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Australian party accused of asking US gun lobby for money

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia's prime minister has accused an influential minor political party of trying to "sell Australia's gun laws to the highest bidders" by asking the U.S. gun lobby for donations.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison was responding to an Al Jazeera documentary that reported One Nation party officials Steve Dickson and James Ashby flew to the United States for meetings with pro-gun interests including the National Rifle Association and political donors Koch Industries in September last year seeking money to undermine Australian gun laws.

Dickson and Ashby later told reporters that they had not secured any U.S. money. They also said they had been quoted by Al Jazeera out of context and often after drinking. The trip took place weeks before the Australian Parliament banned foreign political donations with laws that took effect Jan. 1.

Morrison said the revelations were reasons why Australians should not vote for One Nation at general elections due in May. "We have reports that One Nation officials basically sought to sell Australia's gun laws to the highest bidders to a foreign buyer and I find that abhorrent," Morrison said Tuesday.

Morrison said his government had made laws to "criminalize taking foreign political donations so foreign lobbyists cannot seek to influence our politics." Opposition leader Bill Shorten, whom opinion polls suggest will be prime minister after the election, accused One Nation of a "betrayal of the Australian political system."

"The idea of One National political party operatives going to the United States, seeking millions of dollars, promising to water-down gun law protection in Australia — that was absolutely horrifying," Shorten said.

The Al Jazeera documentary used secret recordings made by a journalist posing as gun lobbyist Rodger Muller with a hidden camera. One Nation, an anti-Muslim party that had four senators after 2016 election but has been left with two after defections, said in a statement that all party members "have always complied with the law."

One Nation also suggested the Qatar-owned Al Jazeera had breached new laws that prohibit covert foreign interference in Australian politics. The party said it had had complained to Australia's main domestic security agency and police "due to concerns of foreign interference into Australian politics in the lead up to the imminent federal election."

"Al Jazeera are a state-owned propaganda arm of the Qatari government that supports Islamic extremist groups and are not a legitimate media organization," the statement said. "One Nation was invited by Rodger Muller, who has now been outed as a foreign agent working for Al Jazeera to meet with the NRA, American business leaders and attend the Congressional Sportsmen's Dinner" in Washington, the statement said.

Al Jazeera said it stood by its reporting and that its journalists "adhere to the highest standards of professionalism and objectivity." "The suggestion that our staff is involved in espionage is both unfounded and, quite frankly, farcical," it said in a statement. It said it provided One Nation and its leaders "with an opportunity to comment on our evidence prior to broadcast but they declined to do so."

The NRA in a statement late Tuesday said Al Jazeera representatives, disguised as members of a group called "Gun Rights Australia," had set up meetings with NRA employees and brought Australian political party members to those meetings. "At no time did the NRA contribute funding to any Australian political party or Gun Rights Australia," NRA spokeswoman Jennifer Baker said in the statement.

Ashby, who is party leader Pauline Hanson's chief of staff, is recorded saying that the party would "own" both the Australian Senate and House of Representatives with a $20 million donation from the U.S. gun lobby. This means the party would hold the balance of power in both chambers and influence a government's legislative agenda.

Ashby also warned that if such a donation became public, it would "rock the boat." He told reporters on Tuesday that the U.S. trip had been a fact-finding mission to learn campaign tactics. "These conversations with the NRA were to look at nothing more than their techniques. This was not about sourcing money from the NRA. This was about sourcing technology, sourcing an understanding of how they operate, but never was it about seeking $20 million dollars from the NRA," Ashby told reporters.

The news followed the mosque attacks in New Zealand on March 15 for which an Australian white supremacist has been charged with murder. New Zealand has responded by banning a range of semi-automatic weapons and foreshadowing a government-funded buyback of newly outlawed guns. The country's response is similar to how Australia strengthened its gun laws following the murders of 35 people by a lone gunman in 1996 in Tasmania.

One Nation state president Steve Dickson, who is a Senate candidate at the next election, traveled with Ashby and Muller to the United States to ask for political donations, Al Jazeera reported. Dickon told NRA officials that the Australian gun control model "will poison us all, unless we stop it," Al Jazeera reported.

Dickson told reporters on Tuesday he supported Australia's gun laws. He said had not solicited donations in the United States, but conceded his party was not wealthy. "I will tell you the absolute, humble truth. When I was asked: 'Do we need money to run election campaigns?' I said: 'Yes,'" Dickson told reporters.

A former One Nation senator who is now an independent lawmaker, Fraser Anning, has been widely criticized for blaming Muslim immigration for the New Zealand massacre. Hanson, One Nation's leader who was criticized for wearing a burqa in the Senate, voted for the ban on foreign donations in November.

"Overseas money should not have an influence in our political scene .... so I believe foreign donations should be stopped," Hanson told the Senate. Ashby and Dickson said Hanson did not speak to the media on Tuesday because she was unwell.

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