By Will Ziebell
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Australia has established a security task force to guard against cyber attacks and interference in elections, the government said on Saturday, amid concerns foreign powers are meddling in domestic affairs and ahead of five elections next month.
The newly-created Electoral Integrity Task Force will identify and address risks to Australia’s electoral process, a Department of Home Affairs spokesperson told Reuters by email.
“This is a precautionary measure, which in the age of increasing levels of cyber-enabled interference and disruption, will need to become the norm,” the spokesperson said.
The Group of Seven leaders meeting in Canada were expected to endorse measures to protect elections against foreign interference, according to a draft summit commitment.
The draft appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to allegations by the United States and the governments of some European Union countries that Russia interfered in their elections. Moscow has denied the allegations.
The Australian task force announcement comes only weeks before five federal by-elections, held to fill seats outside a general election, and amid concerns in Australia about Chinese interference in its political processes.
The by-elections will test Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s popularity ahead of a national election due by late 2019.
Ties between Australia and its major trading partner China have soured over moves by Canberra to stop perceived foreign interference.
Australia is expected to adopt legislation aimed at preventing foreign interference by the end of July. China has formally complained over Turnbull citing Chinese influence as justification for the new legislation.
The new task force involves multiple agencies, including the Department of Finance and the Department of Home Affairs. The Home Affairs spokesperson said it would assist the Australian Electoral Commission with technical advice and expertise.
(Reporting by Will Ziebell in MELBOURNE; Editing by Michael Perry, Alison Bevege)