By Colin Packham
SYDNEY (Reuters) - Foreigners have been banned from working as interns for Australian members of parliament, a spokesman for the Senate said on Thursday, in a reform apparently aimed at blocking Chinese prying into Australian affairs.
The programme placing young people in a much-prized position working for a federal legislator for a three-month stint had been open to all nationalities, as long as the applicant did not have a criminal record.
"Internships at Parliament House are restricted to Australian citizens," said a spokesman for Senator Scott Ryan, president of the Senate, which oversaw the change.
The spokesman declined to comment on what prompted the alteration or if it was made to block Chinese interference.
Late last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull accused China of meddling in domestic affairs. China denied the accusation which led to a strain in ties between the important trading partners.
The Financial Times newspaper reported in September that a New Zealand citizen who had previously interned at an Australian parliamentary committee had links to a Chinese military spy school.
That report prompted a review of the intern system, which concluded standards should be bought in line with the rest of the government.
Chinese students had often applied to the programme and many worked as interns over the years.
A spokeswoman for the Australian National University (ANU), which provides many of the interns, said it had been informed of the change in the eligibility rule late last year.
The change was only publicly disclosed some months later when the ANU amended the rules it posted on its website.
Last month, Australia passed legislation designed to prevent interference by foreign governments, a reform Turnbull said was needed to combat Chinese meddling.
Under the law, lobbyists for foreign countries will be required to register and they will be liable to criminal prosecution if they are deemed to be interfering in domestic affairs.
(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Robert Birsel)