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ASIO spy scandal: ‘Traitor’ politician to stay anonymous after espionage bombshell

Sarah Blake and Christopher Dore
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Mike Burgess says ASIO “detected and disrupted a plot to infiltrate an ... Australian institution”.
Mike Burgess says ASIO “detected and disrupted a plot to infiltrate an ... Australian institution”. Credit: AAP

Australia’s politician super spy will stay anonymous and escape public humiliation and punishment despite ASIO chief Mike Burgess describing the former MP as a traitor to the country.

After revealing on Wednesday night that a politician had “sold out their country, party and former colleagues”, Mr Burgess said the spy agency had confronted the “A team” of foreign agents who recruited the Australian, who no longer posed a threat.

The events occurred before the espionage and foreign interference legislation was introduced in 2018, meaning it was not an offence at the time and unless the traitor were again to act, Mr Burgess said the threat he posed was “neutralised”.

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But the revelations sparked a political maelstrom on Thursday, with Opposition Leader Peter Dutton leading calls for the former politician to be unmasked and several public figures stepping forward to either deny or confirm their involvement with foreign powers.

Australia’s top spy levelled the extraordinary accusation of espionage and betrayal against the former politician during his annual threat assessment, saying they had tried to bring a member of a prime minister’s family into the “orbit” of spies who had recruited them.

“This politician sold out their country, party and former colleagues to advance the interests of the foreign regime,” Mr Burgess said.

“At one point, the former politician even proposed bringing a prime minister’s family member into the spies’ orbit. Fortunately, that plot did not go ahead but other schemes did.”

Mr Burgess said he shared the story as a warning to all Australians that people needed to understand the threat of foreign spies was “deeper and broader than you might think”.

His decision to lace his annual address with details straight out of a spy thriller led to a flurry of speculation about the identity of the traitor and furious calls for them to be named.

Senator Sam Dastyari racially abused in Melbourne pub. Arriving at Perth Airport. Picture: Sharon Smith The West Australian
Sam Dastyari says the ASIO spy scandal is “nothing to do with me”. Credit: Sharon Smith/The West Australian

Former US ambassador Joe Hockey kicked off with a blistering attack on the agency boss, insisting that his failure to identify the culprit had painted every politician and the PM with the potential label of spy.

Saying Washington and other countries were buzzing with concern about the safety of dealing with Australia, Mr Hockey said it was “absurd” not to name the traitor.

“I can only think that the head of ASIO was fully aware that there would be calls for that person to be named,” Mr Hockey told the ABC.

“Because it is absolutely inconceivable that you would have a former politician representing their community, representing the country, who then goes and engages with a foreign adversary, and somehow they’re allowed to walk off into the sunset without having their name or their reputation revealed.”

Mr Dutton said the person should be “outed and shamed” as there would continue to be “a cloud hanging above everybody else”.

“If you’re putting the detail out there as (Mr Burgess) has done, it is incumbent on him to give a little bit more detail, a little bit more of a hint on who it might be because I think it’s a little bit unfair on a lot of former MPs who are patriotic,” Mr Dutton told 2GB radio on Thursday.

Mr Burgess said the unnamed person was not active anymore and had been “neutralised“.

“They’re not doing it now, they’re not breaking the law,” Mr Burgess said.

“If we see them go active again, I can guarantee they’ll get caught.”

With the ASIO boss giving scant identifying details about the politician spy, the nationality of the “A-team” of agents and which former PM was involved, several public figures stepped forward to deny their involvement.

Fallen senator and prominent Labor powerbroker Sam Dastyari, who was forced out of politics over dodgy connections to Chinese nationals, declared he has nothing to do with ASIO’s political spy scandal.

Mr Dastyari, who quit parliament in 2018 over his extensive questionable dealings with Chinese donors came to light, told The Nightly the espionage revelations have “nothing to do with me”.

His statement to The Nightly came as the son of former PM Malcolm Turnbull, Alex, outed himself as the target of foreign spies.

Turnbull told news.com.au that he reported the approach to authorities, in an account that matched the spy scenario revealed by ASIO.

Dastyari, an incredibly powerful player in the NSW Labor Party before his downfall, was the most prominent name at the centre of speculation since ASIO boss Mike Burgess revealed the foreign spy network plot.

Dastyari left the Senate after it emerged he had extensive connections to Chinese donors, and repeatedly represented Chinese concerns in his role as a federal politician.

Dastyari told The Nightly: “Nothing to do with me and happy to not be commenting!”

Dastyari was accused before his departure of representing the interests of Chinese donors and backed contentious policies of the Beijing dictatorship.

He was reprimanded at one point by his then federal leader Bill Shorten after he was caught warning a donor that he was probably under counter-intelligence surveillance.

At the time, then PM Malcolm Turnbull pressured Mr Shorten to sack the senator, questioning Dastyari’s loyalty to Australia.

“Whose side is he on? Not Australia’s it would seem,” Turnbull said at the time.

Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles revealed he does not know the identity of the ex-politician and said it was unhelpful to speculate.

Acting Prime Minister Richard Marles has welcomed home ADF personnel from HMAS Toowoomba following its Regional Presence Deployment. Pictured is the Acting Prime Minister at Garden Island
Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles has revealed he does not know the identity of the ex-politician. Credit: Justin Benson-Cooper/The West Australian

“I respect what ASIO have done here in terms of putting this story into the public domain but also maintaining the confidentiality of the facts around this, and there could be a whole lot of reasons why that should happen,” Mr Marles said.

“We have amongst the best agencies in the world protecting Australians and Australians should have a sense of confidence about that. This is what Asio is doing in respect of handling this particular case.”

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