‘Who the f--- does this bloke think he is?’ Fury as spy boss stays quiet over identity of politician traitor

Headshot of Sarah Blake
Sarah Blake
The Nightly
5 Min Read
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ASIO Director General Mike Burgess poses for a portrait ahead of his annual speech at ASIO headquarters in Canberra, Tuesday, February 21, 2023. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING
Australian Security Intelligence Organisation ASIO Director General Mike Burgess poses for a portrait ahead of his annual speech at ASIO headquarters in Canberra, Tuesday, February 21, 2023. (AAP Image/Mick Tsikas) NO ARCHIVING Credit: MICK TSIKAS/AAPIMAGE

If he was looking to make a splash by peppering his annual threat assessment with plotlines from an airport thriller, Australia’s top spy certainly got what he was looking for when he detailed how a former politician had been recruited by a foreign power and betrayed the country.

And while the as-yet unnamed pollie may indeed get to “sail off into the sunset” given a decided lack of enthusiasm from the Federal Government to take ASIO’s evidence of betrayal and launch a prosecution, that hasn’t stopped a furious international guessing game into the identity of our super spy.

So just why did ASIO director-general Mike Burgess push the spy bingo button? And has the speech potentially done more harm than good, given the fact Mr Burgess’s topline message about the grave danger posed to Australia by homegrown Sunni Islamic terrorism has been obscured by chatter about a historic spy MP?

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Given the scarcity of detail offered by Mr Burgess on Wednesday night, the list of names being bandied about ranges from prominent federal figures to long-forgotten state MPs.

Those who have publicly disclosed that they are not the spy include former NSW Labor powerbroker and senator Sam Dastyari and former NSW MP Ernest Wong, while Malcolm Turnbull’s son Alex revealed that he may have been the prime ministerial family member who Mr Burgess said was targeted by spies.

As one current senior federal MP said of Mr Burgess for the smear that former treasurer and US ambassador Joe Hockey says has tainted all former politicians: “Who the f--- does this bloke think he is?”.

With Australia’s defamation laws among the world’s toughest, the bare facts – that this politician was recruited and betrayed the country before being stopped by ASIO and saying they wouldn’t do it again - may be all the public ever learns.

But this is not good enough, according to national security expert Michael Shoebridge.

“If this had been an officer in any national security agency or a business person they would have had a bag on their head, they would have had police forensic teams bagging and tagging everything in their office and they would have had a horrified family standing by watching them be arrested and frogmarched away from their homes,” Mr Shoebridge, a director of Canberra thinktank Strategic Analysis Australia, told The Nightly.

“Instead what we have is, ASIO has given them a stern talking to, that they’ve harmed our security and the matter ends there.

“Imagine a bank robber was dealt with this way. You’ve robbed the bank but the harm is in the past and we’re just going to leave it here because you say you won’t do it again.”

Some in government say that given that the spying happened before national security laws were strengthened in 2018, it would be “impossible” to prosecute the matter.

But Mr Shoebridge, who formerly held senior roles in defence and in Australian intelligence, called on Attorney General Mark Dreyfus to investigate further.

“All this stuff about ‘that’s where the matter rests’ and ‘that’s as far as ASIO could take the issue’ - well ASIO doesn’t have any role in deciding or assuming criminal prosecutions,” he said.

“The Attorney General is the chief law officer so when it come to a prosecution of a former politician with an evidentiary base that starts with ASIO, then the responsibility falls to the Attorney General and the DPP to proceed.

“ASIO has given them a massive head start and this is time for them to act.”

For many, loud alarm bells ring when someone in government presents a huge problem that they say they’ve resolved - but they don’t need to trouble the public with the detail because of national security.

Which is what makes it so surprising that both sides of government appear so willing to let this one slide. If you were cynical, you might think it was because pollies of all persuasions are among the list of potential names being bandied about as potential traitors.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton initially joined Hockey’s demand that Burgess name and shame the offender, but by Friday morning his ardour for sunlight had somewhat cooled.

Opposition leader Peter Dutton
Opposition leader Peter Dutton has toned down his calls for the spy pollie to be exposed. Credit: AAP

“Mr Burgess, as I said yesterday, is as good as they come. Of course, I am going to take his advice. If he doesn’t want to provide the name on that basis, then we take his advice,” he said.

“It’s difficult when these allegations are made, because I think it casts a cloud over former MPs, that’s why I think if you can, you should name the person, but Mr Burgess has outlined why he can’t and we accept that advice.”

He also admitted that although he initially would have put money on the spy coming from NSW, he didn’t actually have any knowledge of their identity, saying: “I haven’t had a briefing as to who the individual is”.

All the continuing speculation clearly irked Education Minister Jason Clare, who on Sunrise on Friday morning urged Australians to stop pondering the identity of the spy.

“This is not a game of ‘Guess Who?’ This is serious,” Mr Clare said. “The boss of ASIO ... has made the decision that if he was to reveal the name then it would undermine the work ASIO does to keep us safe.”

And opposition home affairs spokesperson James Paterson continued backing the ASIO boss, saying he wouldn’t name the spy and that he supported the lack of a prosecution for the offender.

“Nothing would be worse than trying to charge someone with treason and to have that charge fail, because that would be a massive propaganda victory for our adversaries who would have successfully recruited, cultivated a politician, turned them against our country, and then been exonerated by our legal system,” he said.

A spokesperson for Attorney-General Mr Dreyfus said there was no comment and all questions to Burgess were met with the following response: “I understand the interest in ASIO providing more details about the individual mentioned in a case study from my annual threat assessment. It is an historic matter that was appropriately dealt with at the time. The individual is no longer of security concern.”

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