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Why Australia’s Chief Spy Rebuked Its Prime Minister Over China

A successful strategy to counter Beijing’s influence is falling prey to politics.

By , a Fulbright Scholar and foreign-policy expert.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks during a press conference in Sydney on Feb. 1, 2020. Don Arnold/Getty Images

It’s not every day that the nation’s No. 1 spy publicly rebukes his prime minister for jeopardizing national security. In a TV interview, Mike Burgess—Australia’s director-general of security—labeled Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attacks on the opposition Labor Party for its supposed weakness on China as “unhelpful.” Burgess rightly pointed out that an assertive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a national problem, not a partisan one.

That Burgess felt compelled to speak publicly is a telling inditement of the dangerous shift in Australia’s national security debate. This change risks undermining Australia’s world-leading approach to countering authoritarian interference while giving autocrats a leg up in the information wars. It also proves that the greatest challenges to democracies are from the inside as the system eats itself from within.

Politicizing national security is never a good idea. With the stakes as high as they are for Australia—and democracies globally—it is unforgivable.

It’s not every day that the nation’s No. 1 spy publicly rebukes his prime minister for jeopardizing national security. In a TV interview, Mike Burgess—Australia’s director-general of security—labeled Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attacks on the opposition Labor Party for its supposed weakness on China as “unhelpful.” Burgess rightly pointed out that an assertive Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a national problem, not a partisan one.

That Burgess felt compelled to speak publicly is a telling inditement of the dangerous shift in Australia’s national security debate. This change risks undermining Australia’s world-leading approach to countering authoritarian interference while giving autocrats a leg up in the information wars. It also proves that the greatest challenges to democracies are from the inside as the system eats itself from within.

Politicizing national security is never a good idea. With the stakes as high as they are for Australia—and democracies globally—it is unforgivable.

Two things are driving this worrying shift in tone. The first is a belligerent Chinese Communist Party that is determined to punish Australia for its sovereign decisions—best demonstrated by the famous list of 14 grievances presented by the Chinese ambassador to Australia. The second is an increasingly desperate Liberal Party—the conservative side of Australian politics—which is in power but badly behind in the polls. With an election due in May, these two factors are converging in a way that threatens Australia’s strategy for managing the China relationship.

With only a one-seat majority, Morrison has struggled to stop his own members from crossing the floor to defeat his government’s election promises. Desperate to change the channel from his personal failures on vaccines, rapid antigen tests, and bushfire responses, Morrison has tried all the greatest hits in the conservative book to dig himself out of his slump. Religious discrimination laws targeting transgender kids and rules allowing for the deportation of convicted criminals or mandatory sentencing on illegal firearms have been given an airing.

With the Labor Party refusing to engage on his wedge politics, Morrison has gone for the ultimate smash glass conservative policy: red baiting.

It was into this pressure cooker atmosphere that Burgess accidentally dropped a political bombshell. Appearing before the Australian Senate, Burgess revealed that the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) had foiled a coordinated plot for a Beijing-backed “puppeteer” to bankroll candidates at the upcoming federal election. It was hoped that once there, those candidates could be used for information-gathering and potentially become sympathetic to Chinese government policies. Burgess did not name the political party involved and even stated that the candidates themselves were unaware they were in this individual’s web.

This is not Australia’s first brush with political interference. Although Labor has suffered resignations and retirements from parliament due to inappropriate links to the Chinese Community Party and China-linked donors, the Morrison government has a current member sitting on the treasury benches who has admitted to past links to the CCP’s propaganda arm.

A new revelation of this magnitude should have been worrying. But it should also have boosted confidence that Australia’s new foreign-interference regime and focus on the challenge—introduced under former Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull on a bipartisan basis—was doing its job. Morrison could have taken credit for the work of his old boss.

But a desperate government, trailing in the polls by 10 points or more, couldn’t help itself.

Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton was first to claim that Beijing had chosen its preference in the upcoming election and was hoping for an Anthony Albanese-led Labor government. If that wasn’t outrageous enough, the prime minister then labeled Labor’s deputy leader, Richard Marles—one of Labor’s best and most noted defense hawk—a “Manchurian candidate.” Although it’s a reference only remembered by movie nerds and older adults, it’s an outrageous slur—one Morrison was forced to withdraw.

Enter Burgess, who made it clear intelligence services and intelligence itself should not be politicized. While not quite reaching former FBI director James Comey or former U.S. President Donald Trump levels, this kind of slap down from top intelligence figures to the top of an Australian government is unprecedented. It was also warranted.

Burgess was backed by the legendary Canberra mandarin Dennis Richardson—himself a former ASIO chief and ambassador to the United States—who cautioned against using national security as a political weapon. Richardson then found himself under attack from the chair of Australia’s Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security, which has oversight of Australia’s national security apparatus. Set up by Labor, this committee is also doggedly bipartisan.

