News Michael Pascoe: Lack of faith speaks volumes about security agencies in China syndrome

Michael Pascoe: Lack of faith speaks volumes about security agencies in China syndrome

Michael Pascoe says subversion is more of an Australian trait than being subverted. Photo: TND
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Here’s a strange thing about the attack by the political/media/security/defence/spook industries on our most important economic relationship: It displays such little faith in Australia.

China conducts espionage! D’uh – so do we, so does everyone.

China tries to influence people and governments for its benefit! D’uh again, for the same reason.

In the Australian context, China just isn’t very good at it compared with, say, the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia. And it’s getting worse, but so are we.

What is odd about the prominent Sinophobes is that they seem to believe Australians can be so easily seduced by an authoritarian dictatorship.

A few Rolex watches here, an Opposition pollie’s legal bill there, some fat donations to both sides of politics and we’re all off on the Long March with Chairman Xi.

Yes, Bob Menzies thought Hitler was doing some positive things in 1938, the Soviet Union had some local fans and the Vietnam War was popular for a while, but most of us really aren’t that stupid most of the time.

Malcolm Turnbull was right about Liberal Party founder and former Prime Minister Robert Menzies, experts say
Australian Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies in 1957. Photo: Keystone/Getty Images

Healthy Australian scepticism is not dead, the scepticism that saw Menzies’ referendum to ban the Communist Party defeated in 1951 even while we were fighting the Korean War and the newspapers and churches were shouting “yes”.

ASIO has had plenty of political form over its three score years and 11, starting when the Soviets were the communists of interest but rapidly expanding to just about anyone they might consider subversive, including Aboriginal rights activists, anti-apartheid groups and, heaven save us, feminists.

Our spooks kept files on perhaps half a million Australians, people as varied as Phillip Adams, High Court judge Michael Kirby, journalist Anne Summers and MP Meredith Burgmann.

Our sceptical nature inclines us to treat such surveillance as a bit of a joke, but it has had and still does have ramifications.

Our sceptical nature inclines us to treat such surveillance as a bit of a joke, but it has had and still does have ramifications.

At the launch of Ms Burgmann’s book Dirty Secrets: Our ASIO Files, Aboriginal activist Gary Foley told of discovering the so-called “Black Power death list”, invented by authorities and leaked to the media but with no basis in fact.

Like all bureaucracies, ASIO is self-aggrandising.

Like the War on Drugs, the War on Foreign Influence most benefits those prosecuting it – that’s how empires are built, budgets expanded, promotions gained.

The second Hope Royal Commission following the 1983 Coombe-Ivanov affair resulted in improved oversight of our spook industry, but it seems it is off and running hard again.

That’s hardly surprising when the parliamentary committee with oversight of ASIO is chaired by the hard Right’s Andrew Hastie.

foreign influence bill
Andrew Hastie has cautioned against underestimating China. Photo: AAP

ASIO’s selective parading and briefing smacks of an organisation that knows on which side its bread is buttered.

Sam Dastyari’s self-destruction and the raid on NSW state Labor MP Shaoquett Moselmane were promoted like a Michaelia Cash attack on a union office. The paths of CCP-linked donations to the Liberal Party, not.

In any event, are we in the Chinese Communist Party’s thrall? No. We have the sense to not trust Mr Xi or Mr Trump.

So it sounds more than a little hysterical when backbenchers like Mr Hastie claim Beijing is threatening our freedom – he’d have us believe we have intellectually failed, no doubt a problem that could be cured by several years’ unquestioning military service – and George Christensen labels China a new Nazi Germany.

(On second thoughts, there might be something in the national intellectual failure allegation – our federal Parliament has the China baiting, climate change denying, blame-arson-for-bushfires George Christensen as its chairman of the Joint Standing Committee on Trade and Investment Growth.)

You don’t have to be a card-carrying member of the CCP, or at least have an ASIO file, to wonder if the security lobby’s anti-China campaign is doing more harm than good. Or any good at all.

The actions of Prime Minister Scott Morrison have done little to improve the anti-China sentiment. Photo: TND

Whatever ASIO was doing with mainland Chinese journalists here and the disheartening expulsion of the ABC and AFR correspondents from China keep the game ticking along, each step taking the relationship down further without any gain.

In the face of a wall of anti-Beijing media, our most experienced spook-watching journalist, Brian Toohey, has written of the damage being done to Australian research by the Morrison government’s anti-Chinese legislation.

“China is now the biggest source of refereed scientific journal articles in the world. As a result, Australia has a lot to gain from research partnerships with Chinese universities. They welcome Australian collaboration in research. But there are constant allegations that China wants to steal the intellectual property generated by this research – something that is hard to do when it is destined for publication in the public domain.”

On the sheer weight of China’s massive R&D budget compared with our small effort, odds are Australian researchers can gain more from research partnerships with Chinese universities than vice versa.

In the present climate, it was not strange to see a headline on the front page of Murdoch’s Weekend Australian proclaiming Chinese bullying ‘won’t be tolerated’.

“The country’s top diplomat has warned that Australia must stand up firmly to bullying from China, or any other country, or else risk ‘a very slippery slope’ for our democracy,” reported the paper.

“In a powerful critique of the growing diplomatic rift with Beijing, Frances Adamson, the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, challenged China’s aggressive ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy and vowed the government would never tolerate Beijing’s interference in Australia’s internal affairs.”

It was strange though to think the DFAT boss would be so undiplomatic, especially one with the “China hand” credentials of Ms Adamson.

The interview the front-page story linked to further back in the newspaper didn’t read as belligerently and the actual quotes attributed to Ms Adamson were more nuanced than the journalist’s blunt interpretation.

I have no knowledge of the front-page story’s geneses, but it wouldn’t be the first time a report in a Murdoch paper had been beaten up by the odd editor to fit the party line.

Judging Ms Adamson by what she is quoted as saying, as opposed to what The Australian asserts – and we can’t know what she said that has been omitted – it looks like the DFAT chief was trying to play her department back into a game that has been dominated by defence and security and their rich and powerful backers.

Taken at the face value of The Australian report though, would any reasonable person think our democracy is being threatened by China?

When Australia had its own busy communist parties, even back when Queensland elected a Communist Party representative, Fred Paterson, to state parliament and re-elected him, we’ve tended to not take foreign interference too seriously outside ASIO.

Quite simply, our system is too obviously superior to think we’re turning CCP.

We should have a little more faith in Australia, in that we’re more likely to subvert than be subverted by miserable authoritarian agents.