Finance Michael Pascoe: Australia’s spooks go dangerously rogue – or lie. Or both

Michael Pascoe: Australia’s spooks go dangerously rogue – or lie. Or both

Dutton China warning
Defence Minister Peter Dutton is making a bad situation worse, Michael Pascoe writes. Photo: Getty/TND
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Australia’s biggest security failure since Chinese hackers stole the plans for ASIO’s headquarters is playing out in plain sight without a murmur of complaint or discipline.

No, not the Solomon Islands agreement with China. That primarily is a diplomatic failure and there is no end of blame shifting there, making a bad situation worse in the process, courtesy of Scott Morrison and Peter Dutton.

Rather it is multiple “not authorised to speak publicly” spooks reportedly leaking like sieves about who knew what, when and, most dangerously, claiming credit for getting a named Solomon Islands citizen into publishing the draft online.

In my opinion, the anonymous spooks pushing their side of the Solomon Islands story in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have endangered Celsus Talifilu by implying he is their agent or is willing to act at their behest.

Alternatively, it may be implied that Mr Talifilu’s boss, Malaita Province Premier Daniel Suidani, does the bidding of Australian security officials.

Consider for half a second the position Senator X would be in if the SMH published a story that China’s security chiefs pushed the Senator to prematurely reveal details of the AUKUS agreement. Not nice.

That’s an entirely hypothetical case – China’s spooks presumably wouldn’t be so stupid as to casually burn assets in a highly contested situation.

bernard collaery
Bernard Collaery is being persecuted in secret proceedings by the Morrison government.

We are somewhere way through the looking glass and down the rabbit hole when, on one hand, the Morrison government is persecuting Bernard Collaery in secret proceedings over the Howard government’s illegal bugging of East Timor’s cabinet for the commercial benefit of Woodside, while on the other it apparently is happy for supposedly “unauthorised” senior spooks to go rogue with their reliable mates in the press.

That, of course, depends on whether the Nine newspapers’ sources actually are “unauthorised” or are indeed authorised to do what spooks do as part of their job – lie, obfuscate and protect themselves and their favoured theoretical bosses.

The way this game has played out, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne has been hung out to dry “knowing nothing”, while the yarn volunteered by the spooks has provided a little cover for Scott Morrison’s prevarication.

There are another couple of possibilities in this highly dubious episode.

We’ve already had past and present head spooks publicly reprimanding the government for playing domestic partisan politics over the bipartisan security issue.

It is as possible as the leaks being “unauthorised” that the top spooks are a little over the Morrison government’s diplomatic, defence and security bungling, have been stung by the criticism of their own performance and are taking a bet that they won’t have to worry about Mr Morrison et al post May 21.

Criticism such as Bernard Keane’s roasting of the intelligence community in Crikey would have stung as they prepare for a new government.

The security industry has done very well out of a government keen to rattle sabres and scare kiddies, but the game does move on.

So if the spooks genuinely felt they had done their job well enough and had not been asleep under a palm tree, a little arse-covering could be expected. Phone one of the regular channels.

And then there is the nature of departmental jealousies and competition. The spooks are happy to blame shift onto the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has been blamed, together with DFAT, by intelligence.

Placing their version of Solomon events fits in with the failure of Marise Payne as minister and the sidelining of DFAT by the security and defence procurement types and their respective ministers and Prime Minister.

Sure, Senator Payne and DFAT is embarrassed – who cares? It’s not the spooks’ problem.

Meanwhile, the wrecking ball that is Peter Dutton goes on its merry way, always happy to make a bad situation worse.

Mr Dutton, regular readers will know, has done more than anyone to ensure no other country has a relationship with China as bad as ours, starting with his echoing of Donald Trump on COVID and never letting up since as he has beaten the drums of war.

His latest effort is to repeatedly suggest the Solomon Islands government had been bribed to sign the security deal with China.

It might have been, but only an undiplomatic clown would say so.

And who is to say money Australia has poured into the South Pacific hasn’t been to buy favours? A glaring failure of the Liberal National government has been breaking its repeated promise to introduce a beneficial ownership register – aside from annoying the local real estate industry, it could be embarrassing to expose what some of Australia’s political friends own here. (It’s that integrity thing again.)

It’s not for nothing that I call Peter Dutton the Offence Minister. In my opinion, he has done more than anyone to make Australia a target while presiding over an ill-equipped, bungle-prone and undermanned defence force that seems to delight in signing up for things it is sold, rather buying what Australia actually needs.

And more evidence for the suggestion that, for party political purposes, whatever hairy-chested blustering Mr Dutton pulls, Mr Morrison has to top.

As antithetical as the Offence Minister is to diplomacy, I cannot recall an Australian Prime Minister being as diplomatically stupid as Scott Morrison on Sunday.

Already on the nose with South Pacific nations for the Coalition cutting aid and dismissing their climate change concerns, Mr Morrison actually threatened these sovereign states with military action if they didn’t do as they were told.

“We won’t be having Chinese military naval bases in our region on our doorstep,” he said in the context of having “the same red line” as the United States.

He may as well have told these proud people to know their place or they won’t be allowed to pick our fruit for us any more.

Three years ago, Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama warned Mr Morrison’s “very insulting and condescending” behaviour was pushing Pacific nations closer to China. 

That was before he started threatening to send some gun boats to teach the islanders a lesson.

When this election campaign started, nobody could have guessed the three big issues of the first third of the campaign would be Mr Albanese failing to remember the unemployment rate, the gender views of a Liberal candidate in an unwinnable seat, and how friendly the Solomon Islands wants to get with China.

But we are at a low ebb – an invisible diplomatic presence, a dangerous Defence Minister, security operatives either going rogue or playing politics.

Quick, roll out a nonsense headline that will be dutifully run by the usual suspects!

Promise 1.3 million new jobs? Nah, already done that.

How about a “no new taxes” pledge? Yep, that’ll do.