History explains Morrison’s temptation. Labor split over the question of communism in the 1950s, which saw the creation of the avowedly anti-communist Democratic Labor Party (DLP). Although the communists would eventually be defeated within Labor, the advent of the DLP helped keep conservatives in power for 25 years.

In some ways, it is unremarkable for a government to attack its opponents, particularly the progressive side, as weak on national security. It’s a tale as old as time. Or at least as old as Das Kapital. But that doesn’t make it any less helpful or dangerous. With democracy on the ropes globally, it’s not the sort of approach that will be useful in the long run.

The Chinese Communist Party is a patient actor that drive a bus into an inch of light. The world has already seen the CCP sense an opportunity to fan Morrison’s divisive flames by using its mouthpiece, the Global Times, to endorse Labor at the upcoming election. The world can expect more to come.

The Trump administration’s experience showed what happens when national security becomes a political weapon. With the red team captain under attack via the Mueller investigation and all that followed, Republican voters suddenly, after years of hawkishness, became pro-Russia. The problem has lingered, with Trump voters twice as likely than voters of U.S. President Joe Biden to say the Ukraine conflict is not the United States’ business.

Labor has since returned fire, criticizing the government’s record in areas such as its 2015 free trade agreement with China and the sale of the Darwin Port to Chinese government interests. But this kind of partisan split also makes it harder to distinguish between worthwhile critiques of government policy and CCP talking points that say any steps to protect Australian interests are a containment of China’s rise or are racially motivated. It also lets Chinese apologists take a moral high ground while talking their own book.

Already, we’re seeing Chinese Communist Party sympathizers in the Australian business community—who would look the other way on all matters of foreign interference and human rights abuses to keep the money flowing—jumping into the debate.

The problem for Morrison is the facts don’t match the reality he is seeking to contrive.

Australians have rallied behind the idea of standing up to China. Despite the economic costs of fighting with its major customer and the security risks of challenging an emerging world power, the Australian public is right behind this strategy. The reversal in popularity of China and its leader—while a global phenomenon—is most pronounced in Australia, where China has gone from the penthouse to the outhouse.

But chasing this popular support as an electoral dividend is as foolish as it is done in bad faith. Regrettably in politics today—an era of blue teams and red teams—most policy ideas are dead on arrival as the base of both sides lock in on the position their team captains select.

It is therefore likely that Australians have united around this approach because the politicians did so first. If the question of national security descends into the stuff of Canberra food fights, the consensus will quickly evaporate as partisan politics take over. The hard work of so many will be wasted, and all hope will be lost.

As a Labor member responsible for helping to set party policy, I am not afraid to say the government has most of the substance—if not the style—of its approach right. I’ve also argued against people on either side of politics who don’t want to accept the new reality of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Communist Party. But that’s what makes this accusation so galling and unbecoming of a prime minister.

For the better part of six years, Australia has navigated the choppy waters of its relationship with Xi’s China with marked success. Despite enormous pressure, the government has not buckled while it doggedly assembled a policy suite to counter Beijing’s aggression. Although Labor has critiqued its methods at times—for example, the messy call for an investigation into the origins of COVID-19—the opposition has stood with the government on all questions of substance. Notwithstanding the clear merits of the so-called AUKUS deal, Labor’s critique of the government’s handling of the submarine tender process—one of the largest financial deals in Australia’s history—has been restrained and constructive. Questions related to the growing capability gap, cost overruns, and diplomatic fallouts have not been overly politicized.

Australia is rightly seen as being at the forefront of resisting CCP bullying. Much of that response has been driven by a strong bipartisan policy. Foreign interference laws, AUKUS, the banning of Huawei from the 5G network—all of these have been strongly supported by the Labor Party. This has allowed Australia to present a united front to its far larger bully while also allowing the government to confidently coordinate with other Indo-Pacific nations.

In fact, it was Labor under former leader Bill Shorten that led the charge to prevent Australia from allowing the extradition of Chinese nationals back to the mainland for trial. Despite CCP threats, Shorten stood firm, and the government eventually agreed to scrap the treaty.

As Burgess carefully noted, the prime minister has blown this very consensus wide open. Even if Morrison rides to victory via this unpleasant tactic, Australia’s national security will be weaker purely because it is less united politically.

Like other nations, Australia has a very real problem on its hands when it comes to resisting the assertive demands of its No. 1 trading partner. But politicizing this issue will make it worse, not better.

Morrison is right to declare democracies are facing a coalition of autocracies—lead by Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin—that seek to destroy them. Initiatives—such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, AUKUS, and deeper bilateral links with Asian democracies, such as Japan—are vital to Australia’s national interests and will promote peace in the Indo-Pacific.

But Morrison’s desperate tactics undermine the very civic unity needed to prevail in this struggle. If democracies unite around the world but fray from within, then the autocrats’ work will be complete.

Misha Zelinsky is a Fulbright Scholar and foreign-policy expert. He is the secretary of the Australian Labor Party’s National Policy Forum. He is currently in Ukraine as a special correspondent covering the conflict for the Australian Financial Review and others.

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