If there was ever a time we needed to be having a serious conversation about defence and national security, it would probably be about now.
Our relationship with our biggest trading partner is in the toilet. That major trading partner is on the rise, and our traditional allies — though apparently it is very rude to say this — are in decline.
Instead of pausing, taking stock and developing a slightly more detached strategic view of what Australia’s interests may be in this, we have retreated into traditional alliances that will deliver something unspecified to us in about 40 years’ time.
There is a strong likelihood of a war in Europe, in which both our biggest trading partner and the United States have significant interests. But there is more.
Last year, the head of the domestic spy agency ASIO, Mike Burgess, announced the agency had dumped terms like “right wing” and “Islamic extremism” as “no longer fit for purpose” and replaced them with broad terms of “ideologically motivated violent extremism” and “religiously motivated violent extremism”.
Last week, in his latest annual threat assessment, he warned “angry and alienated Australians” could turn to violence after being exposed to “an echo chamber” of extremist messaging, misinformation and conspiracy theories during the coronavirus pandemic.
He also noted ASIO had “recently detected and disrupted a foreign interference plot in the lead-up to an election in Australia”.
So, in addition to the very uncertain global outlook, for the first time in decades, according to one of our most senior national security officials, there is a real risk of war of sorts in Australia: we have the angry and alienated, and we have the political system under siege from outsiders.
Smearing, misleading, undermining
Anyone who saw last week’s protests in Canberra would understand that there really are a lot of “angry and alienated” Australians, even if, as Burgess says, there are probably only a small number who might contemplate violence.
Their anger in this election campaign is being fed and stoked not just by foreign players but by a larger number of domestic disrupters than we have seen in politics in a long time.
Chief among them is Clive Palmer, who is already spending a poultice on advertising various messages and his United Australia Party, having taken up the “freedom” cause of protesters against mandates and vaccines. And he has very deep pockets, as we saw in the last election.
Instead of a serious conversation, however, this week we have seen a federal government reduce itself to the most partisan, misleading and disreputable of attacks on its opponents on policy. We have also seen it attack, undermine and try to smear with allegations of impropriety those prepared to challenge their message.
Let’s just consider how this descent into public policy madness has unfolded.
Burgess’ observations that there had been an attempt at foreign interference in the run up to the federal election fed into the government’s growing push to shift the political debate to national security at a time when it was being humiliated by defections of its own backbench in the House of Representatives; when damaging leaks revealed the Prime Minister’s own closest colleagues, including the deputy PM, thought him a liar and a hypocrite; and when it has been singularly unsuccessful in demonstrating any capacity to deal with the crisis in aged care.
Suddenly, a window of opportunity seemed to have opened. Defence Minister Peter Dutton told parliament that:
“We now see evidence that the Chinese Communist party, the Chinese government, has also made a decision about who they’re going to back in the next federal election, and that is open and that is obvious, and they have picked this bloke [Labor Leader Anthony Albanese] as that candidate”.
When Labor objected that this was suggesting treasonous or seditious conduct by Albanese, Dutton observed his reflection was made just on “what has been publicly reported and commented on by the director general of ASIO”.
Where is this grubby campaign headed?
It has only gone further downhill this week, with the Prime Minister referring to Deputy Opposition Leader Richard Marles as the “Manchurian candidate”, prompting Burgess to take the unusual step of appearing on 7.30 on Wednesday to note “the foreign interference is against all members of parliament, so it doesn’t go after one particular party or the other”. He also said that the politicisation of such matters was “not helpful for us”.
Government backbenchers were then sent out to throw a menacing shot across Burgess’ bows, and play down the significance of his 7.30 remarks which had undermined the government’s political attack.
MP Dave Sharma told ABC News:
“I don’t want to live in an Australia where we can’t debate certain things because the spy chiefs tell us not to … I think they also need to be careful not to interfere in what is properly the domain of political debate and elected representatives.”
Senator James Paterson came out to say Burgess’ remarks had been “over-interpreted”.
But it was Paterson’s remarks about one of Australia’s longest serving senior public servants and diplomats, Dennis Richardson, that really showed where things are going in this grubbiest of campaigns.
Paterson suggested impropriety on the part of Richardson — a former head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Defence and ASIO as well as an ambassador to Washington — who served under both sides of politics, over the contentious 2018 decision about whether Chinese telco Huawei should be involved in the Australian 5G rollout.
Paterson noted on Thursday that it had been publicly reported that in 2011, Richardson, when he was secretary of DFAT, went on leave “to negotiate on behalf of the Canberra Raiders a lucrative sponsorship agreement from Huawei for the Canberra Raiders” (an assertion which Richardson completely rejects).
Richardson told 7.30 he had been on the bureaucrat secretaries committee on national security, which recommended against Huawei’s involvement in 4G, and was not in government in 2018 when the 5G decision was being made.
He did note, however, that someone who had lobbied on Huawei’s behalf was former foreign affairs minister Alexander Downer, who was on the Huawei board.
Speaking of China and propriety…
What had sparked the assault on Richardson?
Well, he had gone in even harder than Burgess to criticise the government’s politicisation of the national security debate, by “seeking to create the perception of a difference [between the major parties] when none in practice exists”. This only served the interests of China, Richardson said.
When it comes to China, both sides of politics have waxed and waned, made good decisions and bad over the last couple of decades.
But when it comes to China and propriety, we could mention the unfortunate dumping of Scott Morrison’s closest political ally Stuart Robert from the ministry in 2016 — after a scandal over a “private” trip to Beijing to oversee a mining deal, after an inquiry found the minister had “acted inconsistently” with the statement of ministerial standards.
Or we could mention that Robert, along with the then opposition leader Tony Abbott and others had got into trouble over $250,000 of Rolex watches they had been given by a Chinese billionaire in 2013.
Of course, that would be political and grubby, wouldn’t it? And a distraction from the alarmingly serious discussion we should be having right now.
Laura Tingle is 7.30’s chief political correspondent.