Members of Federal Parliament’s Intelligence Committee are escalating their feud with the British Government by planning a visit to the United States, instead of a now-cancelled trip to London.
The pointed snub is the latest diplomatic flare-up between Australia and the UK after its recent decision to allow Chinese telco Huawei to help build Britain’s 5G network.
Earlier the ABC revealed the UK High Commissioner Vicki Treadell had taken the rare step of writing to the heads of two Australian committees to formally protest against the leaking of confidential conversations about the topic.
Despite warnings from its Five-Eyes intelligence sharing partners Australia and the United States, the British Government has not banned Huawei technology from its next generation of high-speed wireless networks.
In a Sydney Morning Herald report last week, deputy Intelligence Committee chair and Labor MP Anthony Byrne was said to have chastised the UK’s visiting Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab about the Huawei controversy.
The only other participants in the closed-door Canberra meeting were Ms Treadell, the chair of Parliament’s Intelligence Committee and Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, and Liberal senator David Fawcett, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Great to meet with UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, accompanied by UK High Commisioner Mrs Vicki Treadell, with colleagues Andrew Hastie MP and Senator David Fawcett this afternoon. We had a full and frank discussion regarding 5g, trade and strategic challenges. pic.twitter.com/5u2ir1ExbI
— Anthony Byrne (@AnthonyByrne_MP) February 6, 2020
One committee member described the high commissioner’s decision to write formal complaints as “foolish” and “a big mistake” for a civil servant to make.
The British High Commission declined to even confirm letters had been sent, telling the ABC it was “unable to provide comment on private briefings, or on any information pertaining to be from these private briefings”.
Diplomatic sources say Ms Treadell had downplayed the Huawei tensions by reporting back to London that Australian MPs were “broadly relaxed” about the British Government’s policy.
As the diplomatic spat continues, Parliament’s intelligence committee has now abruptly cancelled a planned visit to the UK in late March.
On Saturday the House of Representatives’s official Twitter account gave a more mundane explanation for the cancelled trip.
“Yesterday [the Intelligence Committee] agreed to accept advice from Australia’s High Commissioner in the UK to defer a delegation to the UK to a later time, as he advised that counterpart committees in the UK have not yet reconstituted following the UK’s December election.”
Yesterday the PJCIS agreed to accept advice from Australia’s High Commissioner in the UK to defer a delegation to the UK to a later time, as he advised that counterpart committees in the UK have not yet reconstituted following the UK’s December election.
— Australian House of Representatives (@AboutTheHouse) February 15, 2020
Members of the Intelligence Committee say they are now instead planning to visit security agencies in the United States, partly to send a blunt message to their UK counterparts.
“If this is the attitude of the British, we may as well visit the Americans who we can trust more on this stuff,” an intelligence committee member told the ABC.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg has downplayed the rift, saying ties between the United Kingdom and Australia had “never been stronger”.