CHRISTOPHER DORE: Intelligence bosses face clean out as Albanese government cosies up to China

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Christopher Dore
The Nightly
6 Min Read
Australia’s PM Anthony Albanese and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.
Australia’s PM Anthony Albanese and Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. Credit: LUKAS COCH/AAPIMAGE

Our spies are being left out in the cold by the Albanese Government.

The climate has dramatically changed for our national security and intelligence community since Anthony Albanese came to office and allowed Penny Wong to run the country.

Ignore Paul Keating’s annual sino-pyschotic bender about Wong. The all powerful Foreign Affairs Minister is behind Australia’s cosier, more forgiving embrace of China, in defiance of the metaphoric man-the-battle-stations posture urged by our top intelligence operatives.

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Wong is the Albo Whisperer and has “these-are-not-the-droids-you-are-looking-for” mind control over the PM.

As a result, she is significantly more influential than the actual Deputy PM, Richard Marles. The loyal Defence Minister and his Victorian Right mate Claire O’Neil, the Home Affairs Minister who oversees the intelligence agencies, are both hawkish on China and limpish in Cabinet.

With Wong is her fellow South Australian, powerbroker Don Farrell, who as a union boss holds a finely calibrated control over the Labor caucus. She runs Albanese and foreign policy and Farrell runs Labor and trade policy.

And therein lies the problem for the national intelligence apparatus; the agencies which successfully stop terror attacks, cyber assaults, espionage and foreign agent incursions. They think China is a bit of a problem for our national security.

The Albanese-Wong-Farrell troika, and their departmental officials, think China is good for business. Despite what his top national security and intelligence advisers tell him, Albanese reckons he can buddy up to dictator Xi Jinping and win him over with a bit of good old Aussie mateship. Farrell reckons if we take it a little bit easier on Beijing we can once again start selling them a shit tonne of stuff at good prices.

Australia’s relationship with China began to sour when Malcolm Turnbull was prime minister. Turnbull actually listened to his ASIO chief, the “level-headed” Duncan Lewis, who the then PM said “showed no signs of paranoia” when he insisted China was engaging in cyber espionage on an “industrial scale”. He also told Turnbull that Chinese operatives were endlessly working to “co-opt Australian politicians and opinion leaders”.

Turnbull says it was obvious previous governments were “not paying attention” to China’s incursion. He introduced foreign interference laws and hardened espionage powers, because the Chinese Communist Party was “working covertly to interfere with with our media, our universities and even the decisions of elected representatives” in Parliament. Turnbull later also listened to his then Australian Signals Directorate chief, now ASIO boss Mike Burgess to prohibit China’s Huawei from running our 5G network.

The Labor Party accused Turnbull’s government of being “anti-Chinese” and mimicked Chinese state media’s cries of racism.

The Australian relationship spiralled when Turnbull successor Scott Morrison aggravated Beijing by having the gall to suggest maybe the international community might want a bit of a look-see at the origins of COVID-19.

One of Anthony Albanese’s early acts as Prime Minister was to visit China, winning hearts and minds of the regime during his Gough Whitlam scenic tour of the Great Wall and other great Labor monuments.

They would never say it, but there is a different approach to China from this Government. They are much less willing to publicly criticise China.

While China remains our No.1 threat to national security, one of the first orders Albanese issued as PM, after asking for some Beijing tourist office brochures, was to insist the top national security and intelligence official Andrew Shearer, the director general of the (once) all powerful Office of National Intelligence, drop everything to launch an urgent project. Not into Chinese or Russian espionage. Not into Middle Eastern terror threats. But climate change. Conduct a cumbersome theoretical analysis into what threat climate change might pose to national security.

Shearer, a vastly experienced and respected intelligence operative, does not often speak publicly. But in a talk last year to the National Security College at the ANU in Canberra, he was candid, but diplomatic, about the challenges he faces overseeing all 10 national security and intelligence agencies, including ASIO, the Australian Federal Police and our foreign spy service ASIS.

“The Government committed to a major assessment on the national security implications of climate change … that’s an absolutely huge body of work … a lot of really tough methodological thinking,” he said.

“So, we have to be able to do that while at the same time warning about the possibility of a terror attack … or a negative development somewhere in the South Pacific or other challenges arising in South-East Asia or indeed globally.”

Albanese has yet to release the big climate change study the top intelligence guy was dragged away from his day job to conduct.

It should be no surprise then, that there are some in the intelligence community who feel isolated, exposed, ignored and frustrated by the Albanese approach.

While some say Wong, who is far more influential on national security than the leaders of the intelligence agencies, is central to the atmospheric change, others say the real pressure on the agencies comes from the bureaucrats running other departments. Aware of the priorities of their new political masters they are seizing their moment.

Trade, Foreign Affairs, and Treasury officials have become influential in government thinking. Intelligence, not so much.

“They don’t like talking national security that’s obvious,” The Nightly was told.

“They are not going to ever be like the Coalition, lots of press conferences with flags talking national security. That’s not the style.”

And the most significant difference: “They would never say it, but there is a different approach to China from this Government. They are much less willing to publicly criticise China.”

Burgess, the ASIO boss who is hawkish on China but has no direct political links like Shearer does, having worked as national security adviser in Tony Abbott’s office, is thought to be respected by government leaders. His five-year term ends later this year. Treasurer Jim Chalmers defended him against Keating’s insults but ignored Shearer. Albanese notably did not defend either of them when his predecessor called them “goons” who should be sacked for upsetting Beijing and getting too worked up about the Chinese intelligence threat.

While the Government kept the pair in place when they took office in 2022, there is a growing expectation that when their terms are up, Albanese will continue the clean out of intelligence chiefs.

Already five of the 10 agency bosses including the secretary of Home Affairs have been replaced, all by women.

A new boss of ASIS, Australia’s version of MI6 and the CIA, Kerri Hartland; a new director of the Australian Geospatial Intelligence Organisation, Kathryn McMullan; a new cyber security chief, Michelle McGuinness; a new head of the international crime fighting network the National Criminal Intelligence Agency, Heather Cook; a new Home Affairs secretary, Stephanie Foster.

And Heather Smith is leading the independent intelligence review.

The leadership of the agencies at the pointy end of the security and intelligence spear, and the most influential, is next.

Coalition-appointed hardliners Burgess at ASIO and Rachel Noble at the secretive Australian Signals Directorate, Australian Federal Police commissioner Reece Kershaw and Shearer, the head of the overarching National Intelligence Community, who is also the director general of the Office of National Intelligence, will all be battling to hold on to their jobs.

“You could have in a year, 18 months time a complete turnover in the heads of agencies, the key national security agencies, and a very different intelligence community after this.”

One with a more Wongian view of the world.

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