desperate for distractions at the moment but I say to them that national security is too important to engage in game-playing,” he told reporters.
In a speech on Wednesday, Burgess had made a general reference to “multiple” foreign countries seeking to interfere with Australian governments and referred to one “puppeteer” who had acted on behalf of an unnamed government to identify and bankroll candidates who would act, without their knowledge, in the interests of the foreign power.
The puppeteer referred to by Burgess was acting on behalf of China, said the reports on Friday.
An ASIO spokesperson referred Reuters to a transcript of Burgess’s speech and declined to comment further.
(Reporting by Byron Kaye; Additional reporting by Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Nick Macfie)