Politics Analysis

Security agencies assume greater role in Australian policymaking

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Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (image by Dan Jensen)

The question taxing many is why are our security services and not the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) running our relationship with China?

The answer is complex and begins with the onset of the Howard era in 1996 and continues to this day.

Howard ran into the arms of the Australian Federal Police (AFP) after the Port Arthur massacre and stayed there for the rest of his time as Prime Minister. The embrace became closer and more intimate after 9/11, with hysteria generated around Islamic terrorism and demonisation of Muslims, which saw the AFP manufacture "evidence" around "suspects" such as Indian Doctor Mohamed Haneef.

Nonetheless, Howard and the Coalition remained star-struck with their perception of the power, skill and reach of intelligence agencies. Relishing their elevated status within the Canberra circus, security agencies, including the AFP, put forward ambitious funding proposals and were rewarded with their claims and more.

Their power and influence were on the ascendancy at a time when Australian leadership was declining, in politics, public service, defence, business, church and education.

Increasingly operating in a vacuum, with few institutional checks and balances, the agencies took advantage. Interpreting data morphed into analysis and then projections based on intelligence data. It wasn’t long before these projections addressed options for action.

On this trajectory and within this framework it was a "logical" next step for agencies to provide policy advice.

From climate change, energy, telecommunications, infrastructure and foreign policy, agencies, associated think tanks such as Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and defence industry lobbyists provide policy advice. In the case of ASIO, ASIS, AFP and ASPI, they all drive and implement policy contained in the advice they have provided government.

ASIO has been making political judgements and recommendations since it spied on the Australian Communist Party in the 1950s. At the time of the Vietnam War, it spied on anti-war demonstrators. It regarded them as enemies of the state. It created files on activists which were used to prevent them from getting jobs with government departments. It also spied on anti-apartheid activists and members of the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress resident in Australia.

In 2011, ASIO made adverse security findings against sixty Tamils from Sri Lanka who were found to be refugees. The decision had the effect of keeping them in indefinite detention. ASIO apparently had obtained information indicating that the Tamils were former members of the Tamil Tigers and were likely to seek to re-activate that organisation, which the Sri Lankan and Australian Governments had declared to be terrorists.

The Tigers were Tamil soldiers who fought against Sinhalese soldiers in a civil war from 1983-2009 which ended in a massacre of thousands of unarmed Tamils.

Writing in The Canberra Times in 2012, I said: 

‘The only source of information available to ASIO to maintain it’s intransigence … is the Sri Lankan Government. It is unconscionable that the Australian Government allows one of its agencies to be beholden to the Sri Lankan Government in this way … The head of ASIO, David Irvine, has unfettered authority in this matter. He has made a poor call.’

This unfortunate travesty of justice and humanity took place under the umbrella of the war on terror.

Australian security organisations have always been close to their American counterparts, as have Australian Governments to successive American administrations. In Australia, it is an article of fundamental belief by both the Coalition and Labor that America, if and when push comes to shove, will come to our assistance.

This belief stems from WWII when America used Australia as a base and stepping off point for its Pacific campaign to defeat Japan. Australia has chosen to interpret American self-interest as a selfless gesture of support. Fear of losing this support has led to a craven history of engagement with the U.S. in military defeats in a number of theatres over the past 55 years.

Australian foreign policy has followed the moral and intellectual dependency on the U.S. in relation to defence policy and planning. An unfortunate prism, within which to view the world, was provided by the so-called War on Terror; it was accepted by the U.S. and adopted by Australia.

President Donald Trump has consistently vilified China. His rhetoric, such as it is, has been to cast China as a threat to America and an aggressive rogue state intent on destroying world order. He used the possible break out of COVID-19 in China to further demonise and isolate China. Joe Hockey, a former Liberal minister and ambassador to the U.S., said on 22 September that it was essential that Trump be re-elected.

That is the position of the Coalition and ASPI. They have convinced themselves of the threat posed by China and incredibly see Trump as the person best placed to contain that threat. Many in the media in Australia have bought into that.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison, Peter Dutton and Marise Payne chose to single China out as the COVID-19 culprit; rightly, through their thick-headed choice of words, invoking the justified ire of China. None of this appears to worry ASPI and the other Australian security agencies who seek confrontation with China believing that America has their backs. 

The most incredible situation has arisen as a result of their naivety, skewed ideology and a complete misreading of the situation. China has reacted with trade sanctions on beef, barley, meat and wine, worth billions annually. 

The issue is to teach China a lesson, no matter the cost. America can dictate to Australia, spy on all our citizens but not China. China for them is the enemy. It is also one of our biggest trading partners.

I asked Trade Minister Simon Birmingham’s office to supply details of approaches made to his Chinese counterparts to resume normal trade. They refused to provide details. Subsequent exchanges convinced me that despite his office claiming approaches had been made, none had. Birmingham is not attending the Shanghai Trade Fair in November.

What is going on? Australian foreign policy, particularly with respect to China but also with Iran, has been taken over by the security establishment. They are telling the Government what to do with respect to China. They are directing ministers. They likely don’t care about the loss in trade which they see as inevitable and collateral damage.

China is about to impose further trade sanctions. It does not need us, we need it. Who will and what will replace this lost trade revenue? This is the stuff of cloud cuckoo land. Morrison has lost the plot. He has been white anted from within.

And who gains? Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton. Using the so-called threat of China, agencies under his control have infiltrated the political process and are bypassing or marginalising the bureaucracy.

Dutton still has his eye on the top job. Morrison and he are well matched. Both cunning, conniving and immoral, but Dutton has a right-wing Department of Home Affairs at his disposal and he is using it. The cost to the country will not worry Dutton. His concerns about the human condition are reflected with the Tamil family incarcerated on Christmas Island.

What if Joe Biden wins the U.S. Presidential Election? An unholy and undignified scramble on the part of Morrison and the Coalition to try and retrieve something from shell of the China relationship. But what of Labor? In the absence of a Labor reformed and reconstructed with courageous leadership, Dutton has the day using his security agencies to gain power. 

Bruce Haigh is a former Australian diplomat and a political commentator. You can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh.

